As Texas Moves to Replace Houston’s School Board, Here Are 7 Things to Know About the Takeover

An hour into last week’s school board meeting, the Houston Independent School District’s governance coach clicked open a presentation and announced that she would be teaching board members to understand monitoring reports, the documents used to track school improvement efforts.

“Student outcomes improve when adult behaviors change,” she began, before segueing on to what teachers would call the lesson’s exit ticket.

“At the end of the presentation, the expectation is that you will be able to say what a monitoring report is,” she said. “Hopefully after we’re finished we will come back to this chart and you can tell me what you’ve learned.”

It might have been a Saturday Night Live cold open, except no one was laughing. Less than 24 hours earlier, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath had formally notified Houston ISD that the state was stripping the elected board of its authority and appointing a board of managers in its place. Morath explained the long-telegraphed move in a blistering letter, citing an investigator’s finding of numerous instances of improper actions by board members and failure to address ongoing, chronic problems at one of the district’s high schools.

“Given the inability of the board of trustees to govern the district, these sanctions are necessary to protect the best interests of the district’s current and future students,” he wrote. “The board members should have focused on implementing effective change to improve the performance of students in the district’s low-performing campuses.”

The presence of the coach and her basics-of-the-job slide deck was one result of two-plus years of back and forth between the Texas Education Agency, thought to be reluctant to take on a wholesale reboot of the state’s largest school system, and the board, which was vocal about its disagreement with the laws the agency is charged with upholding.

The coach’s awkward presence notwithstanding, no mention of the state takeover was made at the Thursday board meeting. The four trustees who showed up (a fifth joined by phone) did not constitute a quorum and did not include two of the board members who were the subject of some of the most intense criticism from the state. Both lost re-election bids Nov. 5.

Houston ISD has until Nov. 20 to appeal the takeover with the TEA. And on Dec. 5 a judge will consider a request from the district to stop the state intervention because of a lawsuit the district filed against the agency. Neither action is expected to succeed.

In the meantime, here are seven things to know about the situation.

1. Frustration with Houston’s history of inaction gave rise to the takeover law

In 2015, Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., a Houston-area African-American Democrat, succeeded in passing a law compelling the TEA to take one of two actions when a school fails to meet state standards for more than four consecutive years: close the school or take over the district’s board.

“Sure, we can wait on HISD to fix them,” he said, referring to long-neglected campuses disproportionately clustered in his blue-collar district, including Kashmere, then in its 10th year of failing to meet standards. “But I am convinced that without a gun to their head, it won’t happen.”

Dutton was convinced that the way to force board members who represent wealthy swaths of the city to take equity concerns seriously was to strip the entire elected board of its authority, longtime Texas policy analyst Seth Rau reminded Twitter last week: “Rep. Dutton insisted on that point during the debate because he wanted people in more affluent parts of Houston to be impacted by the Wheatleys and Kashmeres of the district.”

Two years ago, when the first chronically underperforming schools crossed the five-year trigger point for state sanctions, Morath granted Houston ISD a one-year reprieve because of damage from Hurricane Harvey. He did keep in place a TEA conservator appointed to oversee turnaround efforts at Kashmere, which this year came off the list of lowest performers.

However, Wheatley High School earned its seventh failing grade since 2011 (ratings were not issued in 2012 and 2018), well past the legal threshold. The school’s chronic underperformance was one of three justifications for the takeover Morath cited in his letter.

The commissioner outlined two other findings that support the state’s decision to replace the Houston school board: a state investigator’s conclusion that board members met in secret, exceeded the scope of their authority and violated contract procurement rules; and a rule that says the state can intervene when it has had a conservator in place for two or more years.

2. Houston’s school board had options but declined to exercise them

In 2017, when the potential consequences of the 2015 school closure law became clear, lawmakers created an alternative. Any district with schools under threat of closure could forestall sanctions for two years by turning the campuses over to a nonprofit partner for a reboot. Because the eligible nonprofits included public charter school networks, and because the partners, which could also include universities and community groups, would control staffing, the district teachers union protested.

The union’s opposition was not nearly as disruptive — or profane — as the conflict among board members. In April 2017, the board was scheduled to consider whether to notify the state that Houston ISD would explore the partnership alternative. The topic proved so contentious that the meeting was gaveled to a halt with no vote.

“Board attempts to address low-performing campuses have resulted in disorderly and disorganized board meetings,” Morath wrote last week. “During the April 24, 2018, board workshop, interactions amongst the Board of Trustees and the public escalated to unmanageable outbursts, constant disruptions and disrespectful comments. Upon going over the allotted time, former President Rhonda Skillern-Jones asked law enforcement to remove the last public speaker from the podium, sparking further outbursts from the audience.

“Former President Skillern-Jones then requested law enforcement assistance in clearing the boardroom. The audience reacted in outrage shouting expletives, while Trustee Wanda Adams could be heard saying, ‘I’m sick of this shit, clear the room.’ Law enforcement had to remove audience members out of the board room and arrested two community members.”

Six months later, when the deadline for considering 2019 partnerships loomed, board members were more blunt: In their dislike of the law, they would not act. “If we don’t take a stand, there’s no pressure on the legislature to fix the underlying problems,” said trustee Elizabeth Santos. “As a board, it is irresponsible to give away our students, especially when we haven’t exhausted all our options, including suing the Texas Education Agency.”

3. A ‘walking quorum’ board meeting and a failed barracks coup

In March 2018, Superintendent Richard Carranza left Houston to take over New York City’s schools. He would later tell the TEA conservator that board members’ penchant for exceeding their authority and inability to grapple with ongoing academic crises hobbled Houston ISD.

The board delayed hiring a replacement for Carranza, instead giving a temporary appointment to Chief Academic Officer Grenita Lathan. As it became clear that the school closure threat was not going away, trustees began to fight over whether to make her superintendency permanent. Three black trustees backed Lathan, while four Latinos did not.

In October 2018, five board members met in a local restaurant with a former Houston superintendent, Abelardo Saavedra, who was retiring from a San Antonio-area district, to discuss hiring him to replace Lathan. One board member brought a copy of Carranza’s contract to give to Saavedra, who later told investigators that the trustees present told him they felt disrespected by Lathan.

A surprise attempt at a public board meeting held a few days later to fire Lathan and hire Saavedra drew the state’s attention. After interviewing a number of participants, investigators concluded that the gathering constituted a “walking quorum” — a violation of open meetings laws. They went to pains to point out that not all board members gave the same account of the illegal gathering, with one seemingly forgetting he wasn’t the only board member present.

“Moreover,” state investigators reported in August, “TEA Conservator Dolores Delaney reported conflicts between trustees have created an environment that impedes the board from focusing on student outcomes.”

Having scratched the surface, investigators found a long trail of instances in which board members attempted to steer contracts to particular vendors and of meddling in work underway in schools. In 14 cases, they found, large contracts were divided up to keep them under the $500,000 threshold for public review.

In 2009, board members voted 8-1 to create a $121.5 million fund, using bond revenue, that trustees could use for projects in their nine districts. The money is “now depleted,” according to the report.

Board President Diana Dávila — one of the incumbents who lost re-election last week — appears repeatedly in the specific allegations in the report. In one of the odder entries, the principal of the brand-new High School of Law and Justice complained that she only learned Dávila was touring her under-construction campus last year when she saw photos on Twitter.

According to investigators, Dávila told the construction crew to remove a wall that had been built in the school’s mock courtroom. “I became a little upset,” the principal told investigators. “They took that wall down. I went to the HISD senior administrator and I told him, ‘She can’t do that,’ and he says that ‘I’m very aware that she cannot do that. If you want the wall back, we will put the wall back up.’”

Another district administrator complained that Dávila ordered him to remove a contract for construction of Austin High School from the board agenda in December 2016. “Trustee Dávila and her husband told the administrator that they wanted a firm out of Dallas, wanted him to make it happen and threatened him with his job if he did not do it,” the report says. When the administrator refused to change the agenda, investigators added, Dávila did it herself.

Another trustee held a campaign event on district property without reimbursing Houston ISD. Two others inserted themselves into hiring matters.

A separate, 325-page report from Texas’s Legislative Budget Board issued last week recommended the wholesale restructuring of the district.

5. Houston differs from other large districts taken over by their states

State takeovers often involve districts where very few schools are delivering acceptable academics or where financial mismanagement has forced regulators’ hands — or both. Newark, Detroit and New Orleans are examples of communities where chronically underperforming schools were the norm. They underwent whole-system reboots.

Houston is home to any number of high-performing schools and, even though the budget board report identified $42 million in likely annual savings that could be achieved through better processes, is not insolvent. This year, the district as a whole received a B on state report cards.

District critics have attributed many of its problems to racial and socioeconomic divides that have translated into the persistent neglect of its poorest schools. In support of his 2015 school closure bill, Dutton noted that his research indicated that Kashmere had never had a certified math teacher, for instance.

“Under the conservator’s direction, Kashmere High School has earned an acceptable rating,” Morath pointed out in his Nov. 6 letter to Houston ISD brass. “If the board of trustees had been more responsive to current intervention, the board should have made similar efforts to improve its other low-performing campuses.”

6. Morath has school board experience and a vision

Starting in 2011, Morath was twice elected to the Dallas Independent School District board, where he championed a number of reforms, with varying degrees of success. He became state education commissioner in 2016.

Morath is championing the same set of policies that Houston ISD’s board refused to respond to, incentivizing districts to hand operations of struggling campuses over to nonprofit organizations that get charter-school-like freedoms in exchange for agreeing to performance targets. Part of the idea is to promote locally generated strategies that capitalize on local expertise.

Under his leadership, the TEA has been particularly keen on a model known as Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE, a combination of five schoolwide strategies that are costly but have been very effective in a number of schools.

At a recent Fort Worth convening on the Texas Partnership Opportunity, Morath asserted that traditional school systems stymie turnaround efforts. “Is there something about the system itself that keeps us from sustaining performance over time?” he asked, going on to answer his own question. “It requires chopping these big systems up into manageable, bite-sized pieces.”

7. Begin with the end in mind

Experts suggest that Morath should go in with an exit strategy. State takeovers can be very effective, researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education pointed out recently as interventions in Houston and Rhode Island loomed. But they are politically unpopular and are not designed to go on forever. Leaders need to craft solutions that will garner enough buy-in — and possibly legal protection — to endure once the receiver withdraws.

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