Yes, they supposedly have the law on their side. However, the way in which Mike Morath, Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner of Education, made the surprising announcement that the TEA was moving forward with a takeover of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) and replacing HISD’s elected Board of Trustees with an unelected and hand-picked Board of Managers, has many in the community scratching their heads and crying foul.
Morath stated that “serious and persistent deficiencies” led to his decision to do a hostile takeover of HISD, particularly pointing to an investigation that they state validated allegations of wrongdoing by some members of the current Board of Trustees. Another reason cited was the academic performance of Wheatley High School.
Wheatley High School was the only school in HISD that was in IR status, but was significantly improving their status. This was one of the primary reasons for the state takeover, in that a much-talked about state law (HB 1842) practically gives the TEA the authority to make this move. According to the 2015 legislation, if any school in Texas remains in IR for five consecutive years, the TEA has the authority to take over the school district and appoint a Board of Managers or alternative management could be created to operate the school or a school could be closed with the provision of a parent trigger, whereby the majority of parents would have to agree to the school being closed. This was the fifth consecutive year for Wheatley, despite significant growth and academic improvements.
To stave off a state takeover, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan also announced that the district was implementing strategies to ensure Wheatley High School exited IR in the 2019-2020 school year with a minimum grade of ‘C’. None of that mattered, because Morath and the TEA decided to move forward with the takeover anyway.
What is even more troubling to many was the timing of the announcement, which was made only one day after the elections on November 5th, where four seats for the HISD Board of Trustees were contested, with two of those seats that oversee schools in predominately African American communities (Position 2 and Position 4) headed to a December runoff.
Zeph Capo, who serves as the President of the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) held a press conference on Monday where he questioned TEA’s true reason for making this move and alleges that this has more to do with an attempt to move away from public schools and push a charter school agenda.
“What we see is privatization instead of education being the driver of this decision,” Capo expressed at the press conference. “This is not a failing district. We’re talking about one school, so the idea that an entire district with thousands of children and almost 300 schools could be taken over by TEA because of problems at just one school is ridiculous.”
According to a lawsuit, filed by HISD attorneys, they are making the argument that:
“Houston ISD has filed this lawsuit because it is the victim of a pretextual TEA investigation that attempts to punish Houston ISD for conduct that is lawful, necessary to the functioning of the District, and strongly protected as inherent to our system of democracy.
Before launching this investigation, TEA had predetermined the result: replacement of Houston ISD’s elected board members with an unelected board of managers.
Every school district in which TEA has attempted to replace an elected board of trustees with an unelected board of managers has been a school district in which a majority of voters were people of color. This has resulted in a disparate impact on people of color in the state of Texas.
In the course of conducting this investigation, TEA has unconstitutionally and unlawfully stifled the First Amendment rights of Houston ISD’s board members — rights which Houston ISD’s board members must exercise in order to effectively perform their duties as members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.
And as a result of this investigation, TEA has reached conclusions based on fundamental misunderstandings of the law and stated findings of fact that are the result of a one-sided investigation, are unsupported by any credible evidence, and are based on the misrepresentations of unnamed individuals.
TEA intends to punish the District by replacing Houston ISD’s elected Board of Trustees with an unelected board of managers — a sanction that is unavailable under the law and facts of this case.
This is huge news and a major blow to HISD, which is the largest school district in the state and the 7th largest district in the nation. Not only will a TEA takeover impact the students, faculty and support staff, it will also give the power to TEA to set policy by appointing this Board of Managers and whoever they choose as a superintendent.
According to the TEA web site, the following job description to be a hand-picked member of this Board of Managers states:
The core purpose of the HISD Board of Managers is to improve student outcomes by representing the vision and values of the HISD community where every HISD student is to be prepared for college, career, or the military in a manner that is equitable, transparent, and efficient. Through performance management practices, data-informed routines, and authentic stakeholder engagement, the HISD Board of Managers provides oversight to ensure that the vision and values are being honored and students are being well-served. The Board of Managers assumes all of the powers and authority previously held by the suspended Board of Trustees.
If anyone is interested in being considered for the HISD Board of Managers position, the application and selection processes are posted at: https://tea.texas.gov/texas-schools/school-boards/houston-isd-board-managers.