HISD Considering Unprecedented Moves to Deal with Low Performing Schools

Just when you thought the never-ending drama surrounding the Houston Independent School District (HISD) had reached its peak last year, new details surrounding two drastic proposals have found a way to escalate that drama to an unprecedented level.

It was just last year, when recently hired HISD Superintendent Richard Carranza floated out a plan to phase out many of the district’s popular magnet programs over several years, which caused many in the community to rise up and come against those plans. Carranza backed off those plans, but then something catastrophic occurred, equally as devastating as Recapture – it was called Hurricane Harvey.

Now, Carranza has introduced these two new drastic proposals to deal with the shortage of revenue and to deal with the 15 low-performing schools that the Texas Education Agency is seeking to take control of, per state law.

In the first proposal, Carranza is suggesting that HISD partner with outside nonprofit organizations that would take control of the schools. In the second proposal, Carranza is suggesting that the schools close their doors, and then immediately re-open their doors before next school year, all with completely new staffs.

The proposal to close schools is something newly elected HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones is adamantly against.

“As I have said in the past, I will never vote to close down a school,” said Skillern-Jones. “These are only concepts. No details for any proposals have been shared with the board. All the rumors floating around are just what people have interpreted. This has been chaotic.”

It was in 2016 that the state’s Deputy Education Commissioner told the HISD school board that if the low-performing schools did not improve, the state would follow through with tough sanctions under the widely discussed state law known as House Bill 1842, whereby the state could take over the district and appoint managers, or worse, close the low-performing schools altogether.

In total, there are 15 elementary, middle and high schools that are on the state’s takeover list. Those schools are Blackshear, Dogan, Highland Heights, Hilliard, Mading and Wesley elementary schools; Cullen, Henry, Woodson and Lawson middle schools; and Kashmere, Madison, North Forest, Wheatley and Worthing high schools.

All of this is occurring as students, parents, teachers, staff and administrators seek to provide a quality education to the students at those respective schools.

To add fuel to the fire, HISD is rumored to be considering asking taxpayers to approve another $1 billion bond referendum, which could appear on the November 2018 ballot.

Asking Houston voters to approve another $1 billion bond referendum is sure to face some heavy opposition; especially from many local businesses and community leaders in the African American community, many of whom believe they were severely shortchanged and deceived by the district after the questionable outcomes of the 2012 bond where Houston voters approved a record high $1.89 billion bond proposal.

To add more drama to the situation, there were several heated exchanges on social media, between current HISD board members and a couple of board members who recently decided not to run again for re-election, ironically as these issues have begun to come to light.

Former HISD trustee Anna Eastman took to Facebook and wrote the following in response to news coverage of the issues involving HISD. She stated:

“All eyes need to be on Houston right now…..While I knew changes were afoot, I had no idea the extent. Yes, we are in a financial crisis in HISD. Yes, we have lost enrollment and property values will dip due to unforeseen circumstances. These changes will finally roll back ALL reforms HISD has made over the last 20-30 years. The kinds of reforms that struggling large urban districts across the country are putting in place (following our lead) to both improve outcomes for the kids they’ve failed to serve for decades and attract and retain families who have other choices, but are critical to successful integration of schools. The only “reform” proven to actually improve outcomes for all kids…..Don’t leave the parent voice to just the usual five to ten people who follow our board meetings religiously and have deemed themselves the voices of all parents.”

Her former colleague, Harvin C. Moore, chimed in on Facebook in response to Eastman’s post, saying:

“My former HISD board colleague Anna Eastman is correct. Whatever emotional and political gratification anyone has gotten from rolling back every single effective reform that took place in HISD over the past twenty years, what remains is a district in total crisis, not only with a certainty of continued academic decline (and now enrollment decline for the first time in 15 years), but a total financial crisis as well. Apparently the latest desperate plan is to eliminate all decentralization for school based budgetary decision-making and to defund HISD’s outstanding magnet programs (which have been raided again and again over the past few years), and presumably also to raid the district’s reserve fund and raise taxes to cover a $200 million deficit. Last year they raided their reserve fund and handed out large raises instead of a net expense cut, which is why the deficit is even larger this year. In fact, it’s larger even than the record-shattering deficit when the state legislature cut funding after the 2008 recession. While Harvey is one reason for the deficit, it is terribly misleading not to point out that poor financial management, poor policies, poor results, and a Circus of Hate atmosphere at televised board meetings are far larger reasons both for the deficit and enrollment declines. HISD’s singular ability to maintain and increase enrollment every year while most other large urban US districts fell was a strong indication of stability and good policy and results, and a point of pride. It is unfortunately unsurprising that the State is on the verge of taking control of a dozen failing HISD schools and can now invoke a law allowing a takeover of the board at any time. HISD has gone from a nationally recognized leader (including becoming, just four years ago, the only two-time winner of the highly respected results- and data-driven Broad Prize as best urban district in America) and literally a positive case study in results and good governance, to a case study for how to ruin a district, in two years. Meanwhile, districts that followed HISD’s brave and successful policies in the last fifteen years have passed us and aren’t looking back. Good for them; at least that is a positive legacy Houston has left for children elsewhere. Watch your wallet – HISD will try to raise your taxes to continue this circus. And raising taxes will encourage, not correct, these destructive policies.”

Moore’s comments apparently drew the ire of Skillern-Jones, in that she responded on Facebook with the following statement:

“Here is what I know….TEA did not intervene because HISD had failing schools for 2 years or 5 for that matter. These schools were deprived of programming and resources for more than a decade. Any trustee who sat on this board during that timeframe and who voted for Agenda items that promulgated that and against Agenda items to resolve it are part of that problem! Just because you left when it was time to face the consequences of that makes you no less culpable. It also does not give you the right to disdainfully point fingers at those you left the problem to for being brave enough to stay and right your wrong. If your so-called reforms worked, why do we have 15 low performing schools? Why didn’t you make the reform magic work for those schools? Here is my confusion….you advertise that other districts duplicate a great program but are appalled when it’s suggested this district replicate it 3 times. If you sat on the board in 2011 and watched the state cut 5.4 billion dollars from pub-ed and did not watch the subsequent legislative trends but instead continued to fund an unsustainable model charging up the deficit credit card and bailed when the bill came due, you are to blame for the massive cuts required now. If you continually funded schools inequitably allowing 215k kids and families to leave their children’s educations to chance or luck of a lottery competing frantically for 30k seats and leaving an aftermath of tears, emails and anxiety, you are part of the problem. And you criticize a teacher raise after 3 years of no raise? Well if we tell the truth, that small raise doesn’t even get us on par with the districts who use the FTE model so they can pay more. But it worked because for the FIRST time we started school 100% staffed this year. Finally, the subtle jabs at the sitting board do not go unnoticed. It may not be the board you like, but it’s the one the voters preferred. All 9 districts. That’s a democracy and it works locally just like it does nationally. I am also not impressed that you claim someone around the country has a PUA model. They are also not funded like Texas is either. As a matter of fact, UNDERFUNDED! None of the surrounding school districts have PUA or proportionate magnets either. They have FTE, identical curriculum and excellent data. Go figure.”

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who was recently elected as Board Vice-President, also chimed in on Facebook, saying:

“Rhonda Skillern-Jones, I stand with u. I ran 4 the school board because most of the people u served with & those b4 u disenfranchised the schools my son was zoned 2! So the previous board members who have something negative 2 say clearly don’t understand the needs of all of the constituencies of the newly elected board members. The 1s who jumped ship saw the writing on the wall. They were about 2 be un-elected. The majority of Black & Latino students were neglected by them. They directed more & more resources 2 schools with over-representations of Anglos & others with connections & decreased resources 2 our schools, which cut programming & staff. They criminalized our children & created policies that looted the best & brightest minority children from their neighborhood schools. I could write a novel on all of the intentional policies they implemented 2 create a district of a few haves & many more have nots!….They left a legacy of White-privilege. We’re changing it! 2 every board member who closed schools in our neighborhoods, save your breath, neither we nor our constituents respect u! They devastated our communities & think nothing of it! I stand with u Rhonda. 2 hell with the rest of them!”

In speaking with the Forward Times, Skillern-Jones states that these responses from her former colleagues aren’t surprising, and that the current situation HISD finds itself in comes as no surprise. She does believe, however, that things don’t happen by chance, and that she has been elected to serve as HISD Board President again for a specific purpose.

“The last time I did this (served as Board President) we had some pretty heavy lifts and we got through them. I don’t believe this will be much different,” said Skillern-Jones. “I knew these changes were coming. We knew about Recapture, the budget ramifications and its effects on our education delivery model. Certainly, magnets and inequity aren’t new. We have had five studies going back before I was a Board member. It will be complex and it will stretch us, but it will be making the best out of the hand we’ve been dealt. Right now our kids need our best, not just the Board, but our city….all of us. This village can work through it. Our students are worth it.”

This seems like it will be an extremely complicated and drama-filled year for HISD, and the Forward Times will be there every step of the way, informing the community about the details surrounding HISD and the impact their decisions will have on the community.