ABOVE: On Friday, Mayor Sylvester Turner addressed the spectre of a state takeover looming over Houston ISD, which faces the prospect of implementing a closure or having its leadership restructured. (Photo by Raquel Natalicchio)
The TEA is taking over HISD.
The Texas Education Agency confirmed today that it will take over the Houston Independent School District, after two weeks of speculation over the move.
TEA Commissioner Mike Morath met with local lawmakers in the state capitol of Austin this morning before formally notifying HISD of the plan for a takeover. Morath then explained his decision in interviews with local media. He told ABC 13 that the current law requires him to take action: “The Commissioner of Education is required to act; it’s not discretionary. In the event that a single school in a district goes for an extended period of time with chronically low achievement, there has to be some effort to solve that problem before half a decade or a decade passes.”
He added: “The challenge is, Houston ISD as a system – not the individual teachers, not the individual principals, but the system of Houston ISD – seems to be set up to allow schools to lack the structural supports needed so that kids can have issues with chronic underachievement for a decade, half a decade in some cases.” The TEA’s decision aims to improve these student outcomes; today’s decision is the start of a process that could last for years.
TEA will appoint a nine-member board of managers by June 1st. That board will assume all of the powers and duties of the HISD board of trustees. The current board remains intact but will have no actual power. Both the board and Superintendent Millard House III will be replaced. Morath himself will choose their replacements.
But the commissioner stressed that his role is less focused on local control and more focused on student progress. “My job is not to direct activity in Houston. My job is to make sure that I set Houston up with good local leadership so that it can make progress as quickly as possible for kids,” Morath said.
“It’s important to frame this the way the law is structured. I’m not the one leading HISD,” Morath told KHOU 11 anchor Len Cannon. “What we’re doing under this intervention is we are choosing nine individuals who are Houstonians who will be the Board of Managers and they will assume all the powers and duties of the elected school board. So it’s essentially a shift in local control from the current locally elected board to an appointed board of nine. They then have all of the duties and obligations to govern the school system like any governing body in the State of Texas, so they’ll oversee the superintendent. They’ll set strategic direction. They’ll set budget. Their job as a team is to be focused like a laser on the needs of students above all else.”
The law Morath alludes to has a long history, and this takeover has been in the works for some time. According to ABC 13, “In 2015, state lawmakers passed a bill that allows the state to shut down a school or take over if a public school fails the state standards for five or more years. At the time, HISD had four failing schools.”
In 2016, the TEA appointed a conservator in response to years of low academic performance (and allegations of trustee misconduct) at Wheatley High School. Then, in Nov. 2019, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath sent a letter to HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and HISD Board President Diana Davila. Morath wrote that he would appoint a board of managers to replace HISD’S board of trustees. He gave two reasons for the decision: the school board’s “failure of governance” and the repeated poor performance at Wheatley (which received its seventh straight failing grade that year).
HISD sued. In 2020, a district judge in Travis County halted Morath’s plan, granting the district a temporary injunction. But in September 2021, a new Texas law went into effect that cleared the way for TEA action. A bipartisan bill (Senate Bill 1365) gave the Commissioner the power to appoint a board of managers, based on a “conservator appointment” lasting at least two years. State lawyers argued that this law granted the authority for a takeover. In January, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in their favor and threw out the injunction.
On March 1, Mayor Sylvester Turner broke the news of a takeover during a City Council meeting. “I’m talking to legislators, and what they’re saying to me is that the state intends to take over the district, replacing the entire board, replacing the superintendent, and taking over the entire school district,” the mayor said. “And they intend to do it next week.”
Last night, two documents had been posted on the TEA website. The first document is essentially a job posting for those who want to apply for a spot on the board; the second document basically outlines what a board of managers is and what its functions are. The documents were later removed.