'Uncertainty looms': Houston ISD braces for possible state takeover

BySamantha Aguilar, The Texas Tribune
Monday, March 6, 2023
'Uncertainty looms': Houston ISD braces for possible state takeover
There's more outcry from county leaders on the possible state takeover looming for Texas' largest school district, Houston ISD.

HOUSTON, Texas -- On the eve of an impending takeover of the Houston Independent School District by the Texas Education Agency, little was said on the topic Friday at the HISD State of the Schools luncheon in downtown Houston.

Addittional reporting done by ABC13.

Superintendent Millard House II said "uncertainty looms" regarding the state takeover, but he focused on celebrating recent improvements at Texas' largest school district - one with an enrollment of nearly 200,000 students. In the last 19 months, HISD has made academic strides reducing the number of its campuses with a D or F rating from 50 to 10.

At a park outside of the convention center, a louder and more energetic event organized by state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other elected officials followed the district's fundraising event. At the press conference, chants of "Hey, hey, ho, ho, TEA has got to go!" rang through the crowd of about 100 people.

Parents, teachers and retired HISD employees were among the many that came out in support of their district and against a midsemester change of leadership that has been in the works since 2019, when the TEA first announced plans to take over the district after allegations of misconduct by trustees and years of low academic performance at Phillis Wheatley High School - one of the district's 276 schools.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath told state representatives at a House Committee on Public Education meeting Tuesday that no final decision had been made. But at a Houston City Council meeting the following day, Turner said he had been told a TEA takeover could happen as early as next week. The superintendent said at an HISD board meeting Thursday that the district has not received an official notice from the TEA.

If the takeover does happen, it would be largest to happen, as HISD is the biggest district in Texas with over 200,000 students.

SEE ALSO: 'Total obliteration': Mayor Turner says HISD takeover by the Texas Education Agency is imminent

ABC13 reporter Brooke Taylor spoke with the President of the American Federation of Teachers, Zeph Capo, who said there has not been any transparency on the matter.

"It is leaving teachers, parents and students probably with the most uncertain future of the district I have seen in the 25 years since I have been in Houston," Capo said.

Arnetta Murray, a special education teacher of 15 years currently at West Briar Middle School, said the possibility of a takeover is all she and other educators can talk about in the teachers' lounge.

They know school district takeovers by state agencies in the past have led to layoffs. Murray also worries about the future of her special education students if school vouchers were to be introduced in the city. Gov. Greg Abbott and other political leaders this legislative session are proposing "school choice" bills and other policies that would allow parents to opt out of their local school districts and receive state money to school their children elsewhere.

Murray said she took half of her work day off to hear what lawmakers have to say about the issue. Sporting her school's colors, navy and yellow, on her shirt and eyelids, she held a handwritten "NO TEA" sign when lawmakers called all educators to the front of the event for a group photo.

"Being an educator at HISD, it's a slap in the face for them to even want to do a TEA takeover because we're working so hard with less resources," Murray said. "Why are you doing this at this point? We're getting ready for STAAR. We're already stressed out."

What would happen if the TEA does take control? The entire HISD board would be replaced. According to the TEA, this has happened 15 times in the state of Texas and the last district that was under TEA control was Beaumont ISD.

"What we saw was a board of managers that may have been adept at fixing the finances which they did, but did not understand academics or instruction because we saw that plummet. That's the reason concern I have here in HISD," Capo said.

After the state announced plans to take over the district in 2019, HISD sued, and in 2020, a Travis County district judge halted Morath's plan by granting a temporary injunction. The case eventually reached the Texas Supreme Court, where the agency's lawyers argued last year that a 2021 law - which went into effect after the case was first taken to court - allows for a state takeover. The law permits the TEA commissioner to replace a school board and its superintendent if one of its schools receives five consecutive years of failing grades.

The Texas Supreme Court threw out the injunction in January, clearing the path for the TEA to put in place new school board members, who could then vote to end the lawsuit. The court formalized its decision Wednesday afternoon.

Houston parent Zachary Foreman says the takeover coming in the middle of the spring semester is an unnecessary disruption after students have already had to go through months of online learning due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

SEE ALSO: Houston ISD superintendent says little about timeline of possible TEA takeover

Foreman said he became an organizer with Houston Community Voices for Public Education a year after his first child was born because he wanted to have a say in the education she will receive.

He also does it to help inform parents in his neighborhood who can't take the time off of work. He has read that state takeovers in other districts have led to school closures and no improvements in test scores.

"When the state takes over, we don't get to elect a board," Foreman said. "To me, it's not just the negative educational consequences; it's also like the everyday democratic ideas. I pay taxes, I live in this city. I should get a say in my kid's school."

Many of the attendees lamented the timing of the intended takeover, citing improvements in the district's ratings in the four years since the TEA announced plans to take over the district and HISD sued in response. Ninety-four percent of HISD schools now earn a grade of A, B or C.

Rep. Jarvis Johnson said while the district was failing at one point, he questions why the state is taking action now.

"When you had 100 schools that were Ds and Fs, guess what, where was the governor, where was TEA? Nobody was around," Johnson said. "But now that they've righted the ship, the course is right, now all of a sudden you want to come in and take it over for what reason? Takeovers have never worked."

Patricia Allen is a retired employee of HISD and a union organizer with Houston Educational Support Personnel, an organization that represents the district's blue-collar workers.

She said despite its embattled reputation, she is still proud to have many of her grandchildren enrolled in the district. "There are so many victors, not victims. People who went to HISD that are living success stories today," Allen said. "So you can't tell me they're getting inadequate education."

The Texas Tribune and Samantha Aguilar contributed to this report.