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

Thursday, March 2, 2023
Mayor Turner says HISD takeover by the state is imminent
"Explain to me how this is in the best interest of 190,000 students, their parents, the community, or the city," Houston Mayor Turner said. Here's what the takeover would entail.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Houston Independent School District could be under entirely new leadership as early as Monday, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

That would be the result if the Texas Education Agency takes over control of the state's largest district.

"I've been hearing these rumors about TEA taking over the school district," Turner said at City Hall Wednesday morning. "In the last few days, I've been hearing them more and more."

Kourtney Revels' daughter, Judith, is in the second grade at B.C. Elmore Elementary School.

"I was hoping HISD would be able to get it together and keep our district under local control, keep the transparency, and work better with parents. But, we kind of knew where it was going," Revels said.

Revels said she's been expecting a move from the Texas Education Agency because she's been through something similar before. In 2013, the state dissolved North Forest ISD and directed HISD to absorb the students and schools.

"That's why my concerns are, 'What can TEA really do better than what they did for North Forest?' That's where I'm at because this will be takeover number two. We saw a lot of school closures last time," Revels said.

One parent told ABC13 that she's been expecting a move from the Texas Education Agency because she's been through something similar before.

So what would a takeover entail?

The Texas Education Agency would come in, remove HISD superintendent Millard House II, as well as the entire school board, and replace them with candidates of their choosing.

Former HISD school board trustee Augustina Reyes said these decisions should not be in the hands of unelected leaders. The taxpayers of Houston ISD pay for that district, and they pay for it on a regular basis. Therefore, they should have a voice.

The TEA has never taken over a large, urban school district before. New board members and Superintendent Millard House II have been at the helm as HISD improved to a B+ state accountability rating.

Wheatley High School's five-year F rating has also improved to a C, but the state representative who championed the legislation allowing this takeover has criticized city leaders for missing the mark.

"What I realized was that there was a dearth of learning taking place. Wheatley was the symptom of the problem," Rep. Harold Dutton, who is on a panel produced by The Texan, said.

"Explain to me how this is in the best interest of 190,000 students, their parents, the community, or the city," Turner said.

The mayor said a state legislator has been keeping him abreast of the situation and added that he's heard a new superintendent from outside the state has already been lined up.

RELATED: Houston ISD's independence remains in limbo following Texas Supreme Court ruling

He also said he's spoken with the state's education commissioner, Mike Morath, who wouldn't confirm or deny the rumor but did say a 24-hour notice would be given before a takeover occurred.

"That doesn't work," Turner said on the timeframe. "If you're removing the board of trustees in its entirety, and if you remove the current superintendent, who is moving this district in the right direction?"

The ability for TEA to take over a school district was part of a bill passed in the Texas Legislature in 2015.

Mayor Turner, who was a state representative at the time, said he voted for the bill but was unaware of this element at the time.

"That amendment was attached to a bill with no discussion," Turner said while adding few in the legislature knew it existed.

The TEA sent ABC13 the following statement:

"TEA continues to review the Supreme Court's decision in order to determine the next steps that best support the students, teachers, parents, and school community of the Houston Independent School District."

Wherever the pieces fall, Revels said she hoped local and state leaders prioritize connecting with parents and putting power in the hands of people who are vested in HISD and the unique challenges within the district.

"I'd like to think that everybody will work together and make something good for our kids," she said.

In the meantime, the mayor said any kind of state takeover is a bad precedent for communities in Texas.

"It is a total obliteration of local control," Turner proclaimed. "It is creating a bad model."

How did HISD get here?

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 due to "repeated unacceptable academic accountability ratings" at Wheatley High School.

Then in 2019, while the school board at the time was trying to prevent the state from taking over, they were also fighting amongst themselves.

So, that's when the Texas Education Commissioner sent a letter to Grenita Lathan, the superintendent at the time, announcing a TEA takeover because of a "failure of governance" and "the repeated low academic performance at Wheatley High School."

HISD sued the state and was granted a temporary injunction. Then in January, the Texas Supreme Court eventually ruled and sided with the TEA.

City officials said the Texas Education Agency is expected to bring new leadership to the state's largest school district. But how did Houston ISD get here?

Meanwhile, HISD said they ramped up academic assistance teams and other programs to try to improve the low-performing schools. When House II joined in 2021, ABC13 asked him about the TEA takeover looming in a one-on-one interview, and he was frank about the work that needed to be done but said he had already started working with the TEA on fixing what he called "historical issues" within HISD.

We saw progress. In the 2021-2022 school year, Wheatley improved its rating from "unacceptable" to a C. Then, on Wednesday, that bombshell announcement came in. Turner flat-out said he was told the TEA is taking over next week, and he isn't happy about it.

"I checked around. I discovered that there was not a success story anywhere in the country where the state has stepped in and taken over an entire school district, certainly on the size of magnitude of HISD," Turner said.

Eyewitness News is still waiting on a response from HISD.