'Change is difficult' as Houston ISD superintendent works toward transparency

Sarah Rafique Image
Thursday, March 10, 2022
'Change is difficult' as Houston ISD works toward transparency
13 Investigates' Ted Oberg talks with Houston ISD's superintendent about his five-year plan and goals to provide equity across all zip codes.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- During a visit to Lawson Middle School last Friday, Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II was greeted by about 30 sixth-grade dance students sitting on the floor as they waited to start that day's warm-up routine.

"Can I ask you guys a question?" House asked the students after their dance teacher introduced him as the "boss boss" of the district. "Part of my responsibility is to make sure that you all, as students, all 194,000 students in HISD, have what you need to be successful, have what you need to be engaged."

House asked the students how many of them feel dance, music or theater plays a major role in their lives. More than half of them raised their hands.

"Some of you may figure out at some point that this may be the way forward for you in terms of high school and we want to make sure that you are as prepared as possible," House said. "My job is to make sure that you don't have to be without."

Lawson Middle School, which is working to build its fine arts programs, was down five teachers when the school year began.

A recent Houston ISD survey shows one in three teachers is thinking about leaving the district and at Lawson, some teachers quit halfway through the year, leaving the campus still in need of another teacher for a core class.

The school of about 1,300 students also doesn't have a librarian, just a media specialist, and some campuses across HISD still need a nurse.

In his five-year strategic plan announced in February, House said he's committed to making sure all 276 Houston ISD campuses have the same basic resources to provide each student with the same baseline experience, ultimately creating a more equitable education system across all zip codes.

House's plan focuses on what he considers realistic goals that improve equity when it comes to centralized support for athletics, fine arts, academic extracurricular activities, substitutes and AP classes.

"If you set lofty, fluffy goals along the way that are very difficult to accomplish, that's not good for kids," House said. "We want to see the trajectory heading in the direction that it needs to go to accomplish goals and set higher goals as we move forward. So, we're looking forward to doing that and I think in a large school district, that makes sense."

The plan, which initially offers competitive pay and bonuses to attract talent and retain teachers won't be cheap and could lead to discussions about possible layoffs or low enrollment school closures.

Amid a time when the district is under the conservatorship of the Texas Education Agency for poor performance and the former chief operating officer is being investigated by the FBI, House said he is committed to creating greater transparency in an effort to move past both of those things that occurred before he joined the district in July.

"One of the commitments is ... developing a campaign to really get the trust back in this community because we know that HISD, from FBI investigations to improprieties in terms of finances, TEA takeover investigation, previous board issues, there's been a lot of love lost and that causes people to not have the kind of trust that you need in order to see the kind of growth in a school district," House said.

Every Wednesday, House dedicates a portion of his day visiting campuses and meeting with principals and students across the district. He's visited about 65 schools so far and let 13 Investigates join him during a visit Friday to Lawson Middle School.

The last time the Texas Education Agency issued accountability ratings before the pandemic, Lawson received an overall "C" rating for the 2018-19 school year. The school received a "D" for student achievement, academic growth and closing the gaps.

House hopes his plan will help.

"The honeymoon period is over. This is my second superintendency and after you're quite frankly, in a school district for a year, and you have an understanding of the systems and processes, you're putting a plan in place, now it's about the execution," House said. "I believe as we take a look next year at STAAR data and our incremental growth data, our board goals and components as well, those are solely on my administration moving forward and whether I like it or not, it is what it is."

Editors' note: 13 Investigates Ted Oberg's interview with House has been edited for length.

Oberg: Why is it so important for you to get out to schools and listen to the HISD community? How does this help you shape your vision?

House: "This has been a big part of what I (do). I get out of schools. I dedicate a big portion of Wednesday to be in schools, be with principals and be with children. I think that's reflective of what we did in the first 100 or so days, and getting out and hearing from the community and so being at Lawson today is really reflective of that. I think the only difference is that it's a Friday. What we saw here is really indicative of what we truly want to see executed in this strategic plan, having a baseline experience of what it is to have certain offerings in every school. One of the things that we heard during our Listen and Learn (outreach events) was that we feel like in communities that we don't have certain things and as you think about what HISD has struggled with, that's the idea of people walking with their feet. We inherited a situation, my new administration, that we lost 15,000 students in the last several years and when we know students are hemorrhaging, we know dollars of hemorrhaging as well, and you have to do things much differently, and we're in a situation now where we have to pay attention to that. But here at Lawson, there's been a commitment made specifically around the arts, whether it's dance, theater, fine arts, you know so many different opportunities to see kids in age in a way that is special and during this time coming back from a pandemic, it's so important to have that kind of engagement."

Enrollment down 18,000 students, declines expected to continue

Enrollment at public schools is down statewide. At Houston ISD, enrollment is down by 18,072 students compared to before the pandemic, according to a 13 Investigates analysis of TEA data. Since public school funding is tied to enrollment in Texas, the district could lose $228.5 million in state funding if the TEA doesn't extend a hold harmless agreement that in the last two years let districts receive funding based on pre-pandemic totals.

Houston ISD enrollment is down nearly 20,000 students, which could mean $228 million less in state funding, according to our 13 Investigates analysis.

Oberg: You predict another loss in enrollment next year.

House: "We have a demographer that does this on an annual basis and I think there is a predicted loss of 500 or 600 students next year. That's a much smaller loss than we've seen in some (previous years), but we believe over the course of this five-year plan that we can stop the hemorrhaging and eventually get to a place where we start seeing growth in HISD. That's the goal, is to stop the hemorrhaging that we've seen for several years and the only way you do that is ensuring that parents have an experience that they're happy with, an experience in the neighborhood schools that many haven't seen quite some time."

SEE ALSO: 13 Investigates what's working in the battle to get students back

Oberg: Your answer indicates enrollment loss is more than just COVID-19. That this is a conscious choice for people to walk away from the district.

House: "The enrollment loss has been happening for years. Probably the last 10 years, so this is not about COVID. I think COVID exacerbated the loss of students in HISD. COVID exacerbated the loss of students in all schools, really, quite frankly, across America."

SEE ALSO: Daunting task' to locate students as thousands are still missing from Houston-area schools

Oberg: What is it that people are walking away from?

House: "I think they were walking away from what they didn't have and what they felt that they needed for their children. And as a father and as an educator as well, you want what's best for your child, and I feel like many parents told us during the Listen and Learns that they felt like that if they didn't get X, Y and Z, that they were going walk as well, so this strategic plan is reflective of the opinion that so many of our parents gave us during that time period."

Oberg: Aside from the baseline experience, what's the argument to get families back?

House: "It goes back to the commitments that we made. Making sure that parents understand that we are committed, but a commitment is one thing, but executing those commitments is a whole different thing. We are excited about the idea of having the support of what we're doing. Eventually, it's (going to) have to happen first with the board from a funding standpoint and a budget standpoint, so we have a couple more budget workshops that we'll have to have before we get to a place where we approve everything, hopefully, that we think needs to be approved in this plan. I think from there, it's about the execution and once we get that opportunity to move forward and execute, we feel like the confidence can be focused on and we can bring families back."

Oberg: What is it you want to see before you have to roll out these tough decisions? What are the benchmarks you want to see?

House: "We want to see student growth and improvement heading in the right direction. That's why we do this, period."

Oberg: So that's enrollment and performance?

House: "Performance, enrollment, we definitely want to see that throughout this entire strategic plan. That's the goal overall, to ensure that students are growing, they're college and career ready."

Oberg: Can your plan do that in one year?

House: "Absolutely not. What the focus, over the course of time, is incremental growth. So we're not (going to) meet every benchmark in one year. That would be really inconceivable from my perspective. I think you have to take a look at the totality of where we are from a data standpoint and understand that growth over the course of time, over the course of these five years can get us to where we want to go in terms of end goals."

Oberg: When you think about the challenge ahead of you, how important is it to sort of set reasonable expectations for success?

House: "It's extremely important. I think you have to have common sense in this work. We have data statisticians that give us a real good idea of what reasonable growth looks like over the course of time. We'll utilize that data. We'll utilize those statisticians. We'll utilize our demographers as we look at the growth on an annual basis and set reasonable goals. We'll work with our board as well as they continue with the goals and restraints that they have also."

'Talent is running rapid in the opposite direction'

In January, 13 Investigates found 877 courses at HISD that require a certified teacher are actually taught by non-certified individuals. At the time, there were 21,608 students in classes with an uncertified teacher amid the shortage.

SEE ALSO: More than 20,000 students in HISD classes without a certified teacher, 13 Investigates finds

Under House's plan, current teachers who commit to three more years at the district will be eligible for a $500 bonus for the 2022-23 school year, a $1,000 the second year and a $2,500 bonus their third year. There will be additional bonuses for new teachers and up to $5,000 bonuses for critical shortage areas, including bilingual, ESL and special education teachers.

The plan says every current HISD teacher will be eligible to "earn at least a cumulative additional $20,000 over the next three years" through cost-of-living adjustments, raises and other incentives.

"Talent is running rapid in the opposite direction," House said. "Forty-five thousand educators leave the profession in the State of Texas. A third of the educators in HISD have indicated from a survey standpoint that they have thought about leaving."

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House says 'talent is running rapid in the opposite direction.'

Oberg: Does that surprise you, that a third of your teachers are thinking about leaving?

House: "No, and it didn't surprise me simply because we haven't valued, for quite some time, especially from a compensation standpoint, our educators the way we need to. This plan really has a healthy compensation plan that would take us from nearly the bottom of where we are in the region and take us to the top over the course of three years."

Oberg: The compensation plan doesn't get them to the top of the region next year, so you're still trying to bring teachers in at a time when they can go 20 miles away and earn more tomorrow.

House: "It does not. But we feel like there's a bridge and that bridge is really looking at some bonuses along the way. We know the value of educators that have some years of experience. There's value in all educators, but we've put some incentives in place that would allow for people to see these things and kind of equalize what financially they might see in a different district, so we're excited about what those bonuses look like and we feel like they can attract and keep individuals in HISD."

Oberg: Of all the promises you're making, I think that might be one of the toughest. You made the promise at the beginning of the year to fill core classes, but your conservator with the Texas Education Agency notes in February, you're still down 200 educators.

House: "Our goal in the beginning of the school year was to ensure that as many kids as possible had a chance to start with a certified teacher and that was difficult cause we were down 400-plus."

Oberg: It's still difficult at the end of the school year. What's the sell to a teacher who is either considering coming to this district or considering leaving this district to convince them to stay?

House: "We're going to value you. This strategic plan builds the capacity and I think that's one of the things that we have to understand. It's not just about pay. It's also about the ability to grow people as well, so this this plan, over the course of a few years and during the interim with signing bonuses and some other opportunities, will allow for educators to be appreciated in a manner that they really deserve."

Oberg: If you can't get the teacher part right, how difficult does it make the other parts of your strategic plan?

House: "It becomes very difficult if you don't get the teacher part right, I think the hemorrhaging will continue from the teacher standpoint. ... You'll have that inconsistency in schools and it makes it very difficult for schools like Lawson and any other school in the district that has a percentage rate of turnover for teachers, so this is an important piece of this plan."

Layoffs, school closures in some areas 'possible' as district works to boost experience across all campuses

Raises for teachers and allocating equitable resources across campuses comes at a cost. At HISD, 65% of the $2.2 billion budget is salaries, which means any tough cuts could result in cutting teachers or closing campuses - a struggle House said he's faced at past school districts.

Superintendent Millard House talks about the long-term impacts of filling current funding gaps with COVID relief dollars.

Oberg: It seems you pay for raises with COVID-related funding initially. Promise me you'll have the money to pay for it when those run out.

House: "The idea is that tough decisions are going to have to be made. So COVID is definitely a blessing in disguise right now, and what we know a part of COVID was intended for was to ensure that learning loss is really the focus on (our) children, but there is an opportunity with COVID to fill some financial gaps."

Oberg: We're talking about COVID Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund dollars. The COVID relief dollars are going to help you feel the gap here.

House: "Absolutely. In year one. But beyond year one, there's gonna have to be a major focus and plan around ensuring that we make some tough decisions, cuts quite frankly, and some of those cuts we've moved forward to make. We just (Thursday) during our budget workshop announced that we were freezing hiring. We were also freezing dollars at the district level and the central office and the school level to look at a $100 million savings when it's all said and done."

Oberg: But that doesn't get you there?

House: "Absolutely. That's a drop in the bucket when it comes to what will be needed to ensure that we make this plan float."

Oberg: One of the things you said is you don't want this to be about layoffs. We know that every large government agency spends the vast majority of their dollars on payroll. How do you make tough choices or bigger cuts without laying off teachers?

House: "What I can tell you is that I've lived through this in a school district before. We don't know what it's going to look like in HISD as of yet. We haven't made those plans. We haven't made those commitments, but we're committed to making tough decisions. So moving forward in Tulsa, where I was deputy superintendent, one of the things that we had to think about is what you just said. We either had to lay off 250 teachers, I think, at the time, or we had to look at a plan that made sense for our community in reference to consolidating schools. Tulsa was a place that in the late 70s, early 80s was 80,000 students. It's around 40,000 students now and we ended up moving forward with a program called "Project Schoolhouse," where we studied the landscape, got feedback from the community on a consistent basis and came up with a plan that wasn't just the district's plan. It was a community plan around how we could stay afloat. We ended up closing several schools at that particular time, but we also ended up in conjunction with the bond issue, reopening some of those schools to ensure that we had the kind of trade ups from an equity standpoint in certain areas of the community. Like you said, it's either personnel schools. It's tough decisions. We don't know what that's going to look like in HISD but those are examples of tough decisions."

Oberg: But I think we do. I think you do. You've been through this before. I think what I hear you saying is at the end of this process, HISD will close some schools.

House: "It's definitely possible."

Oberg: Probable.

House: "Possible. We don't know that."

Oberg: But you gave me two choices: Laying off teachers or closing schools.

House: "Absolutely."

Oberg: One of those two, if not both will happen.

House: "It's a possibility. We haven't studied it as of yet, but I tell you what, as we go down the road, those are definitely possibilities."

Oberg: You know people will hear that tonight will think low enrollment schools or schools that are facing enrollment loss may close tomorrow?

House: "But that's explicitly what we don't want to put out there. Quite frankly, what we want to put out there is that we're improving schools - in this first year, that's what our focus is going to be. We're developing a baseline experience to ensure that neighborhood kids are coming back and not walking with their feet and that we are eventually going to have to make some tough decisions. We don't know what those are going to be, and I'm not committing to what those are going to look like as of yet, but I have lived through that before and have gone through that process and managed that process in the past."

Oberg: Houston's lived through that discussion before. Promise me it's different with Millard House at the helm, because it's ugly.

House: "Rightfully so. It's definitely a process. What I can tell you as I lived it and studied the San Francisco model, the Pittsburgh public schools model, it took us a full year to study it, shop it with the community, give feedback, get feedback, modify our plan, to come to a synergy where everybody was in the same space."

'Change is difficult' as districts move to centralize spending

With some past HISD spending under scrutiny by the FBI, House said he's dedicated toward making sure every taxpayer dollar is spent appropriately. One way he hopes to do that is by taking away some spending decisions from principals and move toward a more centralized system.

At HISD, in a decentralized system, principals have been allowed to make decisions about campus staffing and spending locally. Under House's plans, those decisions will fall at the district level in an effort to make sure each campus has equitable staffing and baseline resources.

Under Houston ISD's five-year plan, decisions about staffing and baseline resources will be made at the district level instead of by principals.

Oberg: Do you think you're going to get pushback from some principals when you start telling them how to spend the money that they historically have been able to spend on their own?

House: "Change is difficult. Change is absolutely difficult, but what I think our principals are understanding better is that with all the issues that HISD has seen, that we've inherited here in the last eight or nine months, that we have to do something different. If we don't do something different, I think TEA will still be connected to HISD at the hip. I think organizations like the FBI will continue to see the kind of risk that have caused some of the issues in this school district as well. So I think principals are starting to understand that this is different. They've seen iterations of this in the past, but I think what's different is that there are some folks breathing down, HISD's necks and we have to do something different and we've tried to bring principals along the way. Not every principal's going to be happy, but I do believe principals understand that, it's not just about thinking about it from the perspective as an adult. It's about thinking about it from the perspective of a school district as a whole and the vitality of a school district as a whole."

Oberg: Is it your job to make principals happy?

House: "It's our job to ensure that student learning is going in the (right) direction, but we want principals to feel valued. We want teachers to feel valued. We want happy employees as well, but again, change is not easy. It was interesting because we've had principals in the room on several occasions. I have a superintendent's collaborative group of about 28, 30 principals that we'll float things past and just looking at some of the reactions in the room, some that have been in school districts that were centrally funded versus de-centrally funded get it and they're on board, not an issue. Those that have not been in a situation where you have centrally-funded positions, it's a difficult change and we completely understand it, but I think it's our responsibility along the way to continue to work with them, give them feedback, give them an understanding that this is not just about one school. This is about 194,000 students in a school district that has been paddling upstream for a while."

Oberg: In our past reporting, we've mentioned how every campus doesn't always have a nurse, librarian or counselor. HISD has discussed it for a long time. Why is that so hard and why does that continually have to be in a plan?

House: "I don't know that it's hard. It makes sense to me to ensure that those kind of commitments are consistent throughout our school district and I think it's reflective of what you see in this plan. We know, especially post COVID, that they're are bigger issues outside of even teaching and learning that many of our kids are struggling with. The mental health aspect is real and many of our kids and adults have struggled post-COVID with many of these issues.

Equity across every zip code

House said all campuses will have the same baseline experience for students. There will be opportunities for schools to build on top of the basics, but they all need to have the same core things.

House: "Ensuring that great schools are in every community is something that we heard consistently as well. We know that over the course of these five years, we're going to have to take a look at our magnet deserts. We're going to have to take a look at those areas in the community where we only see (do not finish) schools and really equalize the playing field, so parents have that opportunity and have that choice to go to their neighborhood school and be successful and that starts off with what we talked about earlier and having a baseline experience of being provided with all of the tools from a staffing standpoint that the schools will need. We also know that promoting high quality teaching and learning is going to be important. As a decentralized school district, there are several different schools that are doing so many different things and it's going to be important for us to really take a close look at what curriculum we're utilizing. (For) example, if you have a child that goes from one school to another school and that child sees a totally different curriculum, then there could be some loss of learning just because of their transition and what we know about HISD's transition in terms of students is that that's going to happen, so that's one big piece around ensuring that we have a consistent curriculum, but the other thing is high quality curriculum as well, so we're making some modifications, both in our math curriculum and our reading curriculum, so we'll have both consistency and great curriculum as a whole."

Oberg: Did it surprise you when you came here how different HISD was from one zip code to the next?

House: "Yes. It's very surprising. I knew and had done some research, but it's also a reflection of the diversity in this community, but there are certain pieces to this big HISD puzzle that I think are going be important that there's more centralization around and I'm excited for what that looks like for children. All of the decisions and all of the commitments that we're making are student based, are all about kids and not necessarily adult based. And that's what this plan has been about. It's about what kids need and what we have to focus on for our children."

Oberg: How did the district get to a point where all students didn't have the same baseline experience?

House: "I think that happens over the course of time. I don't think it was the intended purpose of this decentralized mantra in HISD but I think over the course of time, that's what we've seen ... Right now, we're all over the place and we're looking forward to bringing some congruence to not only our curriculum, but several other pieces of what we do in HISD. ... We're definitely only taking a close look at equity, even, when we talk about our COVID relief dollars as well. One of the major commitments that we've made is, of course, wraparound services and counselors, some other pieces that are out there. We've developed some rubrics that really tell us about specific needs in all of our schools and those rubrics will sometimes tell us that we might need two wraparound specialists at this particular site, because the dynamics at that site are worse from the standpoint of overall community need, so I think when you think about the idea of equity, you have to think about (how) the kids in, in HISD and any school across America start at different levels and how can you ensure that you shore up kids being on the same level in terms of their starting point, or even as they move incrementally through the years. That's a major part of, I think, what you have to think about and how you support schools moving forward. So there will be some schools that may need more support."

Oberg: To be equitable, does that mean someone else has to lose?

House: "Not necessarily. I think in our situation, what we are getting a handle on now is really understanding that baseline experience at every school and that may look different. I think a majority of our elementary schools and our middle schools are going to see more allocations and more opportunities because of this model. There will be some situations (where) that might not be the case, but I think as we go back to what I said earlier, it's about the adults understanding the overall need in this school district. So this is about students and not adults and I think when you make equitable decisions, those decisions have to be focused on kids."

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House hopes to give each student the same baseline experience and create equity across every zip code.

Oberg: For teachers and families, tell me why HISD is the place to come to or come back to?

House: "There are incredible opportunities in HISD. Incredible opportunities. As a parent, you want choices and what we know from the data that we've gathered is that parents want quality choices and HISD will provide quality choices moving forward. We want to grow those choices and ensure that parents have exactly what it is (they need). As a principal, I used to advise, and as an assistant superintendent deputy, I used to advise parents that when you're choosing a school for your child, you really need to take it from the perspective of what it is to choose a good shoe. Your shoe and my shoe are a lot different ... but when it comes to finding the right fit, we feel like we have a lot more rights, not just by sheer size, but innovation and the standpoint of ensuring that we shore up this experience that we're developing for our parents. So we want parents to understand what our experiences are, have a quality experience when they're looking to select a school in our school district, have a quality experience as they go through the application process and once they get in that building in terms of choosing that right fit shoe or school, that that experience is lived out in a manner that we know and expect is good for kids."

'Trying to build the trust'

Before House joined HISD, the district's headquarters and the then-chief operating officer's home was raided by the FBI in 2020. Now, House said he's dedicated to rebuilding trust with the community that taxpayer funds are being spent responsibly.

SEE ALSO: Prosecutors allege contractor overcharged Houston ISD $6 million in scheme with former COO

"It just is a fact quite frankly, and when you have something like that that has occurred, it takes time to show people that you're genuine, that you're trying to build the trust, that you're going to spend dollars responsibly moving forward. So it's a double-edged sword that we're faced with quite frankly. It's a sword of ensuring that we shore up our district from a financial standpoint, and on top of that, ensure that we continue to grow this district with the kind of experiences and students that we deserve as well," House said.

Oberg: Specific to that, you said it will never happen again.

House: "That's, that's my goal."

Oberg: But how do you do it? You have tens of thousands of employees. Never is a long, long time.

House: "That's the goal is for it to never happen again and we'll do everything in our power to ensure that it does never happen again."

Oberg: Have you done anything yet?

House: "We've definitely put some systems and processes in place. We've hired outside auditors to come in and take a look at, not just the financial side of the house, but HR, talent, special education. This has been different to have outsiders come in and take a close look at everything that you do, but it's been good for us to take some of those pieces and really move forward to execute some of the things that we can do differently."

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