Texas Supreme Court clears way for state's education agency to take over Houston ISD

ByAlex Nguyen and Alejandro Serrano, The Texas Tribune
Friday, January 13, 2023
Texas Supreme Court clears way for TEA to take over Houston ISD
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The Texas Supreme Court cleared the state to control Houston ISD, which officials say is mismanaged and has low academic performance at a high school.

The Texas Supreme Court cleared the way Friday for the state to potentially take control of the Houston Independent School District, which state education officials say has been plagued by mismanagement and low academic performance at one of its high schools.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath first moved to take over the district's school board in 2019 in response to allegations of misconduct by trustees and years of low performance at Phillis Wheatley High School.

HISD sued and, in 2020, a Travis County district judge halted Morath's plan by granting a temporary injunction. The injunction was upheld by an appeals court but the TEA took the case to the state's highest 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 Texas Supreme Court sided with TEA on Friday and threw out the injunction saying it isn't appropriate under the new law. The decision could allow TEA to put in place new school board members, who could then vote to end the lawsuit.

TEA told The Texas Tribune that it is currently reviewing the court decision. The agency didn't immediately respond to questions about whether it has immediate plans to install a new school board.

The Texas Supreme Court also remanded the yearslong case back to a trial court.

HISD's lawyers have already said they would welcome returning to a trial court so the temporary injunction can be considered under the updated law, adding that HISD has been ready to make a case for a permanent injunction since 2020.

HISD Superintendent Millard House II said in a press release Friday that the district's legal team is reviewing the court's ruling. He also touted the school district's recent improvements, including at Phillis Wheatley High School.

"There is still much more work to be done, but we are excited about the progress we have made as a district and are looking forward to the work ahead," House said in the release.

TEA has argued that state law gives the commissioner the authority to temporarily appoint board members in school districts facing five consecutive years of low academic performances, and districts that have had a state-appointed conservator overseeing and evaluating their performances for more than two years. In HISD, conservator Doris Delaney had overseen Kashmere High School since 2016. Her authority was expanded to the district level in 2019.

When the case went before the appeals court in late 2020, HISD argued that Delaney hadn't met the two-year requirement as a district-level conservator because her role at the district started as a campus-level conservator. During oral arguments in front of the state's supreme court, TEA lawyers argued that the distinction between those two levels of conservatorship had been removed by the 2021 updates to the education code.

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