HISD superintendent talks budget cuts, layoffs in one-on-one with 13 Investigates

Monday, May 20, 2024
HISD superintendent sits down with 13 Investigates for one-on-one
13 Investigates sits down with HISD Superintendent Mike Miles as he finishes out his first year as the district's state-appointed top leader.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Houston Independent School District Superintendent Mike Miles has spent the last month of this school year dealing with a $528 million budget shortfall for next year.

He centralized wraparound specialists aimed to help students with the greatest socioeconomic needs and told about 30 principals and hundreds of teachers they won't be back in those roles next year.

And just this week, Miles has faced calls for his resignation after Spectrum News 1 reported that taxpayer dollars were sent from a small Texas school district to Colorado.

Third Future Schools, a nonprofit that Miles founded, was paid with Texas taxpayer dollars to turn around schools in other parts of the state.

Despite Spectrum News 1's claim that those Texas taxpayer dollars went to schools in Colorado, Miles said any money Texas districts sent to the Colorado-based nonprofit went to support central human resources and the finance office, not students.

"It shouldn't irk people. It's only, I guess, annoying to some people because it's been reported as something that's irregular. It's totally normal what happened. It's the way the process works," Miles told 13 Investigates' Kevin Ozebek.

Miles said he was no longer employed full-time at Third Future Schools after taking over as HISD superintendent.

On top of running HISD, Miles said he does about an hour of work a week for Third Future Schools as part of a six-month, $40,000 contract.

As he rounds out his first year as superintendent, Miles said he has some regrets, especially surrounding a lack of clarity when it comes to his New Education System.

The Texas Education Agency named Miles as HISD superintendent last summer after firing its superintendent and school board, citing years of poor performance.

Miles' New Education System brought higher pay for teachers and a curriculum aimed at raising student success at the district, but he wishes he would have explained it all better from the onset.

"I don't want to go into a catalog of all my mistakes, but I'll give you the one that's probably the biggest regret," Miles said. "I knew the district had a lot of autonomy, but maybe I didn't understand the level of autonomy that all the schools had. The biggest thing I should have done, the thing I regret the most, is not being real clear about what the NES program and the instructional program across the district, how it would impact the various schools, the separate and unique magnet schools, the A and B (rated) schools."

$528 million budget shortfall

Miles presented his proposed $2.1 billion budget for the 2024-25 school year to board members on Thursday.

Next year's budget will have a $528 million shortfall. Part of that shortfall comes from $386 million in federal pandemic relief dollars that are no longer being provided to the district as relief programs end.

Miles has vowed to keep cuts away from classrooms, invest in teachers, and reduce inefficiencies at the central office.

"One of the most important things that the district did this year, apart from the instruction and achievement and all that, is we right-sized the budget, we right-sized the central office staff at great cost to the people in this building, to people who lost their jobs, which is really hard to tell someone they no longer have a job," Miles said. "We protected the classroom, meaning when a student comes to school next year, that student will still have the same class size, still high-quality instructional materials, still the magnet programs, still... dance, martial arts, photography, still excellent teachers, all of those things. He or she will not know what happened financially in this district. The biggest cuts will come from central office."

Miles said the cuts are expected to impact about 1,400 people from central office staff.

There will be 130 NES schools next year, with teachers making an average salary of $82,000 at elementary schools, $84,000 at middle schools and $86,000 at high schools.

"We raised the salaries of the non-NES schools, $2,500 per teacher. In any given year that would be a good raise, right? And yet we did it under tough financial times. Why? Because the teachers deserve it. We are raising the bar, and so we need the best and brightest teachers here in the district," he said.

With more districts joining the NES system next year, the payroll for those campuses will increase, too. Miles said over the last several years before he took over, HISD had been expanding its central office despite declining enrollment. He said the cuts allowed them to avoid a "fiscal cliff."

"And we didn't do it on the backs of teachers, and frankly, this pains me to say, but we had to do it on the backs of some, and it had to be here at central office," he said. "That's painful for this group, and it's probably painful to hear that, 'oh, teachers got this raise and as a result, you cut my position, but there always should be more money going to teachers and the classroom than central office."

Need for certified teachers

In November, 13 Investigates reported nearly 800 of teachers at HISD were uncertified, including a former fast food crew member teaching reading, a barista teaching science, a sales associate teaching science, and a paralegal teaching fourth-grade math.

Texas Education Agency data shows HISD is not alone in hiring certified teachers. Still, some parents have raised concerns about how it will impact the quality of their children's education.

SEE ALSO: 13 Investigates qualifications of uncertified Houston ISD teachers

Miles admits there is a shortage of teachers nationwide but said he is not worried about filling positions with qualified teachers.

"We are changing the way we hire in this district. We're looking at performance interviews. We are looking at certifications. Our goal is to hire all certified teachers, but in this shortage area, if we hire somebody, it's going to be somebody who has some experience or at least shows that they can be successful in the classroom," he said. "We are trying to make sure we find qualified people, certified people, and if we don't get a certified person, then we will do a performance interview."

He said the performance interview involves an applicant watching a video and describing the quality of education in the video and sharing how they would improve instruction.

About 30 principals fired

Miles said about 30 principals and hundreds of teachers who were not asked to come back next school year were underperforming.

"They're not meeting the bar to lead one of our schools. Look, it's tough being a principal, and it's tough whenever you have to remove a principal. That's a very tough decision, and it's tough on the community. There's no question about that," he said. "People value the principalship of their school and of their kids."

He said it's probably the first time in years that HISD principals and teachers have faced such rigorous evaluation.

"We're really using data, which has not been done in the last several years," he said. "It's understandable that some community members, some principals even, may not agree with this sort of evaluation or assessment of their performance, but we think our kids deserve that and need that."

SEE ALSO: Crockett Elementary parents feel 'blindsided' after learning HISD principal was forced to resign

13 Investigates asked Miles specifically about Neff Elementary School Principal Amanda Wingard, who was forced to resign despite being named principal of the year last year.

"I don't want to talk about any one principal, but I can answer the question more broadly, and that is the last administration had their criteria for whatever awards or performance things they wanted to do, and that criteria is different than the criteria we're using," Miles said. "We're using criteria that wrap around instruction, achievement and leadership - not just subjective, but also with the data that shows that, so that's two different ways of looking at how to assess a principal. I don't know all the ways they assessed in the past, but I do know it wasn't around instruction, achievement, and leadership."

No school closings next year

Earlier this school year, Miles said he would not close any schools and he hasn't. He also said he has no plans to close schools next year either.

He said the district does have small schools and underutilized buildings, and that he never promised that he would never close any schools. But, he said, he recognizes the challenges in deciding when and what schools to close.

"The challenge for me when someone says, 'we should close this small school,' and the community says 'no,' is that in most cases there are students in the area. It's not because of a loss of kids in the area of this school. It's because we have not helped that school become a great school, a good school, an effective school," Miles said. "If we haven't invested in the facility, if we haven't invested in the training and try to get more programs in that school... then I'm loathed to close the school if we haven't done our job. I'm very sympathetic to a community that says, 'Wait a minute, you're closing the school, but you haven't done anything to help it.'"

He said he expects to spend this next year improving those schools that might be at risk of closing.

"We're going to compete well with the charter schools in the area and bring our kids back. That's the first step," he said. "If there's an area of town where the kids demographically, they're leaving, and we find a small school, then that is totally appropriate to close."

Miles said his NES system required an overhaul of the district rather than just piecemeal incremental reforms. Despite the rapid changes, he said he's overall pleased with how the year went and how many teachers and staff embraced those changes.

"I'm not blind to the fact that there are some people who feel unsettled, some people who are angry," he said. "But on the whole, I've just been amazed at how many people have stepped up."

For updates on this story, follow Kevin Ozebek on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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