One of the big questions that looms over the potential state intervention in the governance structure of Houston ISD is, “What will change under a Board of Managers?” While this is a question that none of us – not even the TEA Commissioner – can answer with complete certainty, it is still worth considering. Now, more than ever, our community needs to consider the things that can and should change in the state’s largest school district.
Among the cries of those who resist intervention from the state, there have been few if any calls for major change on behalf of underserved children. Rather than rallying around vague political ideals, we should be demanding innovative solutions and meaningful changes to a status quo that has utterly failed far too many students for decades.
Beyond the very low-hanging fruit of asking for a functional governing body, one that is committed to fostering communication and collaboration among its members, we need to start thinking about the ways that our school district can bring about transformational change in the lives of children. For too long, Houston ISD has struggled to properly identify, place, support, and compensate its most effective teachers and school leaders. This needs to change. Like many school districts across the country, HISD still has not deployed adequate resources to promote pre-K enrollment and establish a solid educational foundation for children and families. This needs to change. Until the external performance audit last year, many of the structures and programs in the district have operated inefficiently and without much oversight. This needs to change. These are just a few of the issues that should be considered, evaluated, and re-evaluated by the incoming board.
As the saying goes, “nothing changes if nothing changes.” Improvement in student outcomes will only come with improvement in the decisions and actions of the adults who run this school district, whether they are elected or appointed. Will there be major changes under a Board of Managers? We can only hope the answer is yes.
Houston ISD Board of Education seats for Districts II and IV are in runoff elections on December 14, 2019. Tomorrow, December 10, 2019 is the last day to early vote. You can see if you live in one of the districts up for election here. Your voice matters, so don’t miss the opportunity to cast your ballot.
You can find an early voting polling location here. On Runoff Election Day, you may vote at any polling location in Harris County, to find the one nearest to you, visit here.
Houston GPS has endorsed candidates in each of the district races who best represent our five core values: impact, equity, collaboration, stewardship, and leadership. You can find more information about the runoff elections and our endorsed candidates, Matt Barnes and Kathy Blueford-Daniels, here. Help us make sure we have qualified trustees in HISD who will put our children first.
As the Houston ISD school board moves forward with its lawsuit against the TEA, it continues to spend money that could be supporting students. From April through August, the district has spent $147,409.12* on attorney fees. This is almost the equivalent of two 20-year teacher salaries in HISD. In August alone, it spent over $80,000.
The private law firm that the HISD board hired to sue the TEA has represented Progreso ISD in a suit against the TEA for four years. Progreso’s claims have been dismissed and the Texas Supreme Court has denied review this month. Progreso ISD still owes attorney’s fees for this four-year ordeal. You can read the opinion of the appellate court dismissing Progreso’s claims here.
If HISD continues down the same path, at the rate it paid its attorneys for the first four months of work, it’s looking at spending upwards of $1,800,000 with a high likelihood of failure. If calculated based on the rate HISD paid in August, the district is looking at over $3,800,000. These calculations do not account for increased attorney’s fees as litigation escalates and demands more work hours.
Houston GPS believes taxpayer dollars should go to providing resources to campuses, paying teachers, and, most importantly, serving the students of HISD. Our money should not be spent defending adults from their own misconduct.
* The August invoice for O’Hanlon, Demerath, & Castillo’s services has been amended and slightly reduced, so numbers have been changed to reflect the newly revised invoice.
Houston ISD Board of Education seats for Districts II, III, IV, and VIII are up for election on November 5, 2019. Today is the last day to register to vote for these elections. To learn how you can register, visit the Harris County Clerk’s website. You can see if you live in one of the districts up for election here. Only 12% of eligible voters participated in the last HISD school board election, making your vote even more important. Your voice matters, so don’t miss the opportunity to cast your ballot.
Houston GPS has endorsed candidates in each of the district races who best represent our five core values: impact, equity, collaboration, stewardship, and leadership. You can find more information about the election and our endorsed candidates here. You can listen to interviews with two of our candidates, Judith Cruz in District VIII and Matt Barnes in District IV, to learn more about them. This November, help us make sure we have qualified trustees in HISD who will put our children first.
On Thursday, September 5, the Houston ISD school board directed the Superintendent to appeal the rating given to Phyllis Wheatley High School by the Texas Education Agency. Given the fact that trustees have not historically imposed such directives on a Superintendent and that HISD administrators were adamant that there is no current basis for an appeal, it’s likely that this vote was motivated by the potential sanctions springing from House Bill 1842. Under the law, the Commissioner of Education is compelled to either close Wheatley or replace the elected board with an appointed board of managers. Given his previous statements on HB 1842, it is likely that the Commissioner would choose the second option.
Repeated throughout the evening was that an appeal of the rating would demonstrate the board’s commitment to “fighting for Wheatley,” or “fighting for students.” It’s worth noting that these statements came only from the trustees themselves and not from any parents, students, alumni or staff from Wheatley High School. It’s also worth noting that there was no discussion about the fact that Wheatley began the school year with two unfilled teaching positions – both in English/Language Arts. Rather than asking why the district would put a campus in its 6th consecutive year of Improvement-Required status in a position to begin the school year short two critical content area teachers, trustees focused conversation on the typical complaints about the state accountability system, ignoring the fact that multiple metrics indicate that the district has repeatedly and systematically failed to meet the needs of many students.
In addition to costing the district time and money, this appeal keeps attention focused squarely on the politics of the school board, rather than on the work that needs to be done to support kids in the classroom. Instead of beginning a discussion about strategic support for campuses and the system-wide changes that need to be implemented, the board took action to protect itself, all while stating the usual political tropes about the accountability system, which is loved when we like the results and hated when we do not.
While I would never advise trustees to continue micromanaging district administration in this way, I should hope that if they choose to continue making directives in the future, it will be to actually meet the needs of students and not just to preserve their own positions.
The 2019-2020 school year begins in just a matter of days, and the Houston ISD School Board will hold their first official business meeting of the year on August 8, 2019. Given the continuous turmoil at the board table and the difficultly the board seems to have with focusing their public conversations on student outcome goals, we felt it would be a good idea to offer suggestions of items that the board could be discussing at this point in the year. It is our hope that trustees take note of the work they could be doing now and avoid the distractions and political rhetoric that so often claim too much of their time and energy.
- Last June, the Houston ISD Board of Education had to convene for a last-minute special meeting to pass a budget for the 2019-2020 school year. In order to prevent another last-minute budget vote next summer, the HISD Board needs collaboratively and collectively set its budget priorities so the administration can create a budget proposal based on those priorities. The HISD school board needs to map out their priorities and the process for creating the budget based on the LBB analysis of the various programs that were implemented last year.
- The HISD Board is under investigation by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) on alleged violations of the Texas Opens Meeting Act and procurement violations. In June 2019, the HISD Board decided to take legal action against the TEA and is using taxpayer’s dollars from an unassigned fund, running HISD into a deeper deficit budget, to pay for their lawyers. Trustees should cooperate with request from the TEA, stop asking for extensions, and terminate their legal actions delaying the TEA’s report of the investigation to the public. Here is a link to a petition asking the Board to do so.
The Houston ISD school board recently passed a measure to spend more meeting time discussing student outcomes. This policy measure – which has taken months to pass – is an obvious step in the right direction, but the fact that three trustees opposed it reveals how far our district still has to go. It is no secret that several trustees will oppose any policy measure that comes from the state, simply because it comes from the state. There are a range of issues that allow people of good will to disagree, but a laser-focus on kids should not be one of them in making policy for a school district. While a focus (in terms of time spent) on student outcome goals is a mandate from the state-appointed conservator, it is also a basic tenant of good governance. This should be a no-brainer for those leading the school district, but we have gotten to a place where political posturing is more important than talking about whether or not kids are learning in our schools.
Some will say they don’t like the connection between student
outcomes and the STAAR, a standardized test that has taken up too much time and
space in Texas classrooms, but it should be noted that the school board has the
authority – according to state guidelines – to use other metrics for defining
“student outcomes,” as long as those metrics are measurable and offer real
information about what our children know and are able to do. It seems that some
members of this board aren’t interested in finding out whether or not we’re
meeting the academic needs of the children in this district.
Another recent policy measure that sadly demonstrated some
trustees’ willingness to put politics before children was the vote to end the
contract with Teach for America (TFA) as a district vendor. Since 1991, Teach
for America has recruited potential teachers to apply to Houston ISD schools
through HISD’s alternative certification program. Principals pay the
organization out of their own school budgets for recruitment and ongoing
professional development, as they would for any other teacher – both traditionally
and alternatively certified. The controversy surrounding Teach for America
specifically is the result of entrenched political ideology and has very little
to do with HISD schools and students.
This decision only results in a smaller applicant pool and fewer options for principals. The district has hundreds of vacancies to fill in the next 10 weeks and sits in a state where over 50% of public school teachers enter the profession through alternative certification. Teach for America Houston has a long track record of recruiting and placing teachers in critical needs positions (Bilingual/ESL, STEM fields, etc.). To claim that the system is somehow improved by ending this option for principals – the people in the district who are most keenly aware of the needs of their schools and communities – is illogical at best. We face major problems in recruiting, developing, and properly compensating educators, and history has shown us that many of the aforementioned vacancies will remain unfilled and/or filled by teachers (likely alternatively certified) working outside their area of content expertise. Ending this long-term partnership does not help the district’s budget; it does not help school leaders, and it does not help kids.
If you’re reading this, you are probably more active in the politics of education than most Houstonians. You probably already know that this is a school board election year, and you may have plans to participate in some way, even if only as a voter. Sadly, most members of our community do not have similar plans. In fact, average voting rates – among eligible voters – in Houston school board elections regularly fall below 10%. We want to change that.
Houston GPS recognizes that our system can only improve with the inclusion of more voices, and we cannot wait until November to start talking about elections. Our work to equip and inform voters must start now. Find out how you can help here.
At Houston GPS, we continually advocate for better school board governance and for sound, transparent policies that will lead to student success. We take our role as advocates very seriously, and we continually strive to engage as much of the broader Houston community in the process as possible. The sad reality is that most citizens of this city don’t know much about the work of the school board and the decisions they make on a regular basis. In our work to help parents, educators, and all concerned Houstonians navigate this system, we hope to both educate and empower them. Because school district governance is often shrouded in mystery, many of the decisions made by the school board are influenced by just a handful of people. It is not at all uncommon for small groups of people with targeted interests – both political and financial – to have an outsized voice in the deliberative process, and many will claim to speak on behalf of “the community,” rather than actually providing more opportunities for community members to speak for themselves.
Part of our #EquityHISD campaign has been to elevate the voices of parents and community members who have not been heard in the important discussions about the direction of the largest school district in Texas. Access to district information and even to public school board meetings continues to be a problem for too many parents and families around the city. Translation and interpretation services are limited; live streams and video recordings of board meetings are not close-captioned (in any language); meetings are long and cumbersome, and public speaking rules favor those who are already familiar with the system. As the board considers questions about equity, it is our hope that they consider these access issues as well and works to include more voices from across the district.
Hear from one Kashmere parent here. To have your voice heard, consider joining us at the next meeting of the HISD Board of Education on March 21, 2019 at 5 pm.
The HISD Board of Education spent 15% of their time discussing student outcomes in the fall of 2018.
Assigning individual accountability grades to Houston ISD school board trustees for the fall of 2018 was difficult. As board meetings became more divisive and less productive, it was hard to distinguish trustee actions from the overall performance of the board. What has become clear is that too many of the current trustees view their position as a political stepping stone or a platform to air all of their political grievances. This was evidenced repeatedly in the inordinate amount of time spent on agenda items like city land board appointments and trustees’ feelings about the Lone Star Governance system. This board has been so caught up in personal conflicts and political ideology that it has quite literally shut down options for students and eschewed progress.
If the school board is going to move forward, we hope all of its members will make good on the promises they made to the public last October, after the attempted midnight-swap of interim superintendents. We hope trustees will renew a commitment to focus on student outcomes by both acknowledging that they haven’t been as focused as they need to be and pursuing inclusive, transparent policy solutions. This will require time, hard work, and an end to using the same political talking-points to shut down conversations. Specifically, we suggest the following:
1.) Maintain boardroom decorum, even among community speakers. This isn’t about respectability; it’s about actually getting things done. Several raucous meetings during 2018 resulted in both trustees and community members being shouted down by protesters. This is unacceptable and frequently resulted in extremely long meetings with virtually no policy solutions. We hope that the board can find a way to ensure that business can be conducted and community members can be heard without violence or arrests.
2.) Obtain authentic community input. So many of the voices that are heard at board meetings and in the media come from people who are far removed from the biggest issues facing the district. Not a single parent from the four sanctions-triggering schools was heard at the December board meeting. Not one. As the board begins a community “listening tour” for the superintendent search, we hope trustees will prioritize hearing from current parents and students, especially those in areas that have been traditionally underserved and the district’s 21 Improvement Required campuses.
3.) Work toward solutions. As the HISD policy team and many others work to bring more funding to the district this legislative session, we need school board trustees to seek out better ways to recruit and retain excellent teachers and principals, better ways to meet the needs of children, and better ways to improve student outcomes. Rather than proudly announcing what they won’t do, trustees should pursue policies that provide communities with more opportunities for success. Rather than playing the blame-game, trustees need to take accountability for the things that are in their control. No amount of money can replace good governance.