Houston community members were irate Tuesday night as state education officials tried to explain the process of taking over their school district. State officials did not take questions about the effects such a move could have on Houston Independent School District, which is the largest in Texas, but did try to recruit community members to replace the existing school board.
About seven minutes into the Texas Education Agency’s PowerPoint presentation on the impending HISD takeover, parents and community members erupted in shouts directed at TEA deputy commissioner Alejandro Delgado.
“We got questions,” attendees repeatedly yelled. “Y’all tryna take our community.”
It was the first meeting that the state agency held in Houston since it announced on March 15 that it would replace the district’s current superintendent, Millard House II, and its democratically elected school board with its own “board of managers” in response to years of underperforming schools, mainly Phillis Wheatley High School.
The high school received a failing accountability grade from the agency for five years in a row. It reached that threshold in 2019, but a court injunction had delayed any action from the TEA until this year. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has said a Texas law passed in 2015 mandates that he either close the failing campus or appoint a new board of managers, effectively taking over the whole district.
The TEA commissioner decides how long the board will be in place. Usually, this sort of takeover lasts two to six years. TEA is seeking nine board managers that live within the district to take over starting June 1.
Houston ISD, with 276 schools and an enrollment of nearly 200,000 students, will be the largest district the agency has taken over.
The TEA official attempted to finish his presentation without interruption, but community members would not stand down. They were upset that they had to write their questions down on index cards and then TEA officials would choose which questions to answer.
“This meeting was rodeo-grade BS,” said Houston ISD parent Travis McGee. “The community should have been able to speak.”
McGee and other community members were also upset that the TEA commissioner himself didn’t show up to the meeting.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, took the podium once the TEA could not take control of the meeting. She said she believes Morath has the ability to not take over the district and instead continue monitoring improvement within the schools.
“The board of managers will not be responsive to teachers, parents or children. I do want the school board to be responsive to you,” she told the audience.
The TEA, which grades schools and districts each year based on their academic achievement, gave Wheatley a grade of F in 2019. Last year, Wheatley got a C, and Houston ISD as a whole received a B. In the last 19 months, HISD has made positive strides reducing the number of its campuses with a D or F rating from 50 to 10. Ninety-four percent of HISD schools now earn a grade of A, B or C.
While the accountability grade improved, Morath said that doesn’t change the fact that the school received failing grades in its accountability rating for five consecutive years — enough to mandate that the agency intervene.
“There are still systemic challenges in Houston,” he previously told the Tribune. “We are still required to act and so we are acting.”
McGee, whose children attend an HISD high school, said the meeting was “very disrespectful” to community members. People wanted to express their concerns and frustrations directly to TEA officials through a microphone on a podium regarding the board of managers change, rather than hear about the application process, he said.
“The board of managers is going to be a bunch of puppets,” McGee said. “Our school district ain’t perfect, but I doubt the state of Texas gonna do any better.”
Arnetta Murray, a Houston ISD teacher, said the TEA has not listened to the community about more pressing concerns. If they did, they would know the district has a bus driver shortage and teachers are stressed over standardized testing.
“I don’t care about no board of managers,” she said. “I care about our students and I care about the teachers.”
The agency will host three more community meetings this month.