By María Méndez, The Texas Tribune
“What happens when Texas takes over a school district like Houston ISD” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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By next school year, the Houston Independent School District will have new leaders, but little is known yet about what exactly this will mean for students, staff and parents in the district.
State Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday that he will appoint a board of managers to temporarily replace the locally elected Houston ISD board of trustees. This comes after years of scrutiny of the district by the Texas Education Agency because of repeated low student performance at Phillis Wheatley High School and allegations of misconduct by previous trustees.
The board of managers would be in charge of the school board’s duties, which include approving a school budget and tax rate and setting district policies in areas like school safety and instruction, as allowed under state and federal laws.
School boards also typically hire superintendents to oversee everyday operations in their school districts. Morath said in a letter to Houston school district officials that he would also appoint a superintendent.
The current Houston school board members and Superintendent Millard House II will remain in power until Morath makes the appointments, expected to happen after June 1.
It’s not the first time the state’s education agency has taken over a school district, but it would be the largest district the agency has taken over since 2000. Here’s what a takeover means for Texas school districts.
When do takeovers happen?
The TEA oversees roughly 1,200 school districts and grades them on academic performance, largely based on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, known as STAAR tests. Under state law, the state education commissioner can intervene in the leadership of school districts if they are underperforming.
For example, the commissioner can appoint a conservator to oversee a district or campus, but the district’s school board and superintendent could remain in place.
The commissioner can also suspend and temporarily replace a school district’s elected leaders with a board of managers if a district fails to meet accreditation, academic performance or financial standards.
Under a 2015 state law, if a school district has a campus with a failing grade for five consecutive school years, the commissioner is required to appoint a board of managers or close the campus. Phillis Wheatley High School received failing grades from 2010-19, although Wheatley and the district have improved since then.
Houston Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton, who co-authored the law and is a Wheatley alum, has defended the law, arguing that there should be consequences when a school district fails students multiple times.
The commissioner can also appoint a board of managers in a school district that has been under a conservator for two years. Houston ISD has had a conservator since 2016 to oversee district-level support for Kashmere High School, another longtime underperforming school.
The TEA pointed to these statutes and the consistent academic underperformance at two of Houston’s high schools as grounds to appoint a board of managers.
When the TEA first tried to take over Houston ISD in 2019, the district sued to stop the agency, but the Texas Supreme Court sided with the TEA this January.
How does a takeover work?
When the TEA takes over, the power of the school board is suspended and given to a state-appointed board of managers. In a job description posted online related to Houston ISD, the TEA outlined that the essential job functions for the nine managers replacing the school board would include using data and input from stakeholders to “monitor and support” the superintendent.
The current school board members can continue serving in an advisory capacity, like other community members, but they would have to be reelected to remain trustees. Once the commissioner decides to end the appointment of the board of managers, the most recently elected school board members will be phased into governing the school district.
How long do takeovers last?
The TEA commissioner can decide to remove a board of managers if the failing campus receives a passing grade for two consecutive years, according to state law.
If the campus is still failing, the commissioner can extend the placement or consult with the community to decide whether to place a new board of managers, state law says. Once it is determined that the campus or district has met standards, the commissioner can announce a transition timeline. During that transition, the trustees are expected to be phased back into power, according to a timeline in a TEA slideshow to lawmakers about the Houston ISD takeover.
On average, boards of managers have been placed for two to six years, said Jake Kobersky, a TEA spokesperson.
Who can be on a board of managers?
State law says the majority of the board of managers must be residents of the school district.
The TEA’s jobs description said appointed managers would have to be eligible voters within district boundaries. It also outlined that the board should include some members from across the district, district parents, people with leadership experience, and people with backgrounds in fields such as social work, psychology, business, finance or law.
The TEA is accepting applications for managers for Houston ISD until April 6, according to its website.
What does a takeover mean for the Houston school district?
It is still unclear what exactly this will mean for students, parents and staff of Houston ISD. Like a school board, decisions about the district’s budget, staffing and instruction will largely be left up to the appointed board of managers.
The TEA will not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the district, but the commissioner can replace a manager if there are issues, such as a resignation or malfeasance.
The TEA announced four information sessions about the takeover process for Houston ISD members in March. You can find details here.
The TEA has replaced a district’s school board and superintendent with a board of managers seven times since 2000. It still manages Marlin ISD, outside of Waco, and Shepherd ISD, east of Conroe. The TEA has returned oversight of five other districts to local control. The agency has also annexed four districts to neighboring ones due to chronically low accountability ratings and financial struggles.
Why are takeovers controversial?
Critics of the TEA’s move worry about possible layoffs or turnover given a history of dramatic changes during some state takeovers in the U.S.
A state takeover of a school district often can mean new administrative and school leaders are put in place, said Van Schoales, a senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center, a nonpartisan research nonprofit.
Some takeovers in Texas have also led to big staffing changes. When North Forest ISD was annexed to Houston ISD after a 2008 takeover, only 25 of its roughly 350 teachers were hired by Houston ISD, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Schoales said teachers are probably less likely to be affected by personnel changes right now because of teacher shortages.
“One of the main concerns is this is not representative of the community,” said Chloe Sikes, the deputy director of policy for the Intercultural Development Research Association. “What are then the mechanisms for actual community accountability?”
Interventions from takeovers often don’t work well without buy-in from the community, Schoales said.
“It requires not just a change in governance but, you know, folks that really understand what’s needed on the ground and connections to that community,” he said.
In its job posting, the TEA listed proactively creating opportunities “to authentically engage community members” as part of the job. The board of managers is also required to hold public meetings under the Texas Open Meetings Act.
What is the success record of takeovers?
Overall, the success of takeovers in the U.S. is a “mixed bag,” Schoales said. Some research has found student academic improvement after the takeover of districts, including in New Orleans and Lawrence, Massachusetts.
In Texas, the TEA has placed boards of managers in seven school districts since 2000, including El Paso ISD and Beaumont ISD and other smaller districts.
In all districts but Beaumont ISD, academic performance on state standardized tests improved, according to data presented by the TEA from before and after the appointment of the boards of managers. But it’s unclear how these academic gains compare with those across other school districts in the state.
And a takeover of a school district the size of Houston – almost 200,000 students – is a big undertaking, Schoales said.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/16/tea-hisd-takeover-texas-houston-schools/.
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