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Texas agency announces takeover of Houston schools  

Houston's mayor warned that the Texas Education Agency may have to find replacements for Houston ISD teachers who leave their classrooms in protest of the state takeover.

HOUSTON (CN) — Over the fierce objections of Houston leaders, the Texas Education Agency announced Wednesday it will appoint managers to oversee Houston Independent School District.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath sent a letter to HISD’s Superintendent Millard House and nine elected trustees Wednesday morning, explaining state law mandates intervention and he will name a new superintendent and board of managers for the 273-school district, the largest in the state and eighth-biggest in the nation, around June 1.

“To best support the students, teachers, parents and school community of Houston ISD, I am appointing a board of managers to the district as an intervention action required by law,” Morath wrote.

Appointed to lead TEA by Republican Governor Greg Abbott in 2015, Morath cited two legal grounds for the move: HISD’s Wheatley High School’s “seven consecutive unacceptable academic ratings for the schools years from 2011 through 2019” and because the TEA has assigned a conservator to HISD for more than two years to oversee its governance.

TEA rates the academic performance of all public school districts and campuses for each academic year.

While the agency gave HISD a B and Wheatley High School a C in its latest ratings for the 2021-2022 school year, Morath said Wheatley’s turnaround doesn’t override TEA’s legal requirement to step in and said the district has shown an “inability to improve student achievement at its low-performing campuses.”

The number of HISD campuses with a D or F rating has dropped from 50 to 10 since 2019, according to Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina.

“The Texas Education Agency’s takeover of Houston ISD is an injustice to HISD students and educators, especially at a time when the locally elected board, its administrators and its teachers have been scoring marked improvements in student progress,” Molina said in a statement.

But Morath did not base his decision on academics alone.

In his Wednesday letter to HISD officials, he cited an 33-count federal indictment from April 2022 against the district’s former chief operating officer, Brian Busby, charging him with steering HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to a vendor in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in remodeling of his home.

Five other current and former HISD officials have pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme, according to federal prosecutors.

Morath also said HISD is delaying providing special education services to disabled students in violation of state and federal law.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned that TEA may have to find replacements for HISD teachers who leave their classrooms in protest of the state takeover, and questioned why TEA made the announcement during spring break.

“You cannot run local government from Austin, Texas,” Turner said of the state capital and home of the TEA. “You cannot run school districts and cities and counties from Austin, Texas, you cannot. So this doesn’t even make good sense. And if the focus is about the kids then you tell me how it benefits the kids. And if it’s about parental engagement, TEA is selecting the board of managers and they are already in the process of doing that.”

“The state deserves an F in how they have handled this process up to this point,” the Democratic mayor continued. “There’s been no community engagement, no engagement with parents, no info provided to students. … The state deserves an F. So who takes them over? And who are they accountable to?”

U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat who has served in Congress since 1995, has asked President Joe Biden and the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the “discriminatory takeover.”

Of HISD’s 193,727 students, 61.9% are Hispanic and 22.1% are Black. And nearly 80% of the student body are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

The intervention has been looming since November 2019 when Morath announced TEA would take over HISD’s board due Wheatley High School's poor academic performance.  

HISD sued and obtained an injunction blocking TEA from stepping in.

The legal battle made its way to the Texas Supreme Court, which vacated the injunction and remanded the case to the trial court in January, determining a state law passed in 2021 gave Morath authority to appoint a board of managers for HISD.

HISD’s board voted on March 9 to end the litigation. Its president Dani Hernandez told local media it was in the best interests of HISD employees and students to end the lawsuit and said she looked forward to working with TEA for the best interest of students.

Morath’s decision to intervene takes any HISD hopes of a compromise off the table.

 But he said upon conclusion of the board of managers' appointment, when HISD has significantly improved with “no more multi-year failing campuses,” the most recently elected district board members will be reinstated to their positions.

HISD also has 15 days to ask the State Office of Administrative Hearings to review the TEA’s takeover decision.

Elizabeth Santos, who took office in January 2017, is the district's longest-serving trustee. She said the displacement will not cost her any pay because HISD board members do not receive salaries or health care coverage.

But she vowed she would not quietly accept the ouster and criticized the TEA's vague criteria for returning management of HISD to its elected board members.

"Now we go to the legislature and demand our democracy back. We go to the newspapers, to the airwaves, to social media, and tell everyone in our communities what they are trying to take from us," she said in an emailed statement. "Then we go to the ballot box, educated and angry, and we replace every opponent of democracy and public education with someone who represents our unified voice."

Her reference to public education opponents appears aimed at Governor Abbott and other state Republican leaders.

They are lobbying the Texas Legislature to pass school-choice legislation this year that would give parents $8,000 to $10,000 per child—roughly the amount Texas public schools receive annually to educate each student—to enroll them in private schools. Under one proposed bill, unspent funds would accumulate year to year and could be used to pay for higher education.

Abbott has been giving speeches at “Parent Empowerment Night” events at private Christian schools throughout the state, pushing his so-called education savings account program.

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