In a sudden twist in the saga of Houston Independent School District (HISD), Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday morning he has heard from multiple sources that the state intends to take over the district — possibly as early as next week.
“The state is overreaching on this issue,” Turner said during Wednesday morning’s City Council meeting. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) will reportedly move to completely replace the leadership of the entire district, the state’s largest.
But reportedly the TEA maintains that it has not made a decision, according to a spokesperson. The agency’s only comment remains the same as it was in January — “TEA continues to review the Supreme Court’s decision in order to determine next steps that best support the students, teachers, parents, and school community of the Houston Independent School District.”
“I’m talking to legislators, and what they’re saying to me is that the state intends to take over the district, replacing the entire board, replacing the superintendent, and I find that totally alarming,” said Turner, who spent two decades as a state representative.
Turner added “HISD has 273 schools. How do you come in and take over the largest school district in Texas and do it successfully?”
On Tuesday, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath addressed the House Public Education Committee and was asked about the timeline for a potential takeover by state Rep. Dr. Alma Allen, D-Houston, who is also a former HISD school administrator.
“I’m hearing the streets have it,” Allen said. “And I have to tell you what the streets have. It is going to be March 6th … And there are already persons that have been asked to take over the position of superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, and that it is going to take place by media, and that is going to take place on March 6th. Do you have any idea?”
“Yeah, the streets — streets say a lot,” Morath responded. “So all I would say is we’re still waiting to evaluate the Supreme Court’s ruling — which has not yet been finalized — to try to discern then what our next required action is under state law. Of course, what we are going to do is going to be a mandatory action under state law, not a discretionary action.”
The state takeover efforts first began in 2019 when Morath began to investigate allegations of trustee misconduct and after Phillis Wheatley High School received failing accountability grades.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo reacted to the comments on Houston Public Media’s Houston Matters, drawing a parallel between the takeover of Houston ISD and the battle between the state and county governments over election management.
“In Harris County, we are larger than 25 states in population,” she said. “So imagine if President Biden were to say, ‘I’m going to take over the elections, and I’m going to take over the education, I’m going to take over this and that in 25 American states.”
In 2020, HISD sued the TEA over its proposed plan to take over the district, and while an appeals court upheld the injunction, the TEA took the case to the Texas Supreme Court — but in January, the court ruled that the TEA can continue its plan to remediate underperforming high schools in HISD.
The news from Austin this week seems to counter recent reports that Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II had been working successfully with Morath to try to solve the district’s problems. And recent grades of the district’s schools that had underperformed are now on the rise, as Wheatley High reached a grade of B from the TEA.
The justices heard arguments from both TEA and HISD in October over whether Morath had the authority to appoint a board of managers to replace elected Houston school board members. A bipartisan law, enacted in September 2021, known as Senate Bill 1365, gives the education commissioner the authority to make “conservator appointments” for a minimum term of at least two years.
According to the Houston Chronicle, HISD has a right to due process hearings, per state law — but that hearing will be held by the TEA — making it difficult for HISD schools to get a favorable ruling.
However, observers were unclear as to what might happen moving forward after the January ruling due to the complexity of such an action — legal, political, and otherwise — until this week.
Rice Political Science Professor Robert Stein recently noted that the debt that the TEA would likely inherit is part of what would undoubtedly be the large cost of upgrading the infrastructure of some of the district’s older schools, the possible closing of some schools, and general budget concerns going forward.
HISD debt is believed to be $10-$12 million and could rise as high as $20 million depending on what actions are taken by the TEA.
Stein also noted that any action by Morath and the TEA could incur a firestorm of criticism and activism from the minority community and Democratic voters — especially in light of the upcoming Houston mayoral election this November — and the move could prove to be trouble for GOP candidates for the office.
Historically, state takeover efforts have targeted predominantly Black districts, including Kendleton ISD, North Forest ISD, La Marque ISD, and Beaumont ISD. So the ruling that cleared the way for the TEA takeover — made by an all-white court composed of six men and three women — could come back to haunt those candidates that favor the decision.