A possible state takeover has been looming for Texas' largest school district, Houston ISD.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he'd spoken to Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath about rumors of the coming HISD intervention. According to Turner, during their conversation, Morath stated his department would give the school district two options in the matter: close Wheatley High School or be taken over completely.
"I decided to call the education commissioner, Morath, and just asked him point blank are any of these rumors true,” Turner said. "[Morath said] 'There are two options—I can close the school or take over the district. Which would you prefer?'"
Turner said the call ended with him encouraging Morath to go back to state lawmakers and reconsider their plans for the district.
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"If the state has the intention of taking over the largest school district in the state of Texas then the state should stand up and be forthright and transparent," Turner said. "Let people know who you're talking to and what the plans are."
Houston Independent School District Superintendent Millard House II gave the State of Schools address Friday after Turner addressed rumors in a city council meeting about the Texas Education Agency planning to take over the district as early as this week, saying the idea was “totally alarming.”
“While we are proud of the road that we traveled this far, there’s still much work left to do and much work left to focus on,” Millard said while addressing several district staff members and officials. “Uncertainty looms as it relates to potential intervention from TEA and I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know what the future will bring but here’s what I do know. Together, we have proven that public education can be transformative given the right supports, students are more capable of making the academic gains that we know they deserve to make.”
Millard continued, saying, “our students need you, they need all of you to be a critical partner over the road ahead for this school district.”
In a statement released Saturday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the potential takeover is “outrageous at best and a thinly-veiled threat to democracy at worst.”
“From election denial to serious proposals to take over elections in our county, attempts to limit our budget, and now this attempt to take over the eighth largest school district in the nation, the state is taking politics too far and working to limit democracy, and the established rights of our citizens,” Hidalgo said.
According to KPRC, in March 2022, House said that he understands the challenges, referring to fixing them as opportunities.
“It’s going to take some serious work. It’s going to take some bold decision-making. It’s going to take money as well, it’s going to take cuts at the same time, but it’s necessary,” House said.
House outlined those necessities in a strategic five-year plan for HISD. He also described the district’s relationship with the Texas Education Agency as positive – including the reaction to his five-year plan. But, earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Texas Education Agency potentially taking over the Houston Independent School District, which educates almost 200,000 students and has 276 school campuses.
State education officials said the district has been plagued by mismanagement and low academic performance at one of its high schools.
Morath first moved to take over the district’s school board in 2019 in response to allegations of misconduct by trustees and years of low performance at Phillis Wheatley High School.
Houston ISD sued and, in 2020, a Travis County district judge halted Morath’s plan by granting a temporary injunction. The injunction was upheld by an appeals court, but the TEA took the case to the state’s highest court, where the agency’s lawyers argued last year that a 2021 law — which went into effect after the case was first taken to court — allows for a state takeover.
The Texas Education Agency released the following statement to KPRC 2:
“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.”
KPRC and the Texas Tribune contributed to this story.