Houston Chronicle

HISD conceding legal battle to TEA

Trustees say ending suit is in best interest of students and staff, call for talks on takeover

- By Anna Bauman and Rebecca Carballo

The Houston Independen­t School District board has ended its lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency, effectivel­y waving the white flag in its legal fight against an attempted state takeover. The motion passed Thursday night with support of eight of the nine trustees following a brief closed session. Trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who represents District II that houses Wheatley High, voted against the measure.

Superinten­dent Millard House II said he does not know what the board’s decision will mean for the state’s takeover effort because that agency has made no announceme­nt or decision.

“That was a board decision in an effort to get to the table to have conversati­ons with TEA,” he said in an interview following the meeting. “There hasn’t been conversati­on.”

Dani Hernandez, board president, said the board remains committed to students and student outcomes.

“We are now at the point where it is time for us to move forward,” she said during the meeting. “It is in our students’ and our employees’ best interest for us to end this lawsuit between HISD and TEA and navigate and build relationsh­ips between all the parties . ... We look forward to bringing both organizati­ons to the table soon for the best interest of children.”

The district is withdrawin­g from the lawsuit to “end further expenditur­e of district resources, as there is no further legal recourse,” according to the motion.

“We finally lost at the Supreme Court and we don’t have any processes left to push our case,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos said through tears. “This battle is over, but our fight for democracy and public education will never be over. It is time for the commu

nity to come together by uniting our voices at the Legislatur­e and our neighborho­od schools and at the ballot box.”

In theory the district could file for a rehearing and continue the legal battle. HISD did request more time to file a motion for a rehearing in late January, but never ended up following through on it.

Given the Texas Supreme Court decision, the board’s decision to stop putting resources toward the lawsuit makes sense, said attorney Christophe­r L. Tritico, who has represente­d three Houston-area districts — North Forest, Beaumont and La Marque — in takeover hearings.

“A rehearing is one in a million, and it’s just not worth it. I think they are making a prudent decision in public funds at this point in recognizin­g the decision is over,” Tritico said. “It doesn’t necessaril­y mean that they aren’t conceding that they think the commission­er is right, they just don’t have any legal maneuverin­g.”

The district had been on high alert for a takeover since 2017. The state seemed to be on the pathway to takeover in 2019 after allegation­s of trustee misconduct and after Phillis Wheatley High School received failing accountabi­lity grades for seven straight years. But those efforts were thwarted.

In 2020, HISD sued, and a Travis County district judge provided the district some relief by granting a temporary injunction, bringing the Texas Education Agency’s plan to a halt. An appeals court upheld the injunction, but the TEA took the case to the Texas Supreme Court.

The justices ultimately sided with the state, granting it the authority to appoint a board of managers and replace the superinten­dent.

Blueford-Daniels said she believes the district still had some “fight” left and the work “has not been in vain.”

“I voted against it because I believe in fight, fight, fight,” Blueford-Daniels said. “We were doing a good job moving the needle. The board was moving in the right direction, and all of this has caused such discord.”

But she conceded that it would cost an “exorbitant” amount of money, which she believes is better spent toward educating HISD students, she said.

The board’s decision helps put the focus “back on what matters: the students, staff, and families of HISD,” TEA Commission­er Mike Morath wrote in a statement.

“TEA remains committed to ensuring students in Houston receive a high-quality education that prepares them for success and will pursue a path forward that accomplish­es that objective,” Morath wrote. “Until the Agency makes any formal decision, I’m confident Superinten­dent House and the Board will continue their work to help the students of Houston.”

State Sen. Carol Alvarado is holding out hope that the TEA interventi­on can be put to a stop. She filed legislatio­n that would amend the current law, and give the commission­er more discretion on how to intervene and provide other options beyond appointing a board of managers.

“If you look at what was going on back in 2015, many of us (Democrats) voted for that. It was an incentive for HISD to get on the ball and improve things, and they did,” Alvarado said over the phone. “They have an overall grade of B, and Wheatley is no longer failing. It’s a different situation now.”

However, if the legislatio­n were to pass, it wouldn’t go into effect until September. As of now, all indicators show that a takeover is likely.

Michelle Williams, a math teacher at Forest Brook Middle School, sat in the audience with other community advocates and leaders.

“Our schools are going to suffer and teachers are going to leave,” she said about the takeover. “It’s just a sad day. I’m holding out hope that our community will come together.”

 ?? Joseph Bui/Contributo­r ?? Houston ISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos cries during a board meeting Thursday when she said the legal battle with TEA has ended but the fight for public education will never be over.
Joseph Bui/Contributo­r Houston ISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos cries during a board meeting Thursday when she said the legal battle with TEA has ended but the fight for public education will never be over.

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