Editor's note: This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

A long-running legal battle between Houston ISD and the state of Texas has come to an end.

HISD's nearly 200,000 students as well as their parents, school administration and educators will return from their spring break next week with a new assignment to prepare for: the Texas Education Agency's June takeover of the school district.

In a March 15 letter to HISD board members, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath announced the agency will install state-appointed board managers in place of HISD’s elected school board officials.

“Houston ISD operates some of the highest performing schools in the state of Texas. But district procedures have also allowed it to operate schools where the support provided to students is not adequate," Morath stated in the letter. "While the current board of trustees has made progress, systemic problems in Houston ISD continue to impact district students."

Schools will remain open while HISD board members review the TEA’s takeover notice to determine their next steps.

“The district’s top priority is, and will continue to be, student outcomes," the HISD board members said in a statement. "The board hopes that TEA has a clear and transparent process for this announced transition that is commented to the community and the district.”

Morath also announced the following measures and procedures that will affect HISD:
  • Suspending powers of current HISD board of trustees members
  • Initiating an open call for Houstonians who are interested in serving on the TEA’s new board of managers
  • Allowing until June 1 for the agency to recruit, select and train the new board managers
  • State-appointed board managers will oversee the district’s efforts to address concerns the state agency considered high-priority, including unacceptable school performance ratings for five consecutive years; the district’s approach to supporting students with disabilities; enacting board conduct that is consistent with high-performing teams; and provide strategies for long-term improvement.
A defining factor in the state takeover could be placed on the passing of Senate Bill 1365 during the 2021 legislative session, which was authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. The bill amended the laws dictating when the TEA has the authority to take over a school district and appoint its own board of managers. He said he strongly supports Morath's decision.

“As the principle author of SB 1365, which restored the A-F accountability system in the 87th Legislative Session, the Commissioner could have closed Wheatley High School or installed a Board of Managers. Commissioner Morath made the right decision by choosing to install a Board of Managers for the future of the students, families, and staff of HISD,” Bettencourt said in a statement.

History of the takeover

The TEA originally notified HISD in November 2019 that it planned to lower the district’s accredited status and appoint a board of managers in a report that argued the elected school board demonstrated the inability to appropriately govern. The report alleged that several board members violated a state open meetings law by having conversations about an ongoing superintendent search without notifying the public.

A trial court judge granted HISD an injunction in January 2020, but it was upheld by an appellate court in February 2021, at which time the TEA appealed the decision to the Texas Supreme Court.

When SB 1365 was signed into law, it clarified that the TEA could appoint a board of managers when a campus has unacceptable ratings for five consecutive school years, and that a year where no performance rating is given is not considered a break in the consecutive streak. SB 1365 also granted the TEA more power in defining the role of a campus-level conservator, one of whom was previously appointed to oversee HISD’s Kashmere High School.

In October, TEA lawyers argued to the Texas Supreme Court that SB 1365 gave them authority to move forward with the takeover, an argument that prevailed in getting the case sent back to trial court.

Writing for the court, Justice Jane Bland issued an opinion Jan. 13 that Morath has the authority to appoint a board of managers for HISD under the Texas Education Code.With the TEA takeover just months away, Ovidia Molina, president of Austin-based Texas State Teachers Association, said in a March 15 statement that it is an injustice to HISD students and educators at time when the locally elected board, its administrators and teachers have been scoring marked improvements in student progress.

“It is important for these parents and taxpayers to remain in control of their students’ educations through their ability to keep electing school board members who will remain accountable to them,” Molina said. “They will lose that control when their elected board members are replaced with board members handpicked by the unelected state education commissioner.”

Educators' future

Sherrie Matula, 71, comes from a long family line of Texas educators who have been teaching in the state since the 1920s. Matula has worked in 28 schools within HISD as an educational consultant, and on numerous leadership roles within surrounding Texas school districts, such as Clear Creek ISD.

One of her stops included teaching at El Paso ISD, which the TEA took over in 2012 after investigations into a cheating scandal. The school board was replaced by a board of managers by 2013.

Even though she retired in 2006, she was recently summoned to assist once again at an HISD school. When she commutes to her assigned school in Houston from Clear Lake, she said she always carries a particular item with her: sharpened school pencils.

Almost every day, one of her students does not have a pencil, she said. To get students comfortable with her, she appeals to them as her school-versioned grandmother, she said.

She said she knows that students want to learn, how much effort is put in by educators and that not every school has the financial resources as their neighboring schools.

“A lot of parents care about their kids and want them to do better. Everybody cares,” Matula said. “A lot of the educators felt like nobody cared about them and administrators were struggling to make sure their schools got whatever they needed.”

She said she does not see the state takeover affecting the elementary school students because they are too young, but she does see it taking a toll on teachers and administrators. It is a familiar sight to what she noticed happen to educators when TEA took over at North Forest ISD in 2011 and La Marque ISD in 2015.

“I can say this is a state-contrived takeover to try to put nails in the coffin of public education," Matula said. "A former board handed HISD to TEA on a silver platter.”

Shawn Arrajj contributed to this report.