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Houston district backs off plan for takeover of 10 schools

JUAN A. LOZANO | 5/8/2018, 11:47 p.m.
Texas’ largest school district Wednesday backed off a plan to have a charter school operator take over 10 low-performing campuses ...
Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan Houston ISD

HOUSTON – Texas’ largest school district Wednesday backed off a plan to have a charter school operator take over 10 low-performing campuses following a contentious school board meeting during which two people were arrested, including one woman who was dragged away by officers.

The Houston school district had been considering turning the schools into charter campuses to avoid either shutting them down or a state takeover of the district’s school board. Many parents, teachers and others who say it would unfairly target students in majority African American and Hispanic neighborhoods have heavily criticized the proposal.

During a meeting Tuesday evening, the school board had planned to vote on whether to turn over operations of the 10 campuses to a Houston-based charter school operator.

But after nearly 30 individuals spoke out against the proposal, Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones abruptly declared a recess and ordered the room be cleared; saying those in attendance had been repeatedly disruptive. Many individuals at the meeting denied being disruptive and criticized the board for giving speakers only one minute apiece to talk about the proposal.

On videos posted on social media, officers could be seen dragging one woman away as they cleared the meeting room. Two women were arrested and spent the night in jail. Charges of criminal trespassing and resisting arrest were dropped Wednesday and they were released.

Kandice Webber, an activist with Black Lives Matter and one of the women arrested, criticized Skillern-Jones and the district for having her “drug out of a room for just voicing my absolute God-given rights as an American citizen.” Webber also denied she and others were disruptive during the meeting.

“It was us standing up for our children. It was us standing up for our communities,” she said.

In a statement Wednesday on Facebook, Skillern-Jones said she supports people’s right to protest.

“I’m saddened at this outcome [the arrests] as it was not at all what I wanted,” she said. “The one positive result from the chaos is that we did postpone a hasty decision, gained some additional perspective and broadened our considerations.”

On Wednesday, the school district issued a statement saying it was abandoning its proposal with the charter school provider and would instead meet with staff and parents from the 10 schools to discuss ongoing turnaround plans.

“We will continue to reinforce our commitment to helping students, staff and families ... continue the hard work they’ve done this year to transform their campuses and increase student achievement,” said Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

However, the future of the 10 underperforming schools remains in doubt due to a 2015 state law that would have the Texas Education Agency close campuses or replace a school board if a district has at least one school that has failed to meet the state’s education standards for five consecutive years. The schools in question haven’t met those standards for four consecutive years. The charter school proposal was part of an effort through a different state law that would have given the Houston school district a two-year reprieve from the accountability measures.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he plans to ask the Texas Education Agency if it can give the school district a one-year waiver from the accountability measures so that officials can work to bring the 10 campuses back to academic compliance.

He said he hopes the waiver will be granted, “especially in view of [Hurricane] Harvey and the affects Harvey has had on this district.”

Harvey disrupted student enrollment, closed several campuses and contributed to a $115 million budget shortfall. In addition to challenges from Harvey, the school district is also looking for a new superintendent after the previous one left for another job last month.