Democratic Texas State Rep. Ron Reynolds, center, together with fellow Texas legislators, speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in Washington.
Democratic Texas State Rep. Ron Reynolds, center, together with fellow Texas legislators, speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in Washington. Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

In the last few months, Houstonians have hit the pavements in different parts of the city protesting against the Texas Education Agency’s takeover against Houston Independent School District.

With less than a month left until the newly appointed board of managers controls the district, community activists, organizations, parents, educators, and local officials haven’t stopped the fight.

Democratic state lawmakers filed Senate Bill 1662, authored by state senators Carol Alvarado, Borris Miles, and John Whitemire, to make it so that TEA is not required to close a school or replace the elected school board. The bill also gives the agency other options including a public notice to the district trustees of deficiency, organizing hearings with board members, ordering the district to create a student improvement plan, and appointing a conservator and agency monitor while keeping the HISD trustees in place. Rep. Alma Allen filed a companion legislation in the Texas House.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee called for a federal government to intervene as she along with 26 other members of Congress wrote to President Joe Biden and the Department of Education secretary calling the takeover a “violation of the civil right of the students of HISD.”

The ACLU of Texas, the NAACP and other groups filed a federal complaint on behalf of several parents against the TEA because of its plans to remove the elected HISD board of trustees, claiming it takes away the rights of voters who choose their school officials.

The Defender followed up with Rep. Ron Reynolds to get an update on the progress of legal actions against the agency.

Defender: Have you met with the TEA since your last meeting with them discussing the community’s concerns over the takeover?

Reynolds: The communication has been somewhat limited. But what I can tell you is that, they made it plain and clear that they were moving forward with everything unless there was some action that stopped them. In other words, there was an injunction from the court. They (are) proceeding forward with the June 1 deadline to assemble and install the board of managers that the TEA Commissioner Mike Morath would basically select and then they’re going to bring in a new superintendent as well. Those things are still on course, because there’s no legislative actions that would stop it. We had legislation in the house… in the senate that is unfortunately not going anywhere. The only other action is legal action and (that) has not surfaced to bear any fruit with respects to an injunction. As we have this conversation today, there’s been no court intervention to halt the takeover of HISD. Unless something miraculously happens. It looks as though they will complete the takeover by June 1.

Defender: Local officials are often blamed for giving a lot of lip service and under delivering. Explain to our audience the challenges of passing a piece of legislature.

Reynolds: Basically you would have to have a court, a judge file a lawsuit stating that the TEA doesn’t have authority based on XYZ. You would (need) to have legal reasoning, not just, “Oh, we don’t think it’s fair. We don’t think it’s right.” So, with the scenario as I understood, they were trying to pursue is that there was a violation of some of the civil rights. In other words, it was a civil rights complaint and this would be federal law. There would be more of a likelihood of success if you have the United States Department of Justice intervening on behalf of the students or the parents based on a specific violation.

Defender: How about the Congresswoman Sheila Jackson’s call for Federal Government intervention?

Reynolds: I know Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee had articulated that she was going to have the Assistant Secretary of Education with the Civil Rights division look into it. I know in fact; she did make that call because it happened in my office here at the Capitol after we originally met with TEA Commissioner Mike Morath. I have not seen the Department of Justice in the Biden administration intervene. So, that means that it would be left to private citizens. A parent has standing to bring a lawsuit on behalf of their child. I haven’t seen anything that would give me reason to believe that this is imminent. There is still time left on the clock, but its ticking.

If it’s the Justice Department, they pick up the tab, but if it’s a private citizen, then they have to pay for these attorney fees. This is a very specialized area. This isn’t like an attorney who handles criminal defense and personal injury cases. This is a very specialized course of action that not everyone does. The kind of expense would be very costly. At the meeting at Bishop Dixon’s Church, Dominque Calhoun, who is president-elect of the National Bar Association was supposed to be working on this matter with another attorney Geneva Taylor I believe is her name. I have not seen anything, filed or any ruling in the court. So, it’s my belief that either they have run into a roadblock or they don’t intend to pursue it.

Let’s say there was no legislation that permitted the TEA to do this and they did it, it would be clear. Black and white. It is my understanding that it would be difficult for a court to come in and overturn it. If you recall, HISD trustees had a lawsuit and they decided to drop it.

Defender: Is there anything else about the legal process that our audience should know?

Reynolds: It would be my hope that those parents stay engaged and continue to make their voices heard. Most importantly, the last part is to vote. Elections matter. Elections have consequences. So many people simply don’t vote in school board elections. Also, TEA has never taken over a district a fraction of the size of HISD. This is going to be like a test project and I hate that our kids are part of some a pilot program. I appreciate the Defender Network for this engagement. I hope that you all continue to periodically do progress reports to see where we are and whenever that next assessment. We need to see what kind of report card TEA gets.

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Laura OnyenehoEducation Reporter

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...