The state-appointed leaders of Houston’s public school system met Thursday night to discuss major changes to district policy that, if granted, would expand the superintendent’s power.

The Houston ISD Board of Managers (BOM) appears ready to grant Superintendent Mike Miles the ability to spend up to $2 million at a time without board approval, the power to change magnet programs and the authority to seek a waiver from the Texas Education Agency allowing the district to hire non-certified educators.

BOM member Ric Campo spoke in favor of changing current district policy, which requires the superintendent to seek board approval for any vendor contracts over $100,000.

“These policies handcuff the administration,” Campo argued. “The system today is fundamentally flawed because of the massive amount of ‘mother may Is.”

Other board members questioned the necessity of the $2 million threshold as well as the changes to district policy around magnet programs — the proposed language would grant Miles sweeping power to change magnet programs across the district, but some board managers requested language more targeted at the 85 schools facing reforms.

Board member Rolando Martinez asked Miles why the changes need to happen now.

“We do need to become more efficient as a district, but I also understand the concerns from the community,” said Martinez. “I do believe, at least in my opinion, that there’s a happy middle. … We’re ramping up, we’re getting started, and so from a board perspective, it’s about building trust and confidence in our processes.”

Miles argued the district would retain “checks and balances,” like financial audits and public spending reports.

He also provided an update on teacher vacancies. Miles said the district started the summer with about 900 positions to fill, and just over 200 remain. He did not provide an exact number of vacancies for non-teacher classroom positions, like teacher apprentices and learning coaches. He also requested board permission to seek certification waivers for 84 teachers and 72 assistant principals.

Prospective public school teachers in Texas have a couple routes to become certified. Some earn certification through traditional university education programs, while those with other degrees can complete alternative certification programs, which allow potential teachers to complete training and become certified at a faster pace.

Heath Morrison served as Montgomery ISD superintendent from 2020 until July, when he departed to lead Teachers of Tomorrow — a Houston-based alternative certification program. He said Houston ISD should prioritize getting non-certified teachers the training and classroom experience they need to be effective in the classroom, rather than ignoring the process entirely.

“I understand why a district like Houston right now is going the route that they are,” said Morrison. “Even if the route is to do something like what’s happening in districts all across the country, which is the route of the substitute, let’s do everything we can to give them some level of training, some level of support, because our students deserve that.”

The Texas Education Agency, which appointed the board and superintendent in June, would have to approve the waiver request for non-certified teachers.

“Certification is important because the state sets the standard for teachers’ ability to deliver instruction in a classroom,” said union president Jackie Anderson with the Houston Federation of Teachers. “If the state set those standards, why are you dropping those standards?”

Anderson criticized the potential expansion of the superintendent’s spending power as “a blank check and carte blanche to do any and everything he wants to do in the district.”

She also pushed back on a policy change that would remove the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) as the primary group the district consults with about working conditions and compensation.

“We went in dealing in good faith with the district to make sure that the employee voice was heard as well as making sure that the district knew they could rely on us,” said she. “Why open up the process to something, somebody that might not even be credible?”

HFT isn’t the only union in Houston ISD, but it obtained exclusive consultation through a vote among teachers. Basically, the administration must seek input from HFT on district policies.

The proposed change would remove that requirement and open the consultation process to other groups. But even Michelle Williams, union president of the smaller Houston Education Association, opposes the shift.

“The policy change would benefit (the Houston Education Association), but I believe in democracy,” said Williams. “It doesn’t make sense because the Board of Managers, they always tell us … they’re focused on student outcomes. Unions, and how we interact with the district and the employees, has nothing to deal with student outcomes.”

Miles said the current consultation policy acts as a roadblock to the administration making changes quickly.

The district’s state-appointed leadership is also considering changing the way teachers are evaluated and how they can appeal poor evaluations. The proposed educator evaluation model underpins the planned expansion of “pay-for-performance” to all Houston ISD educators in two years, when Miles’ plan calls for all teachers and principals to be paid based on student test scores and “instructional quality” rather than years of experience.

The board is expected to vote on the proposed policy changes next Thursday.

– Written by Dominic Walsh