HOUSTON – HISD’S Board of Trustees announced a sole finalist Friday for superintendent of schools on Friday, voting unanimously to select Millard House II for the district’s top job.
“There was a hard decision to make because we had so many qualified candidates but we had to do what had to do, so we came out with what we consider the best candidate,” said Dr. Patricia Allen, president, HISD Board of Trustees.
House currently serves as the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System’s Director of Schools in Clarksville, Tennessee. He was named TN Mid-Cumberland Superintendent of the Year two weeks ago.
“It is both an honor and a pleasure to be here at the helm of the HISD public school system,” House said, adding he’s ready to lead Texas’ largest school system.
“I think we have the tools in our tool belt to move beyond some of the drama, the issues that have been plagued by this system,” he said.
The Board of Trustees will officially vote on approving House as superintendent of schools following a 21-day period, which began Friday. During that time, officials said the greater HISD community will get to meet House.
If approved, House would take over a school district fraught with challenges: a court battle over a TEA takeover being one of them. House, aware of the challenges at hand, said his role is to unite.
“It’s a focus on showing that we have the capacity to do what’s necessary and I don’t see it as a fight. I see it as working together to show that that capacity is here,” he said.
House comes from a school district with roughly 36,000 students enrolled, according to the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System’s website. Compare that to HISD’s 209,772 employees.
When asked, House said he doesn’t consider that a problem. He said it’s a matter of scope: establishing successful programs he implemented in Tennessee to HISD while working to improve systems already in place.
Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said word of House’s selection came as a surprise. The union had pushed for the next superintendent to be an internal candidate. Nevertheless, Anderson said the union is eager to work with House.
Other local community groups had pushed for the next leader to come from within, as well, but trustees underscored House was the best candidate – internal or not.
“They [would] have to wonder if internal candidates applied or how many [applied] because there were over 60 applicants. We spent numerous hours, over 60 hours in the last couple of weeks just trying to go through this, choose the best person,” said Kathy Blueford-Daniels, HISD trustee, District II.
A member of the Clarksville Montgomery County School Board spoke highly of House.
“He was a visionary. He was easy to work with. He cared about the students. He was responsive to parents,” said Jimmie Garland, a 20 year veteran of the Clarksville-Montgomery County School Board.
Garland told KPRC 2 House works well with school boards and implemented programs that helped students enrolled in struggling schools.
“He always kept the board in knowledge with what he was doing,” Garland continued.
HISD’s Student Congress welcomed House with a tweet.
Jennifer Hamad, the speaker of the HISD Student Congress, called on the district’s next leader to take students’ viewpoints into stronger consideration when shaping policy.
“We want someone who is going to want to get the voices of the community, is going to value students parents, and teachers in those community organizations and is going to make those changes for us,” said Hamad, a senior at Heights High School.
Outgoing interim superintendent, Dr. Grenita Lathan, announced in March she would leave her post of three years for a superintendent job in Springfield, Missouri. HISD’s current board of trustees voted not to name Lathan the sole finalist during a meeting in November of 2020, prompting concern from community leaders who condemned the move.
Cesar Espinoza, executive director of FIEL Houston, said the organization did not play a role in the selection process. Espinoza said he expected the board of trustees to include more community input.
“Right now it’s during a pandemic, but we definitely could have had digital town halls to see what the community wanted,” he said, adding some community concerns don’t make their way to trustee meetings because of a lack of trust, access, and other concerns.
“When we have in the past talked to board members or superintendent they have said we don’t hear from communities and the answer is of course you don’t because oftentimes people don’t know the process to come speak at a board meeting,” Espinoza said.
Other community leaders pushed the importance of better collaboration from elected officials – including HISD’s trustee board. Johnny Mata, from the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, agreed. Mata said spats among previous HISD trustee boards have slowed progress.
“There has been too much special interest in some cases allegations of biases or racial discrimination within their own board,” Mata said.
Bishop James Dixon, president of the NAACP Houston Branch, said the board must work with the next superintendent.
“The board cannot afford to function as obstructionist if we’re going to get progress made productively on behalf of schools and children,” Dixon said.
The NAACP condemned HISD’s trustee board last November for failing to consider Dr. Lathan as a sole finalist for the job. Then, community leaders questioned whether racial bias affected the board’s decision-making.
Dixon said the next superintendent will inherit students upended by the coronavirus, with some facing cognitive challenges because of the setback. Dixon also addressed the overall improvement of schools in under-served communities -- a challenge for which he praised Dr. Lathan for prioritizing.
“We cannot afford to politicize education to the point that it becomes more about the adults who are in the seats of power than it is about the children who are in seats to learn,” Dixon continued.
But that fight over power is one that’s being fought in the courts and State Legislature, too, and it could change who has oversight over HISD.
“I never thought that a school board would let a campus go failing,” said State Representative Harold Dutton, referring to legislation, passed in 2015, that allows the TEA to take over a school district because of a failing school.
That’s the same law under which the TEA moved to takeover HISD’s Board of Trustees in Nov. 2019, inciting a legal fight between the TEA and the school district. However, a judge issued a temporary injunction in Jan. 2020, and the Texas Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in Dec. 2020.
S.B. 1365 would allow the TEA to circumvent the courts, assuming oversight of a failing district. Rep. Dutton, a Democrat, and chair of the Public Education Committee said the bill is crucial in order to help students enrolled in failing schools -- many of which are in his district of northeast Houston.
Dutton has received much scrutiny for his support of the largely Republican-backed bill but said the current system has failed students and must change.
“The number of children whose futures we are ruining because we don’t educate them has become a disaster in northeast Houston,” Dutton said.
S.B. 1365 was scheduled for a vote Thursday, but that didn’t happen because several revisions to the bill were made, including stripping language that included HISD, specifically.
Dutton told KPRC 2 the bill would be added to Sunday’s calendar for a vote.