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The Houston ISD Board of Managers is scheduled to vote Thursday on several policy changes that would give more spending and decision-making power to new Superintendent Mike Miles, proposals that have sparked complaints about the district’s chief executive getting too much authority.

Miles is seeking to increase the amount of money his administration can spend without board approval from $100,000 to $1 million and scale back required meetings with union leadership. He is also proposing to give himself the ability to alter magnet programs at 85 campuses participating in his “New Education System” reforms and waive requirements on principal qualifications districtwide.

The proposed changes have already drawn community pushback and questions from at least one appointed board member. Miles’ administration scaled back a few of his policy recommendations this week, reducing his initial request for a $2 million purchase limit and specifying he cannot modify magnet programs at all schools in the district.

Miles argued the changes will help “streamline” the district and remove restrictions that are stopping him from steering the district more nimbly.

“One of the challenges of any administration are the constraints — artificial constraints — that are placed on them,” Miles said.

But critics counter that the proposed policies amount to an inappropriate consolidation of power.

Karen Calhoun, a fifth-grade social studies teacher at Askew Elementary School on HISD’s west side, doesn’t buy Miles’ argument. Calhoun said she has “not seen a precedent” for the changes Miles is proposing in her four decades working in HISD.

“Everything is about how he can control more of what’s already in place,” Calhoun said.

Several elected trustees, who Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath replaced with an appointed board in June amid sanctions against HISD, held a Tuesday evening meeting to discuss items on the board meeting agenda they see as “questionable.”

Elected trustees Myrna Guidry, Elizabeth Santos, Kathy Blueford-Daniels and Dani Hernandez ran through over a dozen proposed changes, including:

  • Raising the threshold at which the superintendent must bring workers’ compensation claims to the board from $5,000 to $100,000. The proposal specifies payouts will be summarized to the board in quarterly reports.
  • Stipulating that educators must provide a doctor’s note after three consecutive days out sick, rather than the current rule of seven work days.
  • Requiring quarterly, rather than monthly, meetings with union representatives to discuss educators’ working conditions.

“The common thread (is) less oversight,” Santos said. “It is not efficiency. It is Superintendent Miles, basically his manifesto to go through and do whatever the heck that he wants with our taxpayer dollars without any answering to any of the public.”

Miles, who previously spent seven years running a charter school network with less bureaucracy than that of a big-city public district, said he has found many of HISD’s internal processes to be more “messed up than I thought they would be.”

Teacher hiring and district purchases, he said, move slowly in the nearly 200,000-student district because they require approval at too many junctures.

The current $100,000 spending limit is above some comparably-sized districts’ caps and below others. Orange County Public Schools in the Orlando area, with over 208,700 students, imposes a $50,000 limit. Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools, with roughly 322,100 students, requires board permission over $500,000.

Appointed board member Ric Campo argued HISD should depend on high-quality audits of its expenditures rather than making the superintendent ask for permission for each purchase.

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    “The system today I think is fundamentally flawed, because of a massive amount of ‘Mother, may I’s,’” Campo said. “Mother, may I buy this toilet paper?”

    Campos continued: “We're not trying to usurp anybody. We're not trying to take power away from this board. Because we approve the budget. … We have internal controls that make sure that everything that is supposed to be going on is going on according to the way it should be.”

    Improper spending and corruption loom large over HISD’s recent history. In 2021, a federal grand jury indicted the former board president and chief operating officer in an alleged vendor-related kickback scheme that, according to prosecutors, cost the district millions of dollars.

    Miles assured that those problems will not repeat under his tenure, but some constituents, like Travis McGee, remain unconvinced. The father, who lives in the Sunnyside neighborhood and has twins going into 11th grade at Lamar High School, said he doesn’t trust Miles.

    In McGee’s eyes, the swift changes to HISD have come without meaningful engagement with families. He’s concerned that Miles is now angling for increased authority.

    “The superintendent should not have as much power as he is seeking,” McGee said.

    Students, parents and educators experience schools everyday — and I want to hear what you think. Please reach out to me at [email protected] with your questions and tips.

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    Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...