New Houston school board criticized for limiting public access at meeting
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Community members hoping to have their voices heard in front of the new Houston ISD board at a public meeting Thursday were instead left frustrated by new restrictions that barred some from entering the boardroom.
HISD’s appointed board restricted access to the main boardroom and sent dozens of members of the public to an overflow area, a departure from the district’s traditional practice. The move to limit boardroom access followed a contentious meeting last week, during which some members of the public heckled and booed board members.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath replaced HISD’s elected trustees on June 1 with the appointed board, part of sweeping sanctions against the district primarily for failing to raise student achievement at Wheatley High School.
On Thursday, 35 chairs for the public and new Superintendent Mike Miles’ cabinet lined half of the boardroom. The other half, typically also lined with chairs for attendees, was instead occupied by tables arranged for the board to conduct a budget workshop.
Minutes before the meeting began at 5:30 p.m., protesters gathered outside the boardroom doors, chanting “let us in” as police officers and HISD officials guarded the doors. HISD police handcuffed one man, a district press official said, but they could not confirm if he will face charges.
The remaining attendees unable to fit inside the boardroom were pointed to a separate overflow room down the hall, where over 100 chairs faced a screen playing a livestream of the meeting.
HISD officials allowed all registered public speakers to address the board, though a majority had to give their one-minute remarks in the separate overflow room. Their comments were broadcast live to the board members.
Attendee Kendra Yarbrough-Camarena, who gave her comments from the overflow room, said she was disappointed and felt “isolated.”
“Unfortunately, I had this whole great thing to say, and then I got put in this room where I can’t look at you in the face and actually say the things that I need to say,” Yarbrough-Camarena said during her public comment.
Board President Audrey Momanaee called their typical seating arrangement “restrictive” and said sitting as a group on the floor of the boardroom was the “most effective manner” to conduct the workshop. The board typically sits on an elevated platform with all nine members facing the crowd.
Board members will continually consider different options to have productive meetings, Momanaee said.
Miles, who joined the meeting nearly an hour after its start, was not present for public comment. Miles said he does not attend the meeting until public comment is over because it’s a “good way for the focus to be on the board.”
Miles said there’s “plenty of opportunity” to meet him face-to-face, outside of public comment. He estimated he has spoken to more than 3,000 teachers, principals, parents and legislators.
“I am answering lots of questions, I’ll face any music,” Miles said. “Even today, I went outside with a small group who … had some concerns and expressed those concerns in front of the building.”
Attendee Stephan Hester was signed up to speak at the meeting but said he was escorted out of the building by police for protesting outside the boardroom doors.
“How are you gonna make the second meeting private?” Hester said. “That just shows you the future of this district and shows you what is coming in next.”
Critics of the state’s intervention have argued that the newly-appointed board does not represent HISD voters and will implement policies damaging to the district.
Miles has announced plans for major changes in the district, including the restructuring of 28 campuses and imminent cuts to HISD’s central administration. Morath and Miles have said significant changes are needed to address years of underwhelming student achievement in the district, particularly in some schools serving students from low-income families.
HISD trustees have struggled at times in the past to maintain orderly meetings, particularly ahead of controversial votes.
In 2018, HISD police arrested two women who refused to leave the boardroom when then-board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones ordered it cleared due to repeated disruptions by the audience. Charges were dropped the next day.
Go behind the headlines with newly announced speakers at the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23. Join them to get their take on what’s next for Texas and the nation.