(From L-R) Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune speaks with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during the Future of Urban Texas conference at the University of Houston on Friday, November 15, 2019. Photo by Heather Leighton

During a Texas Tribune conference Friday, Mayor Sylvester Turner said he was concerned with the state taking over the largest school district in Texas. 

"I am concerned it's being done at a time when many of the board members were on the ballot, so new people are coming on board and I still believe in an elected body. I'm very concerned as the direction in which we're going and making sure that the kids are the ones who actually benefit," Mayor Turner said during a discussion with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at The Future of Urban Texas conference Friday.

Despite four new trustees being elected to the nine-member board on Election Day, the next day Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced his plans to temporarily strip power from the elected trustee's and install an appointed board due to three reasons: chronically low academic performance at Wheatly High School. a state investigation that substantiated several allegations of misconduct by trustees and the continued presence of a state-appointed conservator monitoring the Houston Independent School District. 

Since then, the district's school board has filed a lawsuit that aims to stop the takeover. Houston Federation of Teachers, Houston ISD's largest teachers union, will decide whether to join that lawsuit by the end of the week. On Thursday, parents and residents stated their preference for their locally-elected board over a chosen one by the state. 

"I do have concerns about whether we're dealing with a good-faith partner. At this point, I have yet to be convinced," Mayor Turner said. "I do think it's important for parents and community leaders to ask the questions on the frontend. The state has an obligation to answer those questions before there's a dramatic change in the governing of HISD."

The Houston mayor said both the state and the local board must share the responsibility of the shortcomings. Turner's main concern is the education of 215,000 children under the care of the board and that "not a political solution, but the best solution" is pursued.

"If you're going to come in and put in a board of managers that can be there for five years, that people are going to hold you to a high bar from the very beginning, as I am because I have yet to be convinced," he said. "I want to know who you're talking about putting there. Who are they? And will they be reflective of a diverse student body and will the primary interest be for the kids and not the business of HISD?"

TEA officials have said an appointed board likely would not be seated until March 2020 at the earliest and elected trustees likely would regain their power within two to five years.

"There is a problem that needs fixing," he said. "Now what I will do and I will commend HISD is that a few years ago you had 13 schools that were Improvement Required status. Now that's down to just one. And in the last rating system, HISD scored an 88 out of 100."

Wheatley High School, which has produced some of the city's most prominent black alumni, is the lone HISD school with the Improvement Required status. In August, the school received its seventh consecutive failing grade for poor academic performance, according to the TEA. But Smith and Turner both alluded to funding being the primary source of failure in school systems. 

"You can't be both the arsonist and the firefighter," Smith said, requoting State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-Houston). "The state created the problem and then all of a sudden sweeps in and says, 'Look, we've got a big solution.' Well, it's a solution to the problem, which serial underfunding of public education has been created."

TEA officials didn't immediately respond for comment. 

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