North Forest wins 2 week stay – State TEA must stop annexation until June 13 hearing

North Forest ISD continued its battle last week to remain open and not be annexed by Houston ISD, as ordered by the state Education Agency. In the latest round of events, Judge Jon Wisser of the state district court in Travis County issued a TRO, or Temporary Restraining Order, against Education Commissioner Michael Williams and his deputy, Lizzette Reynolds. This TRO said that the TEA must cease all annexation actions until a court hearing in 14 days, on June 13.

In previous actions, NFISD attorney Chris Tritico lost one round of arguments with the SOAH, or State Office of Administrative Hearings, who issued a ruling on Friday, May 24 affirming the actions of the TEA, or Texas Education Agency, in ordering closure of the North Forest District and annexation by the Houston ISD.

North Forest responded to this ruling with a statement from the Superintendent Edna Forté’s office, saying “although the district was unsuccessful, …we continue to hope for a positive outcome. We have filed an appeal with the U.S. Department of Justice.”

However, Tritico is known for his willingness to fight for a cause, and by Tuesday of last week, he had received word that the federal Department of Justice, which must rule on the TEA actions in conformity to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, wanted additional information from TEA on how HISD would redraw its boundaries to encompass North Forest students. Tritico and North Forest ISD interpreted this as a positive sign in their battle to remain open. HISD, through its attorney David Thompson, could not give a definitive answer, saying the drawing of boundaries was premature.

In an interview at the beginning of the week, Commissioner Williams indicated that the annexation was proceeding toward the scheduled closure and merger on July 1st. Now it remains to be seen, whether the TRO will have an effect on this date. TEA spokesperson Debra Ratcliffe indicated that the agency was surprised at the request from DOJ, indicating that in previous cases where they closed a district, no additional information was requested.

It seems that the Houston ISD is proceeding with preparations for the annexation. In a prepared statement, spokesperson Jason Spencer said “The Houston ISD is not a party to the litigation involving the North Forest ISD and the Texas Education Agency. HISD will continue to plan and prepare to implement Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams’ order to annex North Forest effective July 1, unless that decision is reversed by a court of law.”

In fact, HISD has been holding job fairs and information meetings, in preparation for hiring and staffing the schools it will use to serve North Forest. However, HISD superintendent Terry Grier has only promised to keep open North Forest High School, and has not given any indication what other plans he has for existing schools.

Commenting on the TRO, attorney Tritico said “There have been illegal actions by the Commissioner and his appointees throughout this process. The law does not permit the government to manipulate the law to accomplish its own ends. Today is a major step in ensuring the continuation of the North Forest School District.”

Tritico pointed out that North Forest is a small community of 250,000 and merging it into Houston’s 3 million would dilute the voting strength of it’s minorities. It is this type of argument he feels will convince the DOJ to disallow the annexation.