In an effort to save the state’s largest school district and stave off a takeover from the Texas Education Agency, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is sponsoring a new nonprofit that, if successful, would assume control of campuses within Houston Independent School District; this move would effectively make him the head of a midsize school district.

The Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston (CEEE) is the new nonprofit founded by former HISD board president and Turner’s current “education czar,” Juliet Stipeche. CEEE is putting together a plan to “collaborate” with HISD to assume control over the academics, finances, and general governance of 15 failing campuses. CEEE says it “would rely on state per-student funding and private contributions to the nonprofit.”

Turner claims that the city is not at all involved in the nonprofit, other than the group’s founder working in the administration and Turner appointing the entire board of the nonprofit. His first appointments were Corbin J. Robertson Jr., an energy executive; Trini Mendenhall, co-founder of Fiesta Mart and namesake of the Trini Mendenhall Community Center; and Stephanie D. Nellons-Paige, vice president of external affairs for Texas Central Railway. Turner plans to appoint six more board members. Stipeche is a nonvoting member.

“This is not a fight with HISD or anyone else. It is an offer of support for HISD to consider. The option is solely theirs to accept or reject,” Turner said in a statement. He said the model they selected for the plan is similar to the one used by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

It is worth noting that Villaraigosa came under fire for his forceful advocacy to bring the Los Angeles Unified School District under his office’s authority.

Turner placed an item on Wednesday’s council agenda that falls squarely in line with his effort to move on HISD.

He proposed a contract with Masterson Advisors not to exceed roughly $750,000. The contract, which is to advise the city’s finance department, lasts through June 30, 2019.

Masterson Advisors, which specializes in charter school districts and has Yes Prep as a client, consists of a number of former employees of Hilltop Securities, Inc., with which the city approved a contract in 2016. But last year, when Hilltop decided to drop nine charter schools clients to show support for traditional school districts, Drew Masterson left Hilltop to start Masterson Advisors.

The move by Turner occurring at the same time as the creation of his government-sponsored nonprofit signals that he does, in fact, want to create a charter district with the 15 campuses he’s offering to take over.

Turner’s slow creep towards HISD is not without opposition. Indivisible Houston has come out against the effort, as has HISD Parent Advocates. Representatives of both groups showed up at council’s weekly public session to voice concerns. There has even been mention of groups coming together to sue the TEA.

While HISD’s interim superintendent is making advancements, the tension between board members has all but ended any effort to truly reform the district. Consolidating schools under the purview of the mayor and the city will grow mayoral powers and muddy the water between Houston’s two major systems of government. But with HISD in a stalemate, options grow increasingly limited by the day. Former Mayor Annise Parker has called for the state to step in, though activists and the board seem adamantly opposed to that option.

Because state law permits state takeover of districts with campuses that continuously come under “improvement required” status, HISD has to submit a plan to TEA by February 4, 2019.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.