HISD blasted for lead­er­ship swap

Crit­ics say board’s ac­tion could scare ap­pli­cants, lead to state over­sight

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Zach Des­part STAFF WRITER

The abrupt hir­ing of a new in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent by the Hous­ton In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict board on Thurs­day, its third leader this year, once again has cast doubt on board mem­bers’ abil­ity to man­age the largest school dis­trict in Texas and could scare away ap­pli­cants for the per­ma­nent su­per­in­ten­dent po­si­tion.

Trustees dur­ing a rau­cous meet­ing Thurs­day even­ing hired Abe­lardo Saave­dra, who led HISD from 2004 to 2009, to re­place Grenita Lathan as in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent on a 5-4 vote. Those who voted in fa­vor of re­plac­ing Lathan, who will re­turn to her po­si­tion as chief aca­demic of­fi­cer, said the in­terim post should be filled by some­one who is not seek­ing the per­ma­nent job.

Crit­ics said re­plac­ing Lathan with an­other short­term leader with­out seek­ing in­put from the com­mu­nity erodes pub­lic trust in the board and fur­ther desta­bi­lizes the dis­trict, which has seen many top lead­ers depart this year.

“(It’s) un­ac­cept­able, and I can’t con­done it,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said Fri­day. “You can’t gov­ern any in­sti­tu­tion, cer­tainly a large in­sti­tu­tion, by tak­ing sud­den, er­ratic ac­tions that don’t ap­pear to be well thought out.”

Texas South­ern Universi-

ty as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy Jay Aiyer said Thurs­day’s meet­ing, dur­ing which some res­i­dents shouted at the board and trustees ac­cused their col­leagues of racism, made HISD more vul­ner­a­ble to a state takeover.

Un­der Texas law, should any of four chron­i­cally low-per­form­ing HISD schools fail to meet state stan­dard next year, the Texas Ed­u­ca­tion Agency is re­quired to shut­ter those fail­ing schools or take over the dis­trict’s board of trustees. TEA Com­mis­sioner Mike Mo­rath ear­lier this year in­di­cated that clos­ing schools was not his pre­ferred choice. The TEA al­ready has a mon­i­tor ob­serv­ing the dis­trict.

“There’s a sense that what’s bro­ken is the board, not the schools,” Aiyer said. “What we’ve seen is a break­down of gov­er­nance in sev­eral meet­ings now.”

TEA spokes­woman Lau­ren Cal­la­han de­clined to com­ment on Saave­dra’s hir­ing, say­ing per­son­nel mat­ters are left up to lo­cal school boards. Saave­dra will start Mon­day.

The su­per­in­ten­dent carousel be­gan when Su­per­in­ten­dent Richard Car­ranza quit to lead New York City’s pub­lic school sys­tem in March af­ter less than two years in Hous­ton. He said trustees “didn’t have the stom­ach” to make the re­forms he had pro­posed. He also told the state-ap­pointed mon­i­tor ob­serv­ing HISD that he had grown in­creas­ingly frus­trated with board.

Car­ranza, the mon­i­tor wrote, had com­plained that some trustees were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated, over­stepped their gov­er­nance role and failed to carry out mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions about is­sues.

Af­ter Car­ranza de­camped for New York, trustees tapped Lathan as in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent and voted last month to hire a firm to per­form a na­tional search for a per­ma­nent leader.

Ques­tions of trans­parency

Trustees who voted against re­plac­ing Lathan ques­tioned why their col­leagues had not been more trans­par­ent.

Saave­dra’s name did not ap­pear on Thurs­day’s meet­ing agenda, and he was not the sub­ject of dis­cus­sion at pre­vi­ous meet­ings. An item un­der per­son­nel in­cluded the vague de­scrip­tion “con­sider em­ploy­ment of in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent and em­ploy­ment con­tract through Septem­ber 30, 2019.”

There clearly had been a split on the board for weeks about whether to re­tain Lathan as the per­ma­nent su­per­in­ten­dent. The board last month voted to post­pone a mo­tion to ex­tend Lathan’s in­terim sta­tus an­other year, with Trustee Diana Dav­ila say­ing the pub­lic had not been given an op­por­tu­nity to voice its opin­ion on the move.

At least three trustees ar­rived at HISD’s West 18th Street head­quar­ters on Thurs­day pre­pared to re­place Lathan. Dav­ila said she and Holly Vi­laseca ap­proached Saave­dra ear­lier in the week. Ser­gio Lira said Dav­ila also dis­cussed Saave­dra with him. The other “yes” votes, Anne Sung and El­iz­a­beth San­tos, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment Fri­day.

Vi­laseca de­clined to com­ment when asked whether she dis­cussed Saave­dra with trustees other than Dav­ila prior to Thurs­day’s meet­ing.

Saave­dra said he met with sev­eral trustees this week but de­clined to iden­tify them.

If the five trustees who voted for Saave­dra, to­gether or sep­a­rately, dis­cussed a plan to ap­point him prior to Thurs­day’s meet­ing, that could con­sti­tute a vi­o­la­tion of Texas Open Meet­ings Act, said Joe Larsen, a Hous­ton First Amend­ment lawyer and ex­pert on Texas’ open meet­ings and pub­lic in­for­ma­tion laws.

“If they met in num­bers less than a quo­rum to avoid hav­ing an open meet­ing, that would be ev­i­dence of crim­i­nal in­tent,” Larsen said.

Trustees faced al­le­ga­tions of vi­o­lat­ing the open meet­ings law last May af­ter Board Pres­i­dent Rhonda Skillern-Jones ejected more than 100 mem­bers of the pub­lic from a meet­ing when some mem­bers of the au­di­ence clapped and chanted af­ter she warned them not to.

Trustee Sue Deigaard on Fri­day said she voted against hir­ing Saave­dra in part be­cause she has never met him and be­cause she first learned he was be­ing con­sid­ered at the meet­ing. She said in­tro­duc­ing Saave­dra as a can­di­date and ap­point­ing him the same even­ing, with­out al­low­ing the pub­lic to weigh in, could lead res­i­dents to dis­trust the board.

“It made us look re­ally bad,” Deigaard said.

The other three “no” votes — Skillern-Jones, Jolanda Jones and Wanda Adams — ap­peared blind­sided dur­ing the meet­ing when Dav­ila pro­posed hir­ing Saave­dra. Adams and Jones re­acted an­grily, ac­cus­ing col­leagues of de­ceit and com­plain­ing of a ra­cial di­vide on the board pit­ting black trustees against His­panic trustees.

‘Po­lit­i­cally stupid’

Adams said the pro­posal should have been dis­cussed in closed ses­sion rather than sprung on the board at the dais.

“This is dis­re­spect­ful,” she said. “I did not know about this at all. Some of my other col­leagues did not know about it. Some knew about it — (Ser­gio) Lira knew about it, Holly (Flynn Vi­laseca) knew about it and (El­iz­a­beth) San­tos knew about it. It goes back to my orig­i­nal state­ment about racism on this board.”

Gayle Fal­lon, the for­mer long­time leader of the Hous­ton Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, said she was dumb­founded by the board’s ac­tion Thurs­day. The de­ci­sion to re­place Lathan with Saave­dra — and the way the mat­ter was han­dled, with a de­ci­sion ap­par­ently made be­hind the scenes — could make it dif­fi­cult to re­cruit a per­ma­nent su­per­in­ten­dent, she said.

“I’ve seen HISD do some things that were po­lit­i­cally stupid be­fore, but this one wins,” said Fal­lon, who re­tired in 2015 af­ter 32 years lead­ing the dis­trict’s largest teacher or­ga­ni­za­tion. “It will guar­an­tee that there will be com­mu­nity up­ris­ings, and, un­for­tu­nately, it will be ra­cial, as we’ve al­ready seen.”

Strong can­di­dates may be leery of tak­ing the su­per­in­ten­dent job, Fal­lon said, given the frac­tious re­la­tion­ship be­tween trustees and the prospect of a state takeover.

“HISD could eas­ily be a ca­reer­wrecker for some­one,” she said.

Zeph Capo, the cur­rent pres­i­dent of the teach­ers union, said he was frus­trated the bick­er­ing be­tween trustees over an in­terim leader could lead to de­lays find­ing a per­ma­nent one.

Par­ent Travis McGee, who has three chil­dren in HISD schools, said it was fool­ish for the board to re­place an in­terim leader with an­other in­terim. He said trustees are so in­ca­pable of work­ing with one an­other they have dragged stu­dents and tax­pay­ers into their in­ternecine dis­pute.

“Ev­ery­body’s sup­posed to work for the best in­ter­est of the chil­dren, and that hasn’t hap­pened,” McGee said.


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