HISD blasted for leadership swap
Critics say board’s action could scare applicants, lead to state oversight
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.
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.