Saave­dra faces bumpy ride upon re­turn

Houston Chronicle - - FROM THE COVER - By Mike Sny­der and Lau­ren Caruba mike.sny­ lcaruba@ex­

Abe­lardo Saave­dra, who led the Hous­ton In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict through a rel­a­tively calm five-year stretch a decade ago, pre­pared Fri­day to plunge into a more chaotic en­vi­ron­ment as he re­turns to HISD in the role of in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent.

Saave­dra, 67, faced his share of con­tro­ver­sies in Hous­ton, but the dis­trict he left in Au­gust 2009 was con­sid­er­ably more sta­ble than the one he will ad­min­is­ter for the next six months while HISD con­ducts a na­tional search for a per­ma­nent su­per­in­ten­dent.

The largest pub­lic school dis­trict in Texas, and sev­enth largest in the coun­try, faces aca­demic and fi­nan­cial crises and a po­ten­tial state takeover. Its board is wracked by fac­tional squab­bles that were on full dis­play Thurs­day night, when trustees voted 5-4 to re­place in­terim leader Grenita Lathan with Saave­dra.

Aside from the chal­lenges fac­ing any ur­ban pub­lic school leader, Saave­dra’s big­gest prob­lems at HISD were push­ing through a per­for­mance-based teacher bonus pay sys­tem and drum­ming up sup­port for an $805 mil­lion bond elec­tion. Those is­sues might seem tame com­pared to the cur­rent si­t­u­a­tion, but peo­ple who knew or worked with Saave­dra in Hous­ton said he prob­a­bly can man­age in his in­terim role.

“In these con­di­tions, it may be messy, but the re­al­ity is, six months isn’t that long,” said Gayle Fal­lon, who re­tired in 2015 af­ter 32 years lead­ing the Hous­ton Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers. “No mat­ter how good or bad Abe is, it’s just go­ing to be a cir­cus.”

Ten­ure in San An­to­nio

Ex­pe­ri­ence nav­i­gat­ing is­sues such as board strife and po­ten­tial state over­sight might have con­trib­uted to his be­ing con­sid­ered for the job, Saave­dra said Fri­day.

“State over­sight some­times can be a bless­ing for a dis­trict,” Saave­dra said. “Clearly, the state comes in when they feel there are some ma­jor is­sues that need to be mon­i­tored and some lead­er­ship pro­vided. The fact that I’ve been through that with South (San An­to­nio) puts me in a unique si­t­u­a­tion of be­ing able to help Hous­ton.”

Saave­dra said he spoke by phone Fri­day with Lathan, and they com­mit­ted to work to­gether.

“It’s re­ally up to the two of us to pro­vide that guid­ance that not only the dis­trict, the board, but the com­mu­nity needs as well,” he said.

The di­vi­sions on HISD’s board are not un­like those Saave­dra en­coun­tered when he left retirement in 2013 to lead South San An­to­nio ISD, which serves 8,900 stu­dents — 97 per­cent of them His­panic — across 13 cam­puses on the Alamo City’s south­west side. It is one of 16 tra­di­tional pub­lic school districts in Bexar County.

Ini­tially hired as an in­terim leader, Saave­dra took the helm of South San An­to­nio ISD as it grap­pled with un­sta­ble lead­er­ship. Four pre­vi­ous su­per­in­ten­dents had left in three years, and the school board was plagued by in­fight­ing. The dis­trict also faced scru­tiny for its fi­nances and was the sub­ject of lo­cal and state in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Saave­dra agreed to lead the dis­trict full time in March 2014.

Ten­sions flared the fol­low­ing year, when Saave­dra said trustees had im­pugned his char­ac­ter and were try­ing to mi­cro­man­age dis­trict op­er­a­tions. In Novem­ber 2015, he asked the board for a par­tial buy­out of his five-year con­tract, days af­ter the Texas Ed­u­ca­tion Agency is­sued di­rec­tives to im­prove fi­nan­cial man­age­ment. Saave­dra chose to stay but filed a com­plaint call­ing for state in­ter­ven­tion to cor­rect “se­ri­ous board gov­er­nance is­sues.”

The TEA in­stalled a con­ser­va­tor in Fe­bru­ary 2016 to over­see gov­er­nance and fi­nances. Con­di­tions im­proved slowly af­ter 2016 elec­tions and sub­se­quent va­can­cies brought new faces to the board. Trustees un­der­went gov­er­nance train­ing, and meet­ings grew cor­dial.

The TEA lifted its over­sight last Jan­uary. In June, Saave­dra an­nounced he would not seek a con­tract re­newal and planned to re­turn to a fac­ulty post at Texas A&M Univer­sity. Saave­dra’s last day at South San An­to­nio ISD was Fri­day.

‘Not very po­lit­i­cal’

In Hous­ton, Saave­dra took his place in his­tory when he was hired in Au­gust 2004 as the dis­trict’s first His­panic su­per­in­ten­dent. Early in his ten­ure, he laid out a vi­sion of cre­at­ing a col­lege­bound cul­ture. Steps to achieve that goal in­cluded sup­ply­ing mid­dle school teach­ers with reams of test-score data and us­ing school buses to bring col­lege in­for­ma­tion to fam­i­lies’ doorsteps.

He en­coun­tered op­po­si­tion, how­ever, when he in­tro­duced a sys­tem of an­nual bonuses to teach­ers based on their stu­dents’ scores on stan­dard­ized tests. In a Fe­bru­ary 2007 school board meet­ing, more than 300 teach­ers pleaded with trustees to scrap or over­haul the plan. Saave­dra con­ceded the roll­out of the plan had been han­dled poorly.

Jay Aiyer, an as­sis­tant po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Texas South­ern Univer­sity who served on the Hous­ton Com­mu­nity Col­lege board dur­ing Saave­dra’s ten­ure at HISD, said Saave­dra led the dis­trict ca­pa­bly at a piv­otal mo­ment.

“HISD was sort of ground zero for test-based ac­count­abil­ity and look­ing to im­prove stu­dent out­comes like stan­dard­ized test­ing.” Aiyer said. He added Saave­dra “took great pains of try­ing to not use race and eth­nic­ity to wedge the com­mu­nity. In many ways he was not very po­lit­i­cal.”

When he starts at Hous­ton next week, Saave­dra said, his pri­mary goal will be bring­ing sta­bil­ity to the board.

“I think there’s a lot of hope for Hous­ton, and it’s a mat­ter of ev­ery­one work­ing to­gether,” Saave­dra said.

Staff file photo

Abe­lardo Saave­dra, right, will over­see Hous­ton ISD while the dis­trict con­ducts a na­tional search for a per­ma­nent su­per­in­ten­dent to head the largest pub­lic school dis­trict in Texas.

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