Education board meetings in Houston haven't had this much fizz since the tag team of HISD trustees Gina Wray Wright and the late Liz Spates literally drove superintendent Joan Raymond batty in the late eighties. For aficionados of administrative anarchy, the best show in town these days is the racially fragmented Houston Community College Nine. Sadomasochists can salivate as minority trustees take turns using Chancellor Ruth Burgos-Sasscer as a verbal punching bag.
This is not to say all the trustees are clowns. Some board members take the responsibility seriously of overseeing a 52,000-student educational system with a $134.8 million annual budget. It's just that during the meetings they often get typecast as straight men in a slapstick comedy routine.
The last time their ensemble production was videotaped in January, the board spent most of the meeting trying to decide how to elect officers, and what constituted a quorum and a majority. At times, as the district's lawyer tried to explain matters, the affair resembled nothing so much as an HCC remedial math class.
It got worse after asleep-at-the wheel Trustee John Fonteno took over the chairman's gavel, and had to be prompted almost word-for-word by colleague Herlinda Garcia, an HISD elementary school principal who seemed to be practicing her own impersonation of Nancy Reagan spoon-feeding Ronnie his lines. Eventually, Trustee Chris Oliver, seen as a swing vote between Anglo and minority factions, edged out Bruce Austin for the chairmanship.
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To top off the January performance, trustees gradually drifted off from the meeting, leaving HCC staffers wondering whether the group had adjourned. In fact, the trustees had forgotten to approve the HCC personnel agenda and had to return to finish their business in a special meeting.
After reviewing the January meeting tape, Oliver decided not to have the subsequent get together preserved on video, as relations between minority trustees and Burgos-Sasscer went into a tailspin. As a result, HCC's cable channel lost a sure-fire ratings booster.
Then at their June meeting, trustees listened as the son of HCC Southeast Campus executive Diana Castillo complained how he and a co-worker had rudely been escorted off campus by armed guards and terminated from their information technology jobs. The board retired to executive session, where it ordered Burgos-Sasscer to reinstate the pair with pay. They acted without even knowing the specific accusations against the young men they were alleged to have deliberately deleted HCC computer files that had taken more than 10 months to compile.
The Chancellor reacted to what she considered a breach of HCC procedures by submitting a letter of resignation, effective at the end of her contract next year. Although she later retracted the resignation on the eve of a "retreat" with trustees in the Woodlands last weekend, an all-too-familiar scenario seemed to be in motion.
It's a script for an administrative meltdown that has been acted out in the last decade by higher education institutions all over town the University of Houston, Texas Southern University, HISD and HCC. The general plot line goes like this: Elected or appointed board imports high-priced executive with maximum hoopla as the ultimate cure-all for education and administrative ills. Then board members, usually one side or another in a racial faction, find that the new executive is too independent and fails to feed their egos in the manner to which they are accustomed. Disaffected trustees then run executive ragged. Executive fires back in the media, and things go downhill fast. Board eventually decides to pull the plug and issues deluxe golden parachute, fashioned from public dollars, to make executive go away. After a waiting period and some kind of search, the process repeats itself all over again.
Burgos-Sasscer arrived in Houston three years ago after the HCC board forced out predecessor Charles Green, an African American who had worn out his welcome. She was touted as a nationally known academic, with top credentials as a president at San Antonio College. Back then, Trustee Garcia lauded the new hire as someone "who can begin the healing process build our image, upgrade morale."
The honeymoon didn't last long. Although she is Hispanic with Puerto Rican roots, Burgos-Sasscer's relations with black and brown trustees took a dive. That happened when she supported annexing mostly Anglo areas in Harris County to strengthen the district's tax base. Now Garcia, Bruce Austin and Abel Davila are her core opponents on the board, and the Anglo trustees are her supporters. The board is split 4-4, with Oliver as the swing vote.
Harris County Community Development director Austin contends that the chancellor favors white trustees with access while shutting out the minority faction.
"You've got to understand," explains Austin. " I've been in the service, man, and I've spent a lot of time at this, and I really have a problem with that...I'm going to be respected like everybody else, and doggone it, I think I deserve that. And you should not treat one group, whoever they are, better than someone else."
Austin is amused that the chancellor sent trustees a book titled Boards That Make a Difference before last weekend's retreat.
"It talked about strategic leadership and [that] boards are the final authority," chuckles Austin. "Boards make the policy. Administration carries it out. Boards develop values and vision, the administration carries that out.
"Well, I don't think this is the book she wants us to read."
On the other hand, visitors to recent board meetings are often shocked by the manner in which Austin, Garcia, and Davila berate Burgos-Sasscer and seem openly contemptuous of her.
Westchase District director Jim Murphy has a close working relationship with the Burgos-Sasscer administration. He agrees that the board could do without the "posturing and a chip on the shoulder mentality, which has gotten very volatile lately. Its hard to have a discussion when one of the parties is yelling, or interrupting."
Vidal Martinez, Burgos-Sasscer's lawyer, is a Houston Port commissioner who has served on the UH Board of Regents. In his view, the personal attacks on the chancellor by some trustees have gotten out of hand.
"It has seemed to deteriorate into a fairly personal, and fairly strident relationship with each other," says Martinez. Perhaps not coincidentally, he was the attorney who helped the last TSU president negotiate a buyout of his contract. "Some of these people are just parachuting their way in once a month and just blowing the system up. Instead of being an inside-the-tent finesse player, they insist upon tossing hand grenades in from outside the tent."
Trustee Davila, who is running for Houston City Council, makes no apologies for the board's conduct. "You know, when a person makes $200,000, it amazes me that there's any type of criticism of how they are being treated when we are doing it on a volunteer basis," he says. "Respect has to go both ways. If someone wants respect, they have to give respect."
Davila criticizes the chancellor for pushing a plan to relocate HCC administrative offices to a downtown building he labels "an asbestos-filled Taj Mahal." Davila himself has been pushing for HCC to take over the former Milby Bus Barn on the eastside, despite studies that have shown dangerous levels of chemical pollution there. An HCC source notes that Davila did not oppose the downtown office building until Burgos-Sasscer refused to back the acquisition of the bus barn site.
Austin and Davila indicate their patience with the chancellor is nearly at an end. But the patience of some Houston business leaders with board antics is also running thin.
Port Commission Chair Ned Holmes, who also is the departing president of Greater Houston Partnership, says there is growing unease in the partnership over the continuing instability at HCC. He recalls that during similar turbulence at HISD, the group mobilized and supported trustee candidates that it felt would work responsibly with the superintendent.
"We may well get to the same level of activism on the community college," says Holmes. "I don't think the partnership is yet up to speed enough to feel comfortable wading in, but that does not mean it won't get there."
Attorney Martinez, also a member of the partnership board, figures it's just a matter of time before political forces are brought to bear to clean up the HCC mess.
"When you have institutions that go out of control like this, when the gyroscope just gets so screwy that it spins out of control, it comes to everybody's attention," says Martinez. "And frankly, the business community is able to raise money and put candidates in place."
With three trustee positions up for a vote this fall, including Oliver's swing position, Martinez predicts the competition for the seats could suddenly intensify.
"So far, most of these people have run unopposed," notes the lawyer. "The political winds may not be so charitably inclined this fall if these guys can't get their business straight."
Martinez pauses. "That's not a threat, it's just life in the big city."
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