The Terry Grier Era is Coming to a Close, Sifting the Tea Leaves

Leaning heavily on a cane, Terry Grier climbed up on a raised platform in the first floor lobby of the Hattie Mae White Building Thursday afternoon, a consummate showman about to deliver his lines. Smiling benevolently, he looked around at the mass of people assembled there, most of them who'd arrived in hurried fashion after a last minute alert.

This time, Superintendent Grier wasn't leaving after just 18 months into a four-year contract, as he did in San Diego. This time he was opting out after a long six years, saying “Quite frankly, it's just time.” With a contract that was up in June 2016, he's just leaving a bit early, pledging to work through March, while taking some time for additional knee surgery.

School board members, the ones who agreed with him and those who didn't, the true-blue supporters and the ones who battled him on issues like magnet schools and student funding, all lined up on the stage behind him like good soldiers while he announced his departure and ran through the achievements he's proudest of, and his topper: Team HISD, a term that made some people proud and others wince.

Other than a reference to the historic $1.89 million bond program that has fallen behind its goals and that he pledged to catch up on, Grier deftly avoided any land mines. There was no mention of the day's news about HISD's administration once again in trouble over its construction contracts. Asked for any regrets, he disregarded the matter entirely and ended the post-speech Q&A after one question.

This was the man who came to HISD in 2009 declaring quickly that honesty would be his and the district's best policy. He was, he declared, all about the kids.

And in many ways that was true. Almost immediately upon his arrival he had the concertina wire ripped off walls surrounding the saddest inner-city schools. During his six-year stay he oversaw a massive increase in the number of high school kids taking the SATs and Advanced Placement classes. He led the charge for dual language schools. He called for higher-quality teachers and improved pay for educators. He talked about college goals and Ivy League Schools no matter where kids came from. In 2013 the district nailed the Broad Prize which goes to the top urban district in the country.

Grier made it clear that employees who didn't behave honorably would be run out of town on a rail. Administrators and teachers suspected of changing children's test scores would be dealt with firmly and promptly. And he was backed by school board members who almost always fell in line with his calls for someone's removal. The fact that the courts later overturned some of these decisions was not mentioned.

There were other things Grier wanted that didn't work out exactly as planned. In a fact sheet handed out to members of the media Thursday, one of his achievements listed was Apollo 20, the program designed to jump-start learning at some of the district's sorriest schools. The facts that after three years not all the schools could be saved and that the pilot program divided the district, didn't improve reading scores, and saw many of its math test score increases disappear, along with the end of its three-year funding, were not addressed. Let's call it a worthy effort and he did raise $16.8 million in private donations for it. The man could raise money. He could be the most charming person in the room.

He could also get his back up and make enemies, bitter ones at times. One parent, who had been intensely involved in the district for years, was not a fan of the superintendent after several battles with Grier. Thursday she had this to say after hearing Grier's resignation news:

“Hopefully, the healing can begin for the principals, teachers and parents who have been terrorized over the last six years for raising dissenting voices in order to prevent harm to students,” she said. “It also seems ironic that as a jobs superintendent he will leave behind many job opportunities for both forensic accountants and turnaround experts to improve the 58 low performing schools developed on his watch. Wow, did he ever love kids.”

In May of 2010, when HISD's then school board member and former president Larry Marshall was deep in legal accusations that he'd fiddled with the school construction contract process, Grier addressed the board at its monthly general session, saying that he knew there was some influence peddling going on. He didn't name names, but he made it clear he would be watching.

“We are going to have a business like approach,” he pledged. “We are going to do it right. And there are going to be consequences to staff members,” he said if he found out they were pulling names of prospective contractors off lists.

Stirring words, hard to square with the just-released audit report showing that members of Grier's staff in the Construction and Facilities Services Department were slicing up contracts to bring them in under the $500,000 threshold that would require them to get prior board review and approval. The HISD department was regularly signing off on huge contracts without asking for line item explanations of costs for the checks they were writing. Can we believe that in the intervening years Grier got so far removed from the process that he promised to keep a keen eye on – one that HISD has tripped over time and time again – that he didn't know this was happening?

At the board meeting later Thursday, trustee Harvin Moore talked about the great legacy that Grier is leaving behind. Parts of it are indeed noteworthy. Some of it less so. Critics say his push for centralization of the district was a one-size-fits-all approach of little service to disparate groups. Supporters see his battles as an attempt to bring equity to all kids – that why shouldn't the students at Woodson K-8 on the south side of town have the same advantages and funding as the crown jewel of T.H. Rogers that deals with talented and gifted as well as deaf and disabled students? But why, others asked did T.H. Rogers have to lose funding so that Woodson could prosper? Couldn't success be replicated elsewhere instead of tearing something else down?

The Terry Grier who stood before a large group of people Thursday at the event he'd so carefully choreographed looks more haggard than the one who came into Houston in September 2009. Whether it's the knee surgery (with more to go) that knocked some of the stuffing out of him or the years in a tough job that has aged him, it's hard to tell. Six years in an urban district superintendent's job is a very long haul in modern times especially.

The Houston Federation of Teachers already issued a statement, pointing to the importance of the next set of school board members voters will elect – a board that will select the next superintendent. Will that person unite the community, will he or she be divisive? Will the issue of race be avoided or tackled head-on? 

Terry Grier is moving on, not retiring, but looking for another job. Perhaps he has one lined up already, another superintendency, perhaps a consulting job with the College Board or some other organization he's dealt with over the past years.

People can argue through the end of times whether Terry Grier was good or bad for Houston and its kids. Like most people he was probably some of both, personal perspective weighing it toward one end or the other. What really matters now is where HISD goes from here.

Perhaps Grier's greatest legacy — whether he inspired some folks or just riled up others — would be that he got more people to care. To care a lot more about what is happening with the Houston School District and its kids. And that would be a pretty grand legacy for any educator, come to think of it.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing