Amid chants of "Fire Terry Grier," Houston ISD school board members and their superintendent retreated into a back room Thursday night while HISD police officers formed a protective barrier in the front of the room after audience members began shouting in protest about two proposed school closings.
After reconvening their monthly board meeting, trustees voted 5-4 (voting against were Wanda Adams, Paula Harris, Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Anna Eastman) to shut down Dodson Elementary and 6-3 (voting against were Harris, Skillern-Jones and Eastman) and to make over Jesse Jones High School into a magnet school where students from throughout HISD would take vocational courses and be able to get associate degrees.
The role of peacemaker fell to new trustee and former city councilwoman Jones. In her initial remarks, she told the room that they did not have the votes they wanted on the board to keep Jones open as a comprehensive high school. If they didn't accept the compromise plan to turn Jones into a magnet, the alternative -- and the initial proposal from Grier's administration -- would have been to shut down the comprehensive school at the end of this school year and use it as a swing facility in which to house students whose home schools were being renovated.
Adams urged the audience to take what they could get, advice that was not always welcomed by the more outspoken critics there, more than 60 of whom lined up to publicly address the board about the two schools.
Later it was Adams who came out and addressed the room, asking for calm so that the trustees could return and finish the night's business. Although she said the board was there to listen to the public speakers, many of the people who got one minute to address the board made it clear they thought the board's actions were a done deal and that listening was not on the agenda. "You may not like what we have to say. I'm just asking, please just be respectful. I understand your pain. I understand your anger. I'm just asking you, just do it with respect, not with threats or anything like that."
So many people showed up for the 4 p.m. meeting that many were directed to the overflow room and watched the proceedings on television.
Initially, there were great cheers when trustee Manuel Rodriguez introduced his amended motion that "I move that the district not close Jones High School" but as he continued to delineate the new character of the school, the mood of the room rapidly went the other way.
A major sticking point was that as a specialty school, the new Jones will not have any athletic teams. Students there would instead try out for teams on what would have been their home schools. As Ted Weisgal of Leisure Learning, who started an afterschool program at Johnston Middle School 12 years ago, put it: "To kill the athletic program sounds like a way to chip away at Jones High School."
Robert S. Muhammad, a Muslim minister, told the trustees, "We're not here to save Jones High School or Dobson. We've here to save you from this broke-down illegitimate concept that's been given to you by the superintendent's office."
Speaker Ruth Kravetz made comments echoed by many others saying that Jones had not been given the right resources and that its students had been used as guinea pigs for one educational theory after another.
"HISD performed an untested experiment called Apollo on the children of Jones. And when Apollo failed, HISD recommended the school's closure. This would not have happened in a middle-class neighborhood. Our schools are not a failed business plan where you throw up your arms and say, 'Oh no, better luck next time.' Our schools are a public trust."
Kofi Taharka, who said he was with the National Black United Front, told the board: "We're calling on you to remove the current superintendent. We are rejecting the idea that there should be an amendment. Send this superintendent packing and then you will begin to start the process of having a real school board."
As he walked back to his seat, Taharka said to the crowd: "Run his ass out of town."
Stipeche warned she would call a recess. Moments later, another speaker, yelling, told Grier he was coming after him, watching his financial dealings. The room erupted with yelling and it was at that point that board president Stipeche called for the recess as police escorted the man from the room.
Texas Representative Borris Miles said he had been working with HISD to come up with a compromise on Jones and urged the crowd to accept the new proposal. "If this amendment does not pass, Jones will be shut down. We don't have the votes. The amendment will allow Jones to stay open, allow us to have three years to put into place a quality vocational high tech program at Jones because if they do not, it'll be closed."
By the time the board took up consideration of Dodson, some of the fire had left the room. Speakers extolled Dodson's Montessori program -- which is being moved to Blackshear Elementary where many of the students will be rezoned to -- but nothing was said about Dodson's percentage of kids reading on grade level, which is actually lower in some cases than at Blackshear.
There were allegations that the district had stopped accepting applications to Dodson and that while it is being shut down for low enrollment, it actually has a waiting list. HISD officials have said, though, that there are too few students living in that area of town.
Another bone of contention was that several trustees and Grier periodically left their places at the board table and speakers made it clear they didn't understand how the board and administration could say they were listening to their concerns when they didn't stay to hear them.
Three other schools had initially been proposed for closure -- Henderson and Port Houston elementaries and Fleming Middle School -- but Stipeche exercised her executive authority and removed them from consideration.