Don't Believe Everything You've Been Told About Us, HISD Trustees Say to TEA

It's clear that HISD trustees - shown here in the front row Rhonda Skillen-Jones, Jolanda Jones, Wanda Adams and Anne Sung (with State Rep Alma Allen second from right) - aren't going to accept TEA's conclusions sitting down.
Photo by Margaret Downing
It's clear that HISD trustees - shown here in the front row Rhonda Skillen-Jones, Jolanda Jones, Wanda Adams and Anne Sung (with State Rep Alma Allen second from right) - aren't going to accept TEA's conclusions sitting down.
The Texas Education Agency tries to replace school boards in districts where the majority of voters are people of color, according to Houston ISD's present school board.

That was just one of the many charges made by HISD  trustees in a 49-page legal response to a six-month TEA investigation that criticized the board for everything from alleged violations of the state's Open Meetings Act to meddling in administrative matters, to exerting pressure in contract matters favoring certain vendors.

Basically, the first amended petition to the suit filed by HISD against the TEA, the Commissioner of Education Mike Morath and the TEA-appointed conservator for the district Doris Delaney, asserts that the state investigation has not only got it all wrong, but it has an agenda of its own with racial overtones and that it is trying to squelch the trustees' right to free speech under the First Amendment.
And it asserts, replacing the elected board with an appointed one is a violation of title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The district's followup filing made last Friday states that Morath appointed Delaney as conservator over Kashmere High School to help administrators there develop a turnaround plan. Yet although a plan was approved and in fact a few days ago Kashmere celebrated its removal from the Improvement Required list, Delaney has not been relieved of her duties, the amended lawsuit states.

In 2018, Deputy Commissioner of Governance A.J. Crabill began to refer to "the appointment of a conservator" for the entire district. That was Delaney and HISD trustees in their suit are saying that Delaney's original and limited task should never have been expanded over the entire district. Therefore, according to HISD, Delaney did not have the right to halt the HISD superintendent search as she did on March 25, 2019.

In regards to five trustees meeting with former HISD superintendent Dr. Abe Saavedra  (Diana Davila, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung) — which TEA has labeled a violation of Open Meetings requirements — the lawsuit instead paints Saavedra as a mentor, someone who some of the trustees met with to "seek his wisdom and institutional knowledge regarding Houston ISD."

In a subsequent public board meeting, these trustees voted to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and hire Saavedra, an action that was later rescinded.

The amended petition denies that the October 8, 2018 meetings with Saavedra in a restaurant were to interview him for the position of interim superintendent — at least not "at the time of these discussions."  It also denies that a quorum was present for the discussion. The TEA has said there was evidence of a "walking quorum" with trustees meeting with Saavedra in smaller groups one right after the other.

The suit also says that rather than interviewing trustees again about complaints against them uncovered during the TEA investigation, the state agency relied on "unnamed administration officials without considering the credibility of these unnamed witnesses."

As for the oft-witnessed board disagreements in public meetings, the amended petition says: "Disagreements are part of democracy. Houston ISD's board members are passionate about the communities they represent and zealously advocate for their positions."

In response to the TEA discussing alleged historic problems with job order contracts, the district insists: "None of the evidence presented by TEA actually shows that state procurement laws were violated."

Meanwhile, the trustees say, HISD increased its overall academic rating and kept its superior financial rating for 2019.

Unfortunately for them, that progress does not include Wheatley High School which failed to meet state standards for the seventh time in a row in ratings released last week. Wheatley's "F" grade means Commissioner Morath can either shut it down or replace the elected school board. Still to be seen if he does either.

The HISD petition concludes by asking for permanent injunctions preventing Delaney from continuing to act as conservator, preventing TEA from "attempting to interfere with Houston ISD's superintendent search" and preventing the TEA and Morath "from taking any adverse actions against Houston ISD and/or its Board of Trustees."