A Racially Divided HISD School Board Kicks Off 2016

In a long, combative night in which accusations of racial bias and unfair privilege were hurled about the room, the Houston ISD school board Thursday elected an all-minority slate of officers led by Manuel Rodriguez, while white trustees impotently hunkered down on the losing side of a series of 5-4 votes.

New to the board trustee Jolanda Jones, who at first said she wasn't going to comment much on her first night, could not restrain herself, making it clear who was going to be running things now and that she had little regard for practices and procedures of the past. And they certainly weren't going to stand in her way. 

“I'm just going to say it because it's a big white elephant in this room. Certain schools get everything and other schools get nothing. And the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And so I say this: Prior to this board election, the people that were here complaining looked different. This board is majority minority and so what's good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Jones in arguing for more magnet schools.

“Let's not sit here and pretend that this school board has been fair and that the policies that have been set in place have been followed for all of HISD,” she charged. “Equity matters.”

Highlights of their votes:

The board voted 5-4 to tweak its ethics policy to now allow trustees to accept up to $2,000 in a year from a single vendor or nonprofit organization before that trustee has to remove himself from any discussion or votes involving contracts or other business the board does with that entity. Trustee Wanda Adams argued that keeping the level at the previous $500 cap encouraged people to cheat. “It pushes people to want to do wrong.” Not everyone is wealthy, she said, and she needs the money to return it to people in the community for such things as buying a table for a school fund-raiser. Jones pointed out, "Some of us weren't born with silver spoons in our mouth." As one longtime HISD observer wryly noted afterward: “At least they didn't gut the ethics policy entirely.”

Ten HISD schools will get new magnet programs thanks to another 5-4 vote. All but three of them didn't even apply to be magnet schools, but their names were submitted by outgoing president Rhonda Skillern-Jones. This was very discouraging to a number of speakers from various HISD schools who had gone through the previously somewhat arduous magnet school application process only to be told it was on hold (with one exception made last year, an exception gleefully pounced upon by Skillern-Jones, who pointed out there had been no discussion or correct policies and procedures in that case). Trustees voted that there should be fine arts magnets at Atherton, Crockett and Kashmere Gardens elementary schools; Dowling, Key and Ortiz middle schools; and Kashmere and Westbury high schools. And STEM magnets at Hartsfield and Stevens elementary schools. (School board attorney David Thompson, who might have pointed out that there are district-mandated procedures in place for how a school qualifies for and starts a magnet program, sat on his hands.)

Trustees followed that up with approval (again 5-4) to develop magnet programs in four new areas: Careers; Business Development and Entrepreneurship; Public Interest Law and Advocacy; and Government Relations and Political Practice.

Unswayed by a parade of speakers, trustees in a 5-4 vote ordered that four HISD schools named after Confederate soldiers will be renamed. Committees at Henry Grady, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Richard Dowling middle schools, and Robert E. Lee High School, will have a chance to come up with new options to be reviewed by the trustees. An attempted motion to put this off indefinitely offered by trustee Harvin Moore was defeated by the same margin.

Lanier and Johnston middle schools and Jeff Davis and Reagan high schools were spared the order for the time being after their names were pulled at the request of their trustees, Jolanda Jones, Michael Lunceford and Anna Eastman, who asked for more time to consult with the school communities involved. Jones did join with four other minority trustees to vote that the other schools' names be changed.

By a 5-3-1 (Mike Lunceford abstained) vote on a first reading, the board voted to overturn the vote of last year's board and bar the suspension or expulsion of students at the second grade or lower level. Jones said she met with the principals in her district on it and although they said they needed to use it in some cases, she told them she could not go along with that. She said she told them she was going to make them work, and when they asked for help such as counselors, she said she'd get them for them. 

The one exception to the triumphal march was a decision to table a proposal for a month to set up a new funding formula for librarians, counselors and nurses after Lunceford asked where the money was going to come from and added that the district was already facing a shortfall of $110 million to $116 million.

Wanda Adams was named vice president, Diana Davila second vice president, Jolanda Jones secretary and Rhonda Skillern-Jones assistant secretary. Outgoing superintendent Terry Grier, employing his usual strong sense of survival skills, skipped the meeting.