HISD Trustees Replace Interim Superintendent Amid Charges the Board is Racially Divided

Wanda Adams was not happy about how things went at the HISD board meeting last night.
Wanda Adams was not happy about how things went at the HISD board meeting last night. Courtesy of HISD TV

It was ugly to watch and listen to. It was the Houston ISD trustees meeting at their all time dysfunctional worst, with some trustees exploding with heated accusations of duplicity and racism at others. And it was an official acknowledgement by African-American trustees that there is a racial divide between the black and Hispanic members of the HISD school board.

Which, unfortunately, was no surprise at all.

What was a surprise was that a bitterly divided HISD board voted to demote Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and replace her with former superintendent Abelardo Saavedra. Saavedra left the district in 2009 after months of complaints by board members about poor communication from him — an administrator who also tripped up over his proposals for changes in magnet schools and their transportation programs.  The decision becomes effective next Monday.

Apparently orchestrated by trustee Diana Davila and others on the board to the exclusion of trustees Wanda Adams, Jolanda Jones and board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones, the surprise motion followed a 6-3 vote to continue the contract with a firm helping in the search for a permanent superintendent. Saavedra's contract will be for six months at the same rate of pay as departed Superintendent Richard Carranza and he will not be considered for the permanent spot. In a 5-4 vote, Diegaard joined the three African-American trustees to oppose naming Saavedra.

Even the most casual observer would agree that earlier alliances (for instance Jolanda Jones and Diana Davila) had broken down leaving Anne Sung and Sue Deigaard aligned with Sergio Lira, Jones, Adams, Davila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Elizabeth Santos. And the three African-American trustees remain somewhat isolated on some of the biggest issues facing the district.

The motion to approve Saavedra and return Lathan to her chief academic officer job came from Davila late in the meeting and prompted an outpouring of shouts including obscenities from the audience. For months the three African-American trustees had pushed for Lathan to be named to the permanent position.

But a massive continuing boondoggle with changes in the magnet busing program since the start of the school year as well as controversy over teacher pay raises that did not extend to other school support staff did not help her cause. The district narrowly avoided being taken over by TEA but Lathan had supported giving away some of its most troubled schools to a private vendor whose ability to improve those schools was critically questioned.

Adams began the heated exchange by saying votes were being taken along racial lines. "People are seeing it and they are saying it. It is appalling how we act as a board." She charged that trustees say one thing in closed meetings and private conversations and then vote the opposite. She attacked Santos saying "You need to collaborate with your principals that don't look like you." She also charged that some board members were more concerned with their re-elections than in doing right for the students. She attacked Diegaard saying she says one thing and does another.

Trustee Lira took issue with being accused of being more concerned with his re-election over doing what was right for kids. "I did not run for this board to get re-elected," and he pointed to his 28 years of working with teachers and principals as an educator in the district. Diegaard responded that she has always tried to do what's best for the district and that includes looking for the best superintendent. Santos says she has always represented all children.

Jones said both Diegaard and Lira had told her they thought Lathan should be superintendent, "but both of them had other stuff." She further charged: "We've got board members on this board that have gone to the Latino community and told the Latino community that Sergio is picking blacks over Mexicans."

Another point of interest — and we have no inside knowledge on whether this is true, although no trustee denied it — both Adams and Jones stated that it was the Hispanic members of the board who wanted Carranza gone. "Because he did not do what they wanted him to do," Adams said. "He was trying to do right." And as Jones put it: "People who looked like him wanted him gone." Carranza resigned in March 2018 to take over as chancellor of the New York City public school system after only being in the Houston superintendent's position since August 2016.

When Saavedra left his position it was after months of board members complaining that there was poor communication from him and his administration and that they felt blindsided by some of his proposals. In fact, he announced his last day news in an email to district supervisors which caught the HISD press office by surprise.

Saavedra did have his successes — under his watch test scores improved which earned 157 schools exemplary and recognized status and he created the Reach Out to Dropouts program. But it's hard to understand why the district would be reaching back to someone from its past who left under troubled circumstances, to clear up its future problems.

In one added odd note, the HISD press office which usually puts out a press release about the monthly meetings was silent today and did not report on anything from last night's meeting. When asked why, Press Secretary Sherry Williams wrote in an email:  "There was nothing released from the district" and when asked in a follow up phone call who made that decision said she could not recall. She said a statement might be released later today and would be sent to the media and that the Houston Press would be included.

We will update this story as soon as we receive that statement. Updated 3:17 p.m..

Oct. 12, 2018 –The Houston Independent School District Board of Education voted 5-4 to appoint Dr. Abelardo Saavedra to the position of interim superintendent.

Saavedra previously served as superintendent of HISD from 2004 until 2009. Dr. Grenita Lathan will resume her position as HISD Chief Academic Officer. The changes will be effective Monday, Oct. 15.

The board voted to approve the contract with executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates to conduct the search for a permanent superintendent. Trustees stated that Dr. Saavedra will not be a candidate for the permanent position.
 It's a safe bet though that the district won't be sending out recordings of this meeting to any prospective superintendents they might like to talk into coming to Houston.  
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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