A changing school board, a Texas Education Commissioner distracted and overwhelmed by the immensity of trying to get kids educated amid COVID-19, COVID-19 itself — all have aligned to give Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan a chance tonight to have the asterisk removed from her title.
Or maybe, she's just worn them down.
Whether she has enough votes, whether the TEA will say it's OK to hire a superintendent — an action that was stopped months ago by the state — it'll be interesting to see who lines up where at tonight's school board meeting about whether to name Lathan the lone finalist for the position. Board President Sue Deigaard placed the item on the agenda at the request of some other unnamed board members, catching teachers and the community by surprise.
Still on the board are Anne Sung, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Elizabeth Santos who were part of a five member trustees group (still being investigated for their possible violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act) who tried to oust Lathan as interim in October 2018 and replace her with former HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra. The action to do so was approved in a 5-4 vote and then withdrawn a week later after the three Black board members cried foul, saying they had no idea this was in the works. Civic leaders and others in Houston also squealed in outrage. Saavedra, saying he had no idea there was so much dissension on the board, withdrew from consideration.
Lathan became interim superintendent after Richard Carranza bolted to New York City when offered the job of chancellor of the public schools there. Since then, the search for a permanent successor has stalled.
Under Lathan's leadership, HISD has removed several schools from Improvement Required status and it has maintained a good bond raiting.
But her tenure as interim superintendent has not been trouble free, even in recent days. Asked by several public speakers at an early October board meeting to delay the opening of HISD schools two more weeks until November 2, she instead ordered the schools open for in-person classes two weeks earlier. On day two, she then shut down 16 campuses for two days, after coronavirus cases there were confirmed or suspected. This was followed by a further relaxation of the social distancing rules and there have been complaints from teachers that they don't feel their health is being protected in the schools.
And HISD still has not shown substantial improvement in its special ed operations, as noted by the TEA which in September 2020 called it a "historical failure" after an 11-month investigation. In its report, the TEA specifically stressed that the dysfunction comes from the top of Lathan's administration.
Then there's Wheatley High School which in November 2019 once again failed to meet state standards — which has happened so many times that TEA Commissioner Mike Morath invoked the dreaded shut-it-down or we'll-replace- the-school-board clause. His efforts to replace the board with one he would appoint are tied up in court challenges.
This week, it appeared Lathan's chance to secure the superintendent position were good when just about two hours before the board workshop on police presence in the schools, Lathan released this statement:
HISD STATEMENT FROM DR. GRENITA LATHAN
During my five-year tenure with HISD, my focus has been, and always remains, on putting children first. As HISD’s interim superintendent for the past 2 years and 8 months, my team and I have worked diligently on behalf of our students and their families to initiate programs to improve academic performance, led historically underperforming schools out of Improvement Required status and expanded fine arts education. During this time, the district’s financial condition has continued to be strong and the district has maintained its AAA bond rating from Moody’s and AA+ from Standard and Poor’s. In addition, we have led the district through Hurricane Harvey’s recovery efforts and continue to navigate together through the current global pandemic. Through it all, our focus is and will continue to be our students’ success. I would welcome the opportunity to continue the work to elevate the academic, social, and emotional outcomes for all students in our district.
But as with all things HISD, a dramatic twist developed Wednesday afternoon when Zeph Cato, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, released his own statement on behalf of the union, in which he said they could get behind Lathan.
For one year.
“After two years and eight months of searching for a permanent superintendent, we are not pleased that the option of naming Lathan a sole finalist or restarting the entire search was put on the School Board agenda with no notice to our union or any other stakeholders,” Capo said. “We are prepared to support Lathan being the sole finalist for another 12 months and serving as our district’s leader, because we need stability right now facing issues around the pandemic, a possible state takeover, and a federal investigation.”
“Because our state government has failed to respond to the Covid-19 crisis in even a minimally adequate manner, stability is more important than ever in district leadership,” said James Faber, HFT vice president for elementary school employees. "Dr. Lathan represents the stability needed right now.”
And the press release concluded by saying:
"The HFT Board supports a recommendation to name Dr. Grenita Lathan sole finalist and superintendent of schools for the next twelve months. HFT also recommends that the HISD Board use this time to evaluate whether to extend her contract or begin a search at a time when the devastation of the pandemic, disruption from the TEA takeover, and the disgrace of a criminal investigation are put behind us, so that all stakeholders can focus on moving forward."
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