"Separate is not equal. Separate is not equal.”
An irreverent crowd pelted members of the Houston ISD school board last night with that and other less polite expressions – “Sell out. Sell out,” they chanted at Sergio Lira who’d Skyped in for the meeting – as they opposed the district handing over the keys to any of its schools to other entities.
In the end and by the narrowest of margins, trustees voted 5-4 against a proposal that would have allowed them to consider applications from outside groups to run the most troubled schools in HISD, schools with the dreaded IR (Improvement Required) tag that the district itself has not been able to govern successfully enough to meet state testing standards in years.
So Highland Heights Elementary, Henry Middle School and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools will have to continue on without outside intervention – at least until and if they fall short of the 2019 state test standards. If they fail, then the Texas Education Agency moves in: its options to replace the school board or close those schools. Which means last night’s winning vote may have been a Pyrrhic victory for those strong proponents of local control by an elected board.
Early on in the public speaking portion of the evening, speaker after speaker read Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones own words back to her – comments she’d delivered at a press conference in 2017 in which she warned against the dangers of privatization:
“When vouchers don’t work, when privatization efforts don’t work, when charter management efforts don’t work, when annexation efforts don’t work, this is just the next gateway into dismantling public education. Period. If you are able to do this to the largest school district in Texas then that allows you to then set the precedent to the next 39 on the list that have multiple IR schools. This is an effort to dismantle public education. It’s not just a local trend, it’s not just a state trend. It’s a national trend and it’s coming from the culture in the country around using the last pot of public money for private profit. And anyone who thinks it’s not, just wait and see."
Skillern-Jones was joined in her no vote by Wanda Adams, Elizabeth Santos, Jolanda Jones and Diana Davila. Voting to allow proposals to go forward were Sue Deigaard, Anne Sung, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Lira.
It was a defeat for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner who had pulled together a group, the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston, with the help of Juliet Stipeche, director of his Education Office, to step in with the idea of taking over the four school and perhaps others as well. Several audience members who spoke specifically criticized Turner's possible involvement in the school district, saying he wasn’t running the city all that well. And they weren't fond of the people he's appointed to the board for that organization, especially zeroing in on the "climate-change denier" Corbin Robertson Jr., CEO and chairman of Natural Resources Partners, a mining company.
Speaker after speaker charged that the private partnership plan would enable the district to dump its problem schools allowing it to take even better care of its better performing, better liked and more prestigious ones. And after all, they argued, hadn't they elected these nine people to lead the district? How about doing that?
It’s safe to say that if the notorious April 24 board meeting hadn’t happened when Skillern-Jones shut down the meeting – over the same issue of partnerships — and ordered security to remove the unruly complete with arrests and the public relations nightmare that followed, that last night’s meeting would have seen the escorted exit of several audience members.
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Disruptions were constant; board members were interrupted as they were trying to explain their positions. And personal, attacking comments –the kind that HISD’s board historically forbids – went unchallenged by the president’s gavel. Audience members spoke directly to the trustees, some of whom responded. The final vote was taken while shouts were still ringing through the room, with the result that not all board members immediately realized the vote had been called.
While Sung and others argued that all last night's proposal would do was to open up a process for the district to receive applications which would give it more options, others said they were having none of it. Jolanda Jones said there was no way she was going to support privatization and voted accordingly.
Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, already burned by the community’s reaction to her previous proposal last April to have the charter group Energized for STEM Academy Inc. take over ten schools, wasn’t taking any chances of going out on a limb this time. Last night she said she was making no recommendations, just putting the idea out there for direction from the board before going further. After the vote, those schools will remain her responsibility and she and her administration now need to come up with a new plan.
In other news, the board decided to hold off till January on a decision about hiring an counseling firm to help it get along better. They voted to seek a new superintendent and decided to keep the names to itself, saying justifiably enough, that they will lose good candidates if their names are revealed along the way. Although it would be fascinating to see who wants the job given the present challenges.