HISD Trustees Retain Their Seats For Now After Appeals Court Ruling

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan won't be seeing any board changes anytime soon.
Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan won't be seeing any board changes anytime soon. Screenshot from HISD TV
Houston ISD trustees won a round in court Wednesday when in a 2-1 vote, the Third District Court of Appeals upheld a temporary injunction barring Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath from ousting the HISD board and replacing it with one of his own choosing.

The justices voting to uphold the injunction — Republican Chief Justice Jeff Rose and Democrat Grisela D. Triana who wrote the majority opinion — said that Morath hadn't followed his agency's own rules before declaring he was ready to move in to wipe the slate clean with his own appointments. Republican Justice Thomas J. Baker disagreed and issued a dissenting opinion, saying he thought Morath was justified in his actions and working within the state regulations as written.

The whole matter will probably move to the Texas Supreme Court next, but at least for now, there will be no new faces at the HISD board table anytime soon.

Morath claimed his action was justified by misbehaving HISD board members and the failure of the district to turn around (after seven years) the low academic performance at Wheatley High School. It should be noted that several of the board members cited in various investigations of the district, are no longer trustees.

Doris Delaney had been the conservator for HISD at Kashmere High School since 2016. However, in March 2019,TEA restated her duties as being district wide and Delaney told the HISD board and administration to shut down its superintendent search.

HISD argued that Morath didn't have the authority to appoint Delaney as the district-wide conservator which meant she didn't have the right to tell trustees they had to halt their search for a new superintendent. Wednesday, the Appeals Court agreed.  The district overall hadn't failed certain academic and financial standards so Morath didn't have the right to say Delaney would oversee all of HISD's operations, the court agreed.

Also in his March 2019 action, Morath cited an investigation's findings that five board members (Diana Davila, Sergio Lira, Anne Sung, Elizabeth Santos and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca) may have violated the Open Meetings Act by getting together outside a regular board meeting to engineer replacing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan with former HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra — an action taken back shortly thereafter.

Morath also cited an accreditation investigation finding that certain members of the board (former trustees Wanda Adams and Davila) violated the rules regarding the bidding process and that Lira and Davila did not tell the truth during the investigation. He lowered the district's accreditation status to "accredited-warned" and began the process to appoint his own board of managers.

Chapter 39 of the State Education Code says that if a school has an unacceptable performance rating for three consecutive years after it is ordered to submit a turnaround plan, then the TEA commissioner can either close the campus or appoint a board of managers for the district.

HISD successfully argued that because Wheatley (like other schools in HISD) received no rating for 2017-18 — because of a waiver due to the extensive damage and disruption caused by Hurricane Harvey — the TEA had no right to step in. Not only had the change in Texas school shutdown laws
ecent years not been consecutive but Wheatley was never ordered to submit a campus turnaround plan.

The final HISD argument upheld by the court was that either Morath that the informal review of HISD should have been done by himself or a designated hearing examiner. The court concluded a designated hearing examiner  "must be licensed to practice law in the State of Texas." Jeff Cotrill, the deputy commissioner of Governance and Accountability for TEA, meets neither standard.
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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.
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