Manuel Rodriguez Jr., the longest-serving current member of the Houston ISD school board, who died Wednesday after suffering a heart attack at age 65, leaves an unexpected hole on the school board, which has seen a lot of changes in the past year with the departures of longtime board members Harvin Moore and Greg Meyers.
“We are heartbroken by the passing of Trustee Rodriguez, who was a pillar in the HISD community,” said Superintendent Richard Carranza in an HISD press statement released Wednesday. “He was a true advocate for educating all children and a champion for change. He was wise man, a mentor, and a friend to us all. We will forever be indebted to him by his service to public education. His legacy will live on.”
Rodriguez, who represented the southeast part of the district since 2003, served as president of the board in 2016 during its search for its new superintendent. He was far from the most outspoken at meetings, although he could be decisive, as when he gaveled last November’s board meeting to a close when he felt trustee Jolanda Jones had gone on too long. Wednesday, Jones was among those trustees offering accolades about her colleague for his work on behalf of the Hispanic community and minority children.
In his biography on the HISD website, Rodriguez described himself as “an advocate for dual-credit programs, blended learning with laptop computers for high school students and credit-recovery grad labs.” He helped in the establishment of maritime academies at Austin and Yates high schools. He was the founder and president of the MARVAA Corporation, “which provides assistance in education, housing, and community involvement. “
Included in Wednesday’s HISD press release was a statement from current board president Wanda Adams. “We are incredibly saddened by the loss of one of our beloved trustees. On behalf of the HISD Board of Education, I want to offer our condolences to his family, and those who reside in his district. He served his community, his district and the students of Houston well. He made sure he was always a part of the process, even when he was going through difficult times.”
Those “difficult times” Adams referred to had to include the significant injury Rodriguez suffered during his 2016 presidency, when he shattered the bones in one of his legs after a fall while attending a STEM meeting at the University of Houston. He missed several school board meetings during his recovery, which included two weeks in the hospital followed by more than five weeks of rehab.
The HISD statement also noted that: “From 2008-2011, Trustee Rodríguez represented HISD on the Board of Directors of the Texas Association of School Boards, and in 2010 he was elected president of the Mexican American School Board Members Association. He was inducted into the National Hispanic Institute Hall of Fame in 2013. Trustee Rodríguez was the recipient of many accolades, including the Houston East End Chamber 2008 Education Impact Award, an HISD commendation for meritorious service, and a community service award from the Texas House of Representatives for his work with Houston youth.”
Rodriguez's tour of duty was not without controversy and critics.
In 2016 he was one of the trustees who voted to relax the board’s ethics rules requiring trustees to recuse themselves from voting on contracts involving donors who contributed at least $500 to their campaign war chests.
In 2010, he was elected on a thin margin and only after he released a flyer attacking his opponent for his sexuality. Under reasons to vote no, Rodriguez listed “Program manager of minority male initiative at [Houston Community College]. His records show he spent years advocating for gay, bisexual lesbian, transgender rights … not kids.”
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Rodriguez later apologized for the campaign flyer, which also included the line “54 years with no children. Male partner.” And he pointed out that he’d recently voted for an expansion of HISD’s anti-bullying policy to include sexual orientation.
The trustee was also a longtime proponent of the alternative schools operated by Community Education Partners despite years of criticism that the schools were poorly run and did little to nothing to educate the students sent there by their home schools. In 2012 CEP withdrew from the district and in March 2017 HISD trustees voted to end its relationship with its successor, Camelot, to begin operating its own in-district alternative school in the fall.
Rodriguez, who celebrated his 44th wedding anniversary in May, had four children with his wife, Virginia, all of whom graduated from HISD schools. He was a graduate of Stephen F. Austin High School and studied organizational behavior management and marketing at the University of Houston. He had been a computer specialist in the U.S. Air Force from 1970 to 1977.
No information was immediately available on how the district plans to fill his position on the board.