TEA Commissioner Drops the Hammer, HISD Board Will Be Replaced With State Appointees

Still to be determined: Whether Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan will be appointed to continue by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath.
Still to be determined: Whether Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan will be appointed to continue by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath. Screengrab from HISD TV

For all those people who looked at or read about the shenanigans of the Houston School Board over the last couple of years and thought they or their dog "could do better than that" or wondered "How did these people get elected?" — well now's your chance to step up.

After months upon months of waiting, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath finally made his decision Wednesday and announced that he will be replacing the Houston ISD trustee board with his own appointees.

The next step: to find those people to put on a board of managers. And yes you can apply to be considered. The application form is already up online. Technically, you have until January 2, 2020 to do so, but since the applicant review process begins December 6, 2019, applicants are urged to act much earlier and, it is noted "those applying later in the application window may not be reviewed."

As an applicant — you haven't even been picked yet — you'll have to go through two days of training. Besides the information value of such an exercise, it's probably an easy way to weed out the folks constitutionally unable to sit through long school board meetings. There are a whole series of other hurdles to jump through - including additional training and a homework assignment - for those who make it past the first stages.

Those selected can expect to perform the usual trustee duties (hopefully better) until it becomes time to transition back into a board of elected officials.

In a letter to HISD, Morath said because of HISD's continued inability to improve academic standings at Wheatley High School and because of board behavior that goes beyond dysfunction into alleged misconduct, it is time for another group of people to step in and run the district. In doing so he is following the recommendation of a team of TEA investigators.

Among other findings, those investigators allege that five board members violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and that some board members lied to them during their inquiries about that violation. Investigators also found that many of the board members took it upon themselves to perform the duties reserved for a school district's administration and there were questionable efforts on their parts in relation to vendor contracts.

Still up in the air is whether Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan will continue in her role. That also is up to Morath. Five members of the present school board - Board President Diana Davila,  Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Anne Sung and Elizabeth Santos — had wanted to replace her with former superintendent Abe Saavedra. Trustees Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Jolanda Jones and Wanda Adams have been her biggest supporters. In fact, it was the "walking quorum" efforts to replace her that triggered much of TEA's actions.

But with the latest elections the makeup of the board has changed. Davila and Lira were both defeated in the re-election bids Tuesday. And Skillern-Jones instead ran for a seat on the Houston Community College System board where she is in a runoff.

Those newly elected to the school board will be sworn in but will lose all decision-making power once the appointed board is installed by the state commissioner. There is no set timetable for when this will take place.

Clearly the makeup of an appointed board is of immense concern to the community. HISD is still officially trying to fight this action in court but Texas law and the voters own signal Tuesday that it's time for a change, would both seem to work against that.

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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.
Contact: Margaret Downing