HISD's Grier Scores a Semi-Win in Contract Extension, Three Trustees Search for Their Cojones

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Three abstentions? Really? You're voting on extending the contract of the man who works for you and you opt out? Decide not to have an opinion? Decide not to share your opinion? Certainly it's unlike any job review in the real world.

Last night, as expected, five members of the Houston ISD school board decided not to wait until December -- as Superintendent Terry Grier's contract had called for -- but to immediately renew his $300,000 yearly contract an extra year through 2014.

The surprise was that the newly elected school board president, Mike Lunceford, abstained from the vote. He was joined in his inability to choose between yes and no by newly elected Rhonda Skillern-Jones and board member Juliet Stipeche, who was elected in November 2010.

Only Anna Eastman voted a clear-cut no, to oppose the yeses from Paula Harris, Manuel Rodriguez, Greg Meyers, Harvin Moore and Larry Marshall.

So if you're Terry Grier, is your biggest problem Eastman or do you lump the others in with her who couldn't say yes? And with a 5-1-3 vote, do you plunge onward, pull back a bit and/or start polishing your résumé on the side?

In any case, we clearly have a divided board -- considered a no-no in HISD board training sessions, the mantra being: disagree privately, vote together publicly on the big issues. And what's bigger than a superintendent's contract? (Grier also gets $1,200 a month in auto expenses, $400 a month for cell phone costs and is eligible for performance bonuses each year, with a possible but not probable target of $125,000 this year.)

By extending the contract now, taxpayers are responsible for additional buyout dollars (a combination of one year's salary and the financial worth of all his benefits), which one source said would amount to more than $750,000 (we've asked HISD to verify this and will update as needed) should trustees become disenchanted with Grier or should the board makeup change. It would take a two-thirds vote to terminate him -- something he clearly does not have to worry about now.

Moore set the stage for an early contract renewal at the school board meeting last month when he praised the superintendent. And following last night's vote, HISD's PR office generated a press release enumerating all that Grier has done, such as the Apollo 20 turn-around schools initiative, a new method of evaluating teachers, more Advanced Placement course offerings, the addition of Grad Labs and Twilight High Schools to counter the dropout problem, not to mention getting federal classroom technology funding reinstated after earlier employee "improprieties," which meant HISD got a total of $88 million to use to wire campuses to support its computers in the schools.

But critics, and there are always critics, aren't so pleased. What Grier and HISD tout as strength -- the Apollo project -- critics say is an unfair distribution of scarce resources to just a few of the district's schools.

They point out that Grier made just 55 percent of the goals trustees set for him. (A failing grade on anyone's report card.) So either trustees set the goals way too high or all this fuss about goals really doesn't matter anyway? And why was the vote needed now, before the academic results from the 2011-12 year are in? If some of the trustees needed more data to make up their minds, couldn't they have asked the vote on the contract extension be delayed?

An argument among Grier's supporters is that if they hadn't voted now to extend the superintendent's contract, he might leave. That's bogus, critics say. Dallas ISD's school board voted to extend then-superintendent Michael Hinojosa's contract by five years; he still jumped to Atlanta. A contract extension does not lock in a superintendent.

And why was the vote needed now when it would clearly be a divided one and would be noticed by bond-rating evaluators? Can that divided a board vote show this is a district that's pulling together with a clear vision?

Entertainment value aside and whatever the repercussions, last night's vote clearly gave the public a closer look at its school board and should help it understand its actions in the weeks and months to come.

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