Houston ISD Board Members Caught on Camera in a Toxic Team Building Retreat

Reality shows have nothing on the HISD school board.
Reality shows have nothing on the HISD school board. Screengrab from HISD video
We knew they didn't get along. Anyone watching one of the Houston ISD's school board meetings in the last year could tell you that. Even after a public apology for their inability to work together in a civil manner, certain trustees haven't been able to resist the urge to unload on each other in public. Grudges are everywhere.

And now we have the video. The video first unveiled by the Houston Chronicle and now secured by the Houston Press through a public information request that shows a whole new level of resentment festering among board members that broke out in a toxic level at a training meeting where they thought they were not being filmed.

We're left with a searing image of trustee Wanda Adams advancing across the floor to yell at board member Elizabeth Santos — no stranger in her own right to landing zingers against other board members in the district's monthly night meetings before a room full of people. We find out Rhonda Skillern-Jones didn't want to be the board president again and didn't feel like she was supported in the last year. We discover Anne Sung was going to be the president until trustee Jolanda Jones sank that. And that Sung compares her time on the board to being "like an abusive marriage, an abusive relationship."

In response to Santos voicing her concerns about the level of security offered to trustees by the HISD police force, Adams is seen throwing her hands up in the air before leaving her seat to advance on Santos. Ultimately she is herded back into her chair by the Texas Education Agency Deputy Commissioner of Governance AJ Crabill who was there to moderate the session.

"I was attacked the whole freaking year," a clearly emotional Adams says. "People came to my house putting stuff at my home. People called me black, they called me bitches, they called me hoes. Did y'all come to my defense? Hell no. So you want to know how I felt last year? Me and I was quiet the whole year. So don't come up here crying 'woe is me' when people came to my house, attacked me, nobody didn't say [word bleeped out by HISD] when out there threatening my life. Did anybody comfort me? No.

"Nobody didn't defend me last year. They threatened my life last year, to kill me last year." As Santos tries to say something, Adams replies: "Go on with your ass. And I held that for a year."

Of course, to some, there were reasons for heated passions after what some considered betrayals on both sides. The three African American board members — Skillern-Jones, Jones and Adams — who have been strong supporters of Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, tried to get a one-year contract approved for her in late September. Trustees voted 5-4 against considering that.

In October five of the board members (Diana Davila, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Santos and Sung) had somehow gotten together or communicated with each other — it's still being investigated by the TEA as a matter of possible violation of the Open Meetings Act — deciding that Lathan had to go and former superintendent Abe Saavedra should be rehired. Their surprise move at a board meeting completely left out the three African American board members. Ultimately Saavedra bailed; this board was too tough to deal with, too dysfunctional. Lathan was reinstated as interim.

During the meeting Sung, a former HISD teacher, addresses what she says are the lies being told about her employment record. "The yelling that happened in public, right? And lies about people right? Trustee Adams said that I had been fired. I was never fired. Anybody can walk into HR with me and look at my record."

Eventually, during the seven hour meeting, the trustees got productive and talked about working together and improvements that need to be made in the district. But those statements have been made before and clearly this is not a kumbaya sort of group.

At one point during the meeting while discussing the board's inability to work together, Santos says "How can we sit here and keep talking about ourselves when it's our students that end up getting screwed over?" She notes that her head hurts. Imagine how the public feels. 
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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