A divided Houston ISD school board, distracted in part as word started coming in about the tragic school bus accident that morning that left two teenage passengers dead, stopped its closed-door proceedings Tuesday and called it a day on the question of appointing an interim superintendent, saying they would resume discussions later.
Last week, Terry Grier announced he was resigning after six years as superintendent of the sprawling district. He said he would work through March 1 – his educator retirement criteria play a part in this – and trustees began discussing what they should do in the next six months and called Tuesday's meeting to discuss the possibility of an interim superintendent. Grier has missed days for recent knee surgery and has another round scheduled in November.
From discussions with board members it appears there were some who were ready to appoint Deputy Superintendent/Chief Financial Officer Ken Huewitt at last week's meeting. As deputy superintendent Huewitt already handles some of the superintendent's duties when Grier is out on leave.
Other trustees feel that especially since there are a lot of concerns about how the 2012 bond program has proceeded, as well as a highly critical, just-released audit of how the district is administrating its construction contracts, that it would be better to wait.
Trustee Anna Eastman said after the meeting that she continues to have a lot of questions about how the job-order contracts have been administered. Among other things the audit showed that the district's Construction and Facilities Service Department wasn't asking for detailed information about costs before writing big checks to contractors and that it was cutting up the same project into different pieces so that it could come in under the $500,000 state-mandated threshold and grant contracts without having to ask permission from that pesky school board.
“Someone's got to be held accountable for it. There's been too many 'oops.'” Eastman said. “I have concerns about people with less authority in the organization taking all the responsibility. I think leadership has to take responsibility for anyone in the organization thinking that was ok or that was the right thing to do.”
As for the interim question:
“The board cannot name an interim unless we officially reassign the superintendent to other duties which he has to agree upon,” said Eastman. “It would have to be a negotiated agreement, or we would agree on a quicker termination of his contract and I don't think the board is interested in that or the superintendent.”
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Eastman said she thinks the board should concentrate on finding a new superintendent and wait till after Grier's March 1 departure to appoint an interim. “I'd like to see a person [new superintendent] in place before the next school year. Dr. Grier started in September so basically the organization that was in place was his predecessor's organization.” Eastman also said it was important for any new board members to be part of the process, as well as the community.
Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones thinks the board should work quickly in moving along the process for a new superintendent, but not so fast that they don't get input from all aspects of the community to make sure that person is a good match for HISD and its demands.
As for the interim spot, Skillern-Jones said, “I don't think it's unanimous around the board that we not appoint one now. We have a superintendent who is out on leave. He has an acting deputy superintendent which is in place [Don Huewitt] I have some trouble with that situation as it exists. We suspect that the superintendent may be out on medical leave for a long period of time. And I have some concern about where responsibility rests in that situation.
“Does it rest with the superintendent who is physically absent or does it rest with the deputy superintendent and who gets to decide where that responsibility rests is the board? So until we have a clear cut picture of who's responsible, who's actually at the helm, and who we hold accountable then I'm uncomfortable with that as a situation. So I think that should be temporary. It may not be popular opinion. We're looking at six months out of a nine-month school year. A lot of things can happen. Who do we hold accountable and in what way? “