Bayou City

Principal Bertie Simmons Files Complaint With Feds After HISD Sends Her Home

HISD picked a fight with the wrong principal.
HISD picked a fight with the wrong principal. Photo by Meagan Flynn
Neither Furr High School Principal Dr. Bertie Simmons nor her pool of supporters are willing to accept Houston Independent School District's dubious justification for her removal from the school last week, pending an investigation into the distinguished educator's alleged bad behavior. Namely, that the five-foot-tall, 83-year-old Simmons threatened a student with a baseball bat and failed to "relax" the dress code at the beginning of the school year.

So Simmons got a lawyer and, on Monday, filed a complaint with the U.S. departments of justice and education, alleging the true source of her sudden dismissal from school must actually be a cocktail of retaliation and age and racial discrimination.

As Simmons said at a press conference Monday, as for the alleged bat threat, she's been teasing her students at Furr for the past 17 years as principal, saying, "Don't make me go get my bat," which, she says, was given to her inscribed as a gift and which "I can hardly pick up," or, another example she gave, "Don't make me take off my earrings." And as for the uniforms: Simmons, who came out of retirement to take the reins at Furr in 2000, when the graduation rate was below 50 percent and "gangs ruled the school," said she simply did not want to let up on the uniform policy because she did not want to see gang members wearing their colors and starting fights again.

Her attorney, Scott Newar, called the two allegations "ludicrous," saying that they were a pretext for a desire to simply replace Simmons with someone younger and non-white — reflective of the student body — while Simmons simply said the district's decision made her sad.

"I’m 83 years old. I don’t have to be at Furr," Simmons said. "But I do care about those students and their families."

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"The thing that saddens me is to see us make decisions that are not the best for our students. I’m 83 years old. I don’t have to be at Furr," Simmons said. "But I do care about those students and their families, and I want what’s best for them. This is not what’s best for them."

Announcing the federal complaints Monday, Simmons and Newar were joined by two of Simmons's colleagues who were also either removed or reassigned by HISD Friday — which Newar called a "Soviet-style purge" of her supporters. But, unlike Simmons, her colleagues were given no reason for the changes. There's at least one common thread, though: Each of them plays some key role in a $10 million grant awarded to Furr High School — and only Furr High School — in 2016 by Lauren Powell Jobs, the widow of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. It's called the XQ grant, given to only ten schools in the nation.

Sharon Koonce, the project manager for the grant, got a phone call Friday evening from an HISD administrator, telling her not to bother showing up Monday and, at least temporarily, to stay off campus; since she's an hourly employee, she doesn't think she'll be getting paid in the meantime. Jean Obanda, an IT specialist at the school who headed various media projects related to the $10 million grant and worked directly with students, was transferred to work in an HISD warehouse. His family, he said, had directly witnessed the transformation at Furr thanks to Simmons's leadership: His sister graduated in the early 2000s, and he in 2010, and they had watched the school go from a haven for gang activity with a graduation rate of 47 percent to "a more friendly, peaceful place," Obanda said, with a graduation rate of 94 percent last year.

The style of Simmons is a big reason Jobs awarded Furr the grant — but, Newar says, it may also be a key part of the district's motivation to oust her: Back when Furr High School was awarded the grant money, HISD was told that the money could not be used district-wide at other schools — just Furr.

"The grant money is five years for up to $10 million, and Dr. Simmons and Ms. Koonce are the people responsible for that grant. Without them at Furr, the district has an open opportunity to gain control — or thinks it can gain control — of that grant money," Newar said. "At this point, we think there are multiple motives — but that's definitely one of them."

To Simmons, the whole purpose of the grant was to slice through bureaucracy in order to rethink education and discipline, whether through changes in how students use technology or the restorative discipline program, ensuring that no kid gets suspended for minor infractions like, say, uniform violations. Now, however, in Simmons's eyes, the district has shown just why it isn't cut out for those changes.

"We received this grant to rethink high schools, to make high schools what they should be in order to send off students who are prepared for the next century," she said. "And I just wanted to point out that this is why you can't rethink public high schools, is because of bureaucracy that gets involved and stops you from accomplishing what we need to be accomplishing for our students."

The XQ grant plays only a small part in the complaints sent to the feds on Monday, which focus more on alleged racial discrimination. In the complaints, Newar points to six white principals in the district recently replaced by Hispanic or black principals, saying that Simmons is supposedly next. He also points to comments by HISD Trustee Diana Davila, who reportedly said at a 2016 fundraiser event that HISD has “too many White administrators.”

In response to Simmons's complaint, HISD released the following statement: 

“HISD has an obligation to investigate when there have been allegations of misconduct. Dr. Bertie Simmons has been temporarily reassigned while HISD investigates the allegations. HISD will respond to the EEOC and the Department of Justice complaints filed on behalf of Dr. Simmons, and denies any allegations of a pattern and practice of discriminatory treatment against employees.”

HISD said it would not be making any further comment, citing personnel matters, leaving the sudden changes in Koonce's and Obanda's employment unexplained.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn