HISD Trustees Go Back to Square One, Discuss Their Options Tonight

Diana Davila taking over the president's chair earlier this year.
Diana Davila taking over the president's chair earlier this year. Screenshot from HISD TV
For the last three years, Doris Delaney has been appointed by the Texas Education Agency to help straighten out Houston Independent School District. As a state-appointed conservator she has fairly substantial powers that range far beyond just giving advice.

For instance, as she did just this past Monday, she can overrule a planned action by the school board — in this case, its plan to hire a new permanent superintendent. In the proverbial 11th hour she hit the pause button, the day before trustees were ready to announce a name. Any superintendent action is suspended, she said, until after TEA completes its investigation of the district on several fronts.

The biggest question HISD Board President Diana Davila has – one shared by many others – is why now?

“We’ve been working really hard as a board, trying to change the way we govern things, trying to change the format of our meetings, trying to really focus on the student outcomes,” she said. “There are a lot of positive things happening to get us back on track.

“The conservator at any point could have given us directives. I direct you to limit your comments to a minute at board meetings, I direct you to do agenda reviews at this time. I direct you to take questions and answers. There’s a lot of directives you could have given us throughout this time to help us improve our meetings.
“So the very first one happens to be: suspend the superintendent search?”

Why didn’t Delaney say no when the board voted publicly on February 18 to continue its superintendent search? Why didn’t she say no way Jose when they hired a search firm? Why didn’t she say guess again when they accepted applicants’ resumes and lined up final interviews that were to take place last Monday and Tuesday.

“She also has the right to override our votes, so at any point she could have said ‘I’m going to override that,’” Davila said.

Davila also doesn’t understand the course correction because several of their applicants said they contacted the TEA commissioner’s office asking if there was any reason for them not to risk applying for the HISD superintendent’s position and from their conversations were confident enough to do so.

“They were confident. We were confident. We posted we were ready to announce a finalist on Tuesday and we get a notice on Monday,” Davila said.

As much as HISD trustees have been accused of lurching from one crisis moment to another, this latest bit of drama was not something they orchestrated – at least not acting as a board of the whole.

And perhaps, given Delaney’s relatively low profile, this wasn’t something she came up with, but came from her boss Mike Morath, the TEA Commissioner? “There is nothing she can do without the commissioner’s authority,” Davila said. Who has also granted her expanded powers, the extent of which trustees will learn about in an executive session Thursday night, said Davila, who has also called for the board to hire an outside lawfirm to aid it in dealing with TEA.

There is absolutely nothing secret about the fact that the three African American board members believe interim superintendent Granita Lathan should be the permanent supe. It is also more than clear, based on their prior actions, that the Hispanic board members and Anne Sung don’t believe Lathan is up to the task since they voted to remove her and place former Superintendent Abe Saaveda in her place. Saavedra then rescinded his acceptance, reading the dysfunctional tea leaves and deciding he wanted no part of this at this point in what remains of his career.

Some trustees and outside politicians praised the TEA action. They argued that it is ridiculous to let the board pick a superintendent when it is under investigation for some schools’ poor academic performance (including Kashmere High, a school that Delaney was specifically assigned to help out in past years, but alas without enough success), a possible violation of the state’s open meetings act when five trustees got together sans public meeting to engineer the switch to Saavedra and now, the latest: unnamed possible irregularities in procurement procedures.

Except, except, except, would they be so vehemently against it if it was Lathan being approved?

People’s memories are short but controversy is, of course, absolutely nothing new to the HISD board. If it’s not the perennial debates over the magnet school system and the busing routes (perhaps Lathan should have stayed out of that one till she had the job permanently), it’s the question of who’s getting what and what’s equitable while the district still tries to meet the needs of the exceptional students. Trustees are not supposed to go into a school and tell a principal or teachers what to do, but some of them do and even talk about it in public meetings.

Questions about the district’s procurement practices have dogged the district for years with various board members at one time or another put under scrutiny in allegations they were dealing out special contract-awarding favors to friends or for their own financial gain. Former board member and president Lawrence Marshall was convicted in 2016 of bribery under the RICO Act (Racketeer Influences and Corrupt Organizations Act.)

The most recent version of the board, in addition to the already mentioned problems, features a group of people so often at odds with each other that they have provided unintentional theater. Alliances are made and broken. Trusts shattered. We know this because the board members have taken to discussing this at their board meetings.

Davila readily agrees all their meetings haven't been stellar but she is as quick to say that they haven't all been bad in the last year. "We have more meetings than the five we get criticized for all the time. And I tell people 'Have y'all not been watching City Council? Have y'all not been watching the state? Have y'all not been watching Congress."

"If we get taken over for academics then shame on us. We should be taken over [in that case.] But to do this to HISD because we have an additional investigation come forward?" She says she asked Morath what happens when the next set of allegations comes along, will that put HISD on hold even longer?

"When does it stop? When does it stop?" Davila asked. "He didn't have a firm answer on how long the investigation is going to take. There is no timeline."
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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