Upon Further Investigation, TEA Appears Ready to Oust the HISD Board

Could we be saying buh-bye?
Could we be saying buh-bye? Photo lineup by HISD
Looks like the Texas Education Agency is about to put the Houston ISD board out of our misery.

Unless it asterisks its findings and finds more reason for delay, the state seems poised to give the boot to that rambunctious group of elected officials — some of them liars, meddlers and gold diggers it appears. In what should be absolutely no surprise to anyone, TEA has investigated the H-Town Nine and found them wanting.

Its investigative report recommends that the district's accreditation rating be lowered, that a conservator be appointed and that the board be replaced.

"Based on the findings, the SIU [Special Investigations Unit] will recommend to the Commissioner of Education that the accreditation status of the district be lowered, a conservator be appointed, and a Board of Managers be installed in accordance with Tex. Educ. Code §39.057(d) to replace the existing Board of Trustees due to the HISD Board of Trustees’ demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the Superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are followed."

In other words, the TEA seems to be saying these trustees just can't follow the law.

What is surprising is the length and breath of the findings. As expected, TEA says yes, five trustees (Diana Davila, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung) violated the Open Meetings Act by operating a "walking quorum" — three people in, another two after them — in their secret meeting with former superintendent Abe Saavedra who they tried to bring back as superintendent in an October 11, 2018 vote and oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

And by the way, shouldn't veteran administrator Saavedra have known better than to try to back door Lathan? Was that ethical? Certainly with all his experience he should have known he shouldn't have been meeting with those board members like that.

By law, trustees aren't supposed to operate that way. Matters involving board decisions are supposed to be discussed by the whole board and move on from there. Not spring it as a surprise on the public and their fellow board members. Making matters worse, in their one on ones with the TEA investigators the trustees couldn't keep their stories straight, contradicting each other on who was with whom and when.

Trustees, of course, have been given a few days to respond to the TEA report. They have until August 15 to do so.

Lathan doesn't exactly come out of the interviews the TEA conducted covered with glory. Some of those same trustees said she not only ignored any of their wishes, but allowed a community activist who had verbally attacked some board members not only to continue to come to meetings but wouldn't step in when another trustee appointed him to an HISD board against the wishes of the chair.

Still, if TEA's investigation is correct - and there's no reason at this point to think it's not - trustees (and this looks like pretty much all of them so let's add in Jolanda Jones, Sue Deigaard, Wanda Adams and Rhonda Skillern-Jones - overwhelmed her staff with their requests/demands and regularly circumvented her completely when she - not they - is supposed the one in charge of administering the school district.

Meddling in school affairs — a time honored problem in HISD that the board was supposed to have stopped —continued pretty much unabated the TEA found. The highlight had to be when Board President Diana Davila went into a school without telling the principal, stepped into the middle of the new High School For Law and Justice being built and ordered a wall they'd put in, taken out.

And they did it! At a cost of $20,000!

That same Davila also leaned on vendors and worked to sway contracts, the TEA said. At her side was husband Abel Davila who according to what the TEA was told:

"An HISD senior administrator was directed to remove a contract for the construction of Austin High School in December 2016. The HISD senior administrator stated Trustee Davila asked him to remove the Pepper Lawson contract from the January board agenda after the procurement process had occurred. Moreover, Trustee Davila and her husband told the administrator that they wanted a firm out of Dallas, wanted him to make it happen, and threatened him with his job if he did not do it. "
 At another point the TEA reports:

"In August of 2016, Trustee Davila met with a HISD senior administrator at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen along with her husband, Abel Davila, Art Lopez, and Leticia Ablaza. The administrator stated that the nature of the meeting was to strategize a way to get bond contracts cancelled and re-bid. Moreover, the administrator told SIU investigators Trustee Davila and her husband, along with Mr. Lopez and Ms. Ablaza, focused on the custodial contract with MetroClean. Trustee Davila, Art Lopez, and Leticia Ablaza demanded that HISD cancel its contract with MetroClean, and award it to Accel Building Maintenance (ABM Inc.). The administrator responded, “ABM Inc. did not have a good reputation with the district and therefore would not be considered as a vendor.” To which Trustee Davila replied, “It will happen if we want it to happen.”
 No. 1 what the hell was Abel Davila doing involved in HISD business?  And check your history books kids, because this is the same man who was former chair of the board of the then-troubled Houston Community College before a surprise announcement in 2009 that he would not run for re-election. At that time there were a lot of allegations swirling that both Davilas had pushed to get jobs and contracts for friends, family and supporters.

Davila was far from the only trustee cited. For instance, according to the TEA, trustee Adams waded into contract negotiations.

"As mentioned in the memo drafted by former Compliance Officer Debi Fincher, Trustee Adams provided non-public information to a sub-contractor affiliated with the vendor in an ongoing RFP. Unbeknownst to the district, that sub-contractor was a colleague of Trustee Adams which could lead to the conclusion that Trustee Adams was pushing for the contract to go in favor of that vendor. This conduct violates Tex. Educ. Code§44.031(a)(1) because this was a board member who interfered with the competitive bidding process. This conduct also violates CAA (LOCAL) because the board member shared confidential information to a vendor, during the RFP
process, breaking the Code of Silence." 

Unfortunately there's more, lots more. For instance, the job order contracts that got then HISD Chief Auditor Richard Patton run out of his job in 2016 is referenced. That's when they were neatly dividing up contracted work in amounts less than $500,000 so it didn't have to come up for a board vote.

For everyone who cries local control and free elections, well the bunch in there right now is an unfortunate testament to what can go wrong. Who knows if the state will come up with a board that's any better. It's hard to believe it could be worse.

You can read it and weep. Or you could do something. Think of the children. Because in all this mess it kind of looks like they've been left out of the equation.

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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