TEA Clearly Thinks Some HISD Trustees Are Fibbing, To Put it Delicately

Well it's safe to say Diana Davila is on TEA's naughty list.
Well it's safe to say Diana Davila is on TEA's naughty list. Screengrab from HISD TV
Well it's official. The Texas Education Agency's investigation team has recommended the TEA replace the Houston ISD elected school board with a state-appointed board that will be in charge for a while. It'll still be up to Commissioner Mike Morath to pull the trigger.

In a massive report backed up with recovered emails and crowded with allegations of dysfunction and corruption that drips with sarcasm when it addresses the counter claims of several of the trustees, the TEA investigators carefully fill in more of the picture revealed in August, when the first news of what the investigators found was disclosed.

When contacted about the report, the HISD press office directed all inquiries to the TEA.

To recap: several of the trustees are accused of serial meddling and exceeding their authority by directing administrative staff and school staff to bow to their bidding. Five of them — Diana Davila, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Anne Sung and Elizabeth Santos — stand accused of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by engineering a coup d'etat of the interim superintendent's position, conducting a walking quorum by meeting in private with their candidate Abe Saavedra to do so.

Three of them — Davila, Lira and Flynn Vilaseca —  seem to be suffering from the kind of intense amnesia only seen in really bad soap opera plots.

What is known from Saavedra is that the five trustees wanted Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan ousted, saying they felt disenfranchised. "They discussed at length how the interim superintendent ignored them and did not respect them," Saavedra reportedly told the TEA.

TEA also brings up HISD's "historical problems with contract awarding and contract procurement," as when it was divvying up contracts it was awarding to bring them under the $500,000 threshold that would have required further review.

And speaking of divvying, the TEA calls foul on the board's Trustee Allocation Fund which was in essence a slush fund split nine ways among the trustees to do with what they wanted in their districts. In other words, when Rhonda Skillern-Jones (recently endorsed by the Houston Chronicle for the Houston Community College Board!) decided some of that bond money should be used purchase books for Burrus Elementary, she was taking over the job that's supposed to fall to the superintendent and her administrative staff.

The TEA comes right out and says Board President Davila and trustee Lira "made deceptive statements" when they said they didn't meet in a group with Saavedra, the former superintendent they had lined up for a return engagement at the helm of HISD. "Lira failed to cooperate with the Agency’s investigation by falsely claiming that there were no other trustees present when he met with Dr. Saavedra. Trustees Santos, Sung, Flynn Vilaseca and Dr. Saavedra all confirm that Trustee Lira was present at the meeting attended by Trustees Santos, Sung, Flynn Vilaseca and Dr. Saavedra," the TEA wrote.

"It is hard to imagine how Trustee Lira forgot Trustees Santos, Sung, and Flynn Vilaseca were also present when he met with Dr. Saavedra," the TEA drily concludes.

Davila first claimed the group of trustees  did not meet with Saavedra. Later, in her HISD response, she claimed she could not remember who was at the meeting with Saavedra - even though Flynn Vilaseca and Saavedra remember all of them being together — and was the only one who did not hand over any emails about the Daavedra negotiations, saying she deleted them because they weren't important. "Given her central role in this transaction, her claim that her prior false statements were a result of failure to remember, rather than failure to cooperate with the investigation is not credible," the TEA wrote. And continued:

Board President Davila’s original statement was self-serving because it minimized her and the board’s misconduct. Board President Davila only acknowledges her original statement was not true after learning that Trustee Flynn Vilaseca and Dr. Saavedra had acknowledged that all three had met together on October 8, 2018. Given her involvement in the meeting and given the high level of importance of the action, the evidence indicates that Board President Davila falsely told investigators that she met with Dr. Saavedra alone.

And while Davila swore to investigators that she did not discuss the removal of Interim Superintendent Grenita Latham with Saavedra along with the proposal to put Saavedra in that position, this was contradicted by Davila's own public statements in a school board meeting that she had talked with Saavedra about the position and that he would not be applying for the job on a permanent basis.

In the HISD response, trustees Davila, Lira, Flynn Vilaseca, Anne Sung and Elizabeth Santos, in nearly identical language insist they met with Saavedra just to "gain the benefits of his experience as superintendent in many school districts, including HISD."

Davila also gets special attention with allegations that she ordered a wall taken down at the High School of Law and Justice when it was under construction. The principal found out that she'd been at the school thanks to pictures on Twitter. and an HISD administrator confirmed that Davila had ordered the change (at a cost of $20,000).

According to accounts from another HISD senior administrator, Davila directed him to remove a contract for the construction of Austin High School in December 2016. "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."

Also, the TEA reports: "During a workshop with Deputy Commissioner AJ Crabill and HISD administration regarding Improvement Required campuses, Trustee Davila expected principals to explain what they needed
so trustees could provide resources to prevent another failing year. Principals refused to speak over the superintendent, prompting Trustee Davila to say, “Let me be clear, I won’t hesitate to vote you out when your contract comes up if you don’t tell me what you want right now, because your four schools are in the playoffs.”

Elsewhere, the TEA reports:

In August of 2016, Trustee Davila met with an 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.”
After the administrator refused to cancel the MetroClean Contract, the owner of MetroClean told the administrator that ABM Inc. had approached MetroClean to give them a consultant agreement. On March 19, 2019, SIU contacted Jose Perez, owner of MetroClean Commercial Building Services, and discussed his interaction with Ricardo Aguirre, owner of ABM Inc. ( See Exhibit 3.4 ). On March 19, 2019, during an interview with SIU, Mr. Perez confirmed that Ricardo Aguirre approached him and attempted to force him to sign a consulting agreement stating that “MetroClean” would pay “Accel” a monthly salary of 2% of gross revenue received. In addition, “MetroClean” would increase the monthly payment to 3% if more contracts were secured. Mr. Perez provided the administrator a photographic document of what Mr. Aguirre wanted him to sign. ( See Exhibit 3.5 ). Mr. Perez stated that he was in the Request for Proposal process with HISD for custodial services when he was approached by Mr. Aguirre to circumvent the procurement process. Moreover, Mr. Perez mentioned that Mr. Aguirre attempted to pressure him into signing the agreement stating, “Diana Davila’s husband sent me here to have you sign this agreement.” Additionally, Mr. Perez stated that Aguirre threatened him saying, “If you don’t sign the agreement, HISD will not approve your contract.”

TEA's conclusion:

Trustee Davila violated Tex. Educ. Code §44.031 (a)(1) when she met with an HISD senior administrator to influence the administrator to choose a certain vendor for a custodial contract. Trustee Davila violated this statute because she tried to circumvent the competitive bidding process. Furthermore, a colleague of Trustee Davila visited with a vendor who was in the RFP process and tried to coerce the vendor into a consulting contract.

Meanwhile, in a mind-boggling statement to investigators,  trustee Flynn Vilaseca says she can't remember why she brought a copy of former Superintendent Richard Carranza's contract to a meeting with would-be interim superintendent Abe Savadra.

And if that's not bad enough, in the October 30 letter sent to the board after Deputy Commissioner Jeff Cottrill reviewed the investigators' findings, TEA says "additional investigative work may be conducted in the future to address any remaining allegations." And that other divisions of TEA may be investigating HISD.

But whew, the charge against trustee Elizabeth Santos for repeatedly eating for free over at the Hattie Mae White Administration building was dropped.

Trustee Wanda Adams came in for her share of scrutiny. In 2015, according to TEA, she provided non-public information to a vendor violating the district policy calling for a Code of Silence during the contract awarding process. Adams also frequently bypassed the superintendent to ask staff to take actions that she wanted regarding personnel, to hold meetings, and requesting information. Trustees Sue Deigaard, Skillern-Jones, Santos and Flynn Vilaseca were also cited for directing staff members to do things for them without going through the superintendent. According to the TEA, when trustees do this they are violating the Texas Election Code.

The HISD response was to say that former Superintendent Richard Carranza allowed individual board members to directly request information from administrators. It also maintained that when trustees were doing this it was just an expression of their opinions and not directives. TEA says it doesn't care; what they trustees have been doing is against the state's regulations for school boards.

Again, Davila is the one found most wanting by the TEA investigators:

Throughout this investigation, Board President Davila has provided TEA investigators with false statements regarding material facts. These false statements have tended to minimize her responsibility for the allegations being investigated. She has falsely told investigators that she met with Dr. Saavedra alone on October 8, 2018, when Trustee Flynn Vilaseca was present for that meeting. She has falsely told the Agency that she did not exchange text messages with Dr. Saavedra, when Dr. Saavedra has acknowledged that they exchanged text messages regarding Trustee Flynn Vilaseca’s arrangements for the October 8, 2018 meeting. Further, Board
President Davila has failed to cooperate with this investigation by failing to turn over the relevant text

Board President Davila has made other statements that are contradicted by other evidence in addition to this claim. Two HISD officials told investigators that then-Trustee Davila asked them to move a wall during construction and that the wall was moved at the expense of the district. Board President Davila acknowledges that she commented about the wall, but that she specifically told the contractors not to move the wall because it would incur an additional expense. This is a material fact regarding an allegation in the preliminary report that then-Trustee Davila acted individually on behalf of the board by directing the construction change. Based on the evidence, this claim by Board President Davila has been rejected by the Agency.

In this instance, an HISD official has told TEA that then-Trustee Davila pressured him to change contractors and that she threatened his job. Board President Davila has a history of threatening employment actions against HISD administrators who do not do what she tells them.111 Further, this allegation is corroborated by statements from Jose Perez stating that the vendor contacted him with threats that Board President Davila would not approve the contract unless he was given a consulting fee. Similar to the example cited above, Board President Davila accuses this administrator of fabricating the entire incident. HISD attaches an affidavit from Ricardo Aguirre denying that either Board President Davila or her husband asked him to reach out to MetroClean regarding any agreement.

Given that Board President Davila has provided demonstrably false and dubious statements in this investigation, her denial of this accusation lacks credibility. Even though the HISD administrator is not identified, the presence of evidence corroborating this allegation, and the evidence that Board President Davila has failed to cooperate with this investigation requires the Agency to sustain this allegation.
And just to remind you what intensified TEA's look at HISD, here's just a sample of the board dysfunction cited by the TEA:
Board attempts to address low performing campuses have resulted in disorderly and disorganized board meetings. During the April 24, 2018 board workshop, interactions amongst the Board of Trustees, and the public escalated to unmanageable outbursts, constant disruptions, and disrespectful comments. Upon going over the allotted time, former President Rhonda Skillern-Jones asked law enforcement to remove the last public speaker from the podium sparking further outbursts from the audience. Former President Skillern-Jones then requested law enforcement assistance in clearing the boardroom. The audience reacted in outrage shouting expletives while Trustee Wanda Adams could be heard saying, “I’m sick of this shit, clear the room.” Law enforcement had to remove audience members out of the board room and arrested two community members.

Additionally, the HISD Board of Trustees have demonstrated unprofessional behaviors by means of inappropriate verbal arguments during multiple meetings. Trustees have historically interrupted each other during their allotted speaking time, complained about speaking time, and regularly failed adhering to Robert’s Rules of Order. Board meetings lack control and order, as evident in the May 10, 2018 meeting when Trustee Jolanda Jones interrupted President Skillern-Jones and stated, “It’s frustrating that they [administration] send us [trustees] stuff, and then we come to this table and ask questions we’ve already gotten the answers to… This is already a long meeting and there are people sitting here that still haven’t gotten to speak yet, so I’m tired of meeting to death.”

During a board meeting held on June 14, 2018, Trustee Jones stated, “…In reference to the Legislative Budget Board Audit… I think that’s a crackhead move, that’s my opinion.” 

Further on, events that occurred during the October 11, 2018 meeting revealed the chaotic dynamics of the HISD Board of Trustees. As Trustee Anne Sung calls a motion to execute the agreement with HYA, arguments erupted between trustees. Trustee Adams commented on the specifics of the contract. Legal counsel interjected during Trustee Adams’ commentary to keep her from disclosing closed session discussions, such as specifics of the contract, and the lack of community engagement. Tension on the board intensified when Trustee Davila expressed that there had been an intentional delay to begin the superintendent search by other trustees.
Trustee Davila’s rhetoric prompted Trustee Adams to express her frustrations about a factional divide on the HISD Board of Trustees and within the district’s administration. Trustee Adams stated, “Read the conservator’s reports, it is about racial lines, and we need to stop it as a board… when you say our community, Santos, that means Black, Brown, Hispanic, Asian, it means everybody. Not just one side, so you need to collaborate with all the principals that don’t look like you. We need to come together as one team and make sure we are all on one accord, because we are sending a message that should not be… We have to put what’s best for kids, and we are not… we are worried about if someone is Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, it shouldn’t be that way… it should be about one color and that’s our kids.”

Conflicts between trustees not only highlight a difference of opinion, they expose a factional divide that prevents the HISD governing body from moving forward as a district. As Trustee Jones pointed out, “We have people that are working here because Latinos on the board have threatened the superintendent that she better not fire them… there is a race war on this board. I know from both Sergio and Sue that they are concerned, and I do not believe my colleagues always vote for what’s best for student achievement but to not appear to side with one race over another.” The comments from board members clearly illustrate the dysfunction of the board.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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