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Doris Delaney

HISD Superintendent search is back on

For now, anyway.

Houston ISD trustees kicked off their long-delayed search for a permanent leader Monday, choosing three superintendent search firms to interview later this week.

The initial move comes as the state’s largest district seeks to fill a position that Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has held since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City public schools. HISD’s search has been delayed because of the looming threat of state sanctions, a state order that temporarily halted the first search and lingering uncertainty about the trustees’ ability to hire a quality candidate, among other issues.

Trustees are scheduled to reconvene Wednesday and possibly Thursday to select from the three firms: Austin-based JG Consulting; Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates; and Nebraska-based McPherson & Jacobson. Board members opted against interviewing GR Recruiting and the Texas Association of School Boards’ Executive Search Services.

“I prefer to interview three and give those three more time with us,” Trustee Dani Hernandez said.

HISD trustees have not released a proposed timeline for completing the search. School boards typically take multiple months to choose a lone finalist.

As the story notes, the previous search was halted by conservator Doris Delaney, who cited the investigation into allegations that five HISD Trustees had violated the Open Meetings Act when they voted to bring back Abe Saavedra as interim Superintendent and force out Grenita Lathan. The recent Third Court of Appeals ruling that affirmed an injunction against the TEA takeover stated that TEA officials failed to follow their own procedures in conducting that investigation, which sort of brings us full circle.

The injunction did not explicitly say HISD trustees could resume the superintendent search, leading to uncertainty about the board’s authority. However, trustees are interpreting the injunction as giving them the power to restart their search, and TEA officials have not moved to halt the effort.

“Because of the turmoil, it’s been hard to know what has been the long-term vision (for HISD),” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said in November. “This process will help provide space to hear that, as well as the vision of others, as we do what’s best for kids.”

The potential for a bigger mess if the Supreme Court overturns the lower court rulings is very present, but one way or the other, the district deserves the opportunity to hire a new leader. Let’s just hope this results in less chaos and not more.

HISD Board declines to hire Lathan permanently

A national search will be conducted, with still-interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan encouraged to apply.

Houston ISD trustees voted Thursday against committing to Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the district’s long-term leader, opting instead to launch a national search before filling the position.

In a 6-3 vote, trustees generally complimented Lathan’s lengthy tenure as interim, but ultimately concluded the district needs a deeper search for a permanent chief. Some trustees encouraged Lathan to apply for the job during the search, though it is not immediately clear whether she will.

“As the largest school district in Texas and the seventh-largest in the United States, it is of the utmost importance that we think about candidates for the permanent superintendent position by going through a transparent and thorough search process,” HISD Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said.

“We owe it to our students, our community, our constituents and the taxpayers to do our due diligence.”

HISD trustees Judith Cruz, Sue Deigaard, Dani Hernandez, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung joined Flynn Vilaseca in voting to start the search. Lathan did not address the outcome during Thursday’s meeting or immediately respond to a request for comment through the district.

[…]

Lathan enjoyed strong backing from many other HISD administrators, with about 45 of them lauding her leadership amid district instability and the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This period now has been, by far, one of the most difficult I have seen during my tenure,” said Moreno Elementary School Principal Adriana Abarca-Castro, who has led the campus for 31 years. “I have witnessed how our superintendent, Dr. Lathan, has led us courageously, positively and (been) supportive in every way.”

Many of the city’s Black civic leaders also rallied to support Lathan, with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Reps. Alma Allen and Senfronia Thompson endorsing her Thursday. Lathan would have become the district’s first Black woman to lead the district if chosen.

However, Lathan’s tenure coincided with scathing state reports documenting extensive operational and special education issues in the district. One of HISD’s longest-struggling campuses, Wheatley High School, also received its seventh straight failing grade in 2019, triggering a state law that resulted in Education Commissioner Mike Morath moving to replace the district’s elected school board.

Some trustees argued HISD should not lock in a superintendent while they continue to fight in court to stop their ouster. The board’s lawsuit against the state is pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

“The TEA lawsuit has huge implications for our choice,” HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said.

HISD trustees did not outline a plan Thursday for conducting their search, though questions remain about whether they can legally engage in the process.

See here for the background. This whole thing is a mess. The best argument for doing the national search is that this is the way we have always searched for Superintendents. Under normal circumstances, the HISD Super job is a plum – we’re a big district, we’re in good fiscal shape, we’ve got a lot of good schools, and yet there are some real challenges on which someone with vision can make a difference. We get good applicants, and just the process of reviewing and interviewing them can provide some new perspective on HISD and its mission.

Of course, these are not normal circumstances. Putting aside the current disfunction with the Board, the looming state takeover would be a pretty serious drawback for any potential applicant, and that’s before you take into account the fact that the eventual appointed board of managers might move to vacate your contract. Plus, the fact that you’d be competing against a now-multi-year interim Super for the job might be an impediment. I don’t even know how to factor in the whole Abe Saavedra fiasco, other than as another example of what a circus it has been around here. The clear downside risk of not making Grenita Lathan permanent, even on a shorter-than-usual contract, is that she might just decide that she’s had it with this bullshit and leave, and now we don’t have any Superintendent at a time when that would be really bad. I don’t feel strongly one way or the other about Lathan, but it is fair to say she has not been treated well by the Board, even with two of the instigators of the Saavedra mess being defeated in the 2019 election. I don’t know where we go from here.

HISD to consider hiring Lathan permanently

Interesting.

Houston ISD trustees are scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to name Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the lone finalist to lead the district, an unanticipated development amid ongoing litigation over the state’s effort to oust HISD’s elected board members.

If trustees do not agree to remove Lathan’s interim tag, they also could vote Thursday to resume their search for a permanent superintendent, which has been essentially dormant for more than a year and a half.

It is not immediately clear whether HISD trustees can legally hire a superintendent or resume their search. A state-appointed conservator overseeing the district ordered trustees to halt their search in March 2019, but a Travis County judge issued a temporary injunction in HISD’s favor in January. The judge ruled the conservator is “prohibited from acting outside her lawful authority,” but did not clearly state whether that applied retroactively to the search suspension order.

[…]

The move to address the superintendent position arose Monday, when HISD Board President Sue Deigaard placed the two items on Thursday’s meeting agenda. Deigaard said she approved the agenda items at the request of some fellow trustees, whom she declined to name.

“We’re long overdue for this conversation, and at the request of my colleagues, we will now have this conversation,” Deigaard said. “I’m trying to approach it in a way that is respectful of the diverse opinions of my board colleagues, as well as trying to be considerate as possible.”

While most districts replace their superintendents in a matter of months with little public acrimony — Clear Creek ISD announced a lone finalist Monday — HISD’s search has faced chaos at each turn.

Most infamously, five of the board’s nine members covertly coordinated to oust Lathan in October 2018, giving no advance notice ahead of a vote to replace her with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra. Many of the city’s Black leaders denounced the replacement of Lathan, while others decried the lack of transparency. Trustees ultimately reversed their decision the next week, restoring Lathan’s interim tag.

Board members subsequently launched a national superintendent search, nearing the selection of a lone finalist. However, state conservator Doris Delaney, in place due to chronically low performance at several schools, employed her legal power to halt the search. Delaney provided little reason for the move in her order.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath then announced in November 2019 his intention to replace HISD’s elected trustees , citing multiple instances of misconduct among board members and a state law mandating sanctions after Wheatley High School received its seventh consecutive failing grade.

HISD sought and received an injunction, but questions remained about the lack of clarity in the order. From then on, trustees never spoke at length about resuming the search or permanently hiring Lathan until Monday. The legal case is pending before the Texas Supreme Court on a procedural matter.

There’s more, so read the rest. Apparently, any three Board members can put an item on the agenda. I have no strong opinion on this – in an ideal world, we would have had a national search by now, and it Lathan had been the choice, then so be it. As it is, who knows what might happen, given the state of the situation with the TEA. Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter gives an explainer on Twitter, and also notes that Lathan wants the job. We’ll find out tomorrow.

HISD conservator suspends superintendent search

Halt!

A state-appointed conservator ordered Houston ISD trustees on Monday to suspend their search for a permanent superintendent, an unprecedented intervention in the state’s largest school district.

In a letter sent to HISD trustees, the conservator, Doris Delaney, said she is exercising her legally-authorized power to “direct an action to be taken” by a school board. HISD trustees were days away from naming a lone finalist for the district’s superintendent position, with a final round of candidate interviews scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Delaney said she is ordering the search suspended “until the agency has completed its special accreditation investigation” into the district. The investigation, which involves allegations of Texas Open Meetings Act violations by five trustees, has been ongoing since January.

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who is not among the five trustees under review, also tweeted Monday that the investigation has expanded to include “malfeasance regarding contracts” with vendors, offering no additional details. Texas Education Agency officials said they could not comment on the ongoing investigation. Jones could not immediately be reached for comment.

Delaney’s move is a potentially ominous sign for HISD’s school board, which could be replaced by the state later this year due to chronically low performance at a few campuses or potential findings of malfeasance by trustees. If state officials replace HISD trustees, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath would have the legal responsibility of choosing the district’s superintendent, with no obligation to keep the school board’s choice.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, I understand where Dr. Delaney is coming from. This investigation is a serious matter, and if it turns out that some number of Trustees were involved in violating the (now less potent) Open Meetings Act, one can make a good case that they have forfeited the right to name a Superintendent. On the other hand, the (resumed) search has been going on for awhile, so maybe she could have said something sooner? I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but perhaps this explains it.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent Houston school officials a letter detailing an expanded role for the conservator, Doris Delaney, according to the news outlet. Her duties now include “attending board meetings and overseeing the district’s governance,” according to the letter Houston Public Media posted Monday.

You can see the letter here. That seems portentious, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. All I know is that I hope this is wrapped up quickly and favorably. I can’t take any more drama. The Press has more.

HISD back under scrutiny

Let’s hope this turns out to be no big deal.

The Texas Education Agency is investigating possible open meetings violations by some Houston ISD trustees last year when they engaged in private discussions that led to the abrupt ouster of the Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

TEA officials notified the district Tuesday that an investigation would begin following “multiple complaints” made to the agency over the vote to replace Lathan with former district superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, according to a letter sent to Lathan and HISD board President Diana Dávila. The Houston Chronicle reviewed a portion of the letter outlining the allegations.

“Houston ISD Board of Trustees may have violated The Open Meetings Act by deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting regarding the potential removal of the current interim superintendent and the installation of a new interim superintendent,” the notice read.

TEA officials confirmed they opened a special accreditation investigation into HISD, though they declined to specify the nature of the inquiry.

A special accreditation investigation gives TEA officials wide discretion to review potential wrongdoing and issue a range of sanctions. If investigators find repeated or extensive misconduct, the most severe punishment could be a state takeover of the district’s locally elected board. However, state leaders could issue nominal punishment aimed at preventing future missteps by trustees.

[…]

The investigation stems from an October 2018 vote by five trustees — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Elizabeth Santos, Sergio Lira and Anne Sung — to replace Lathan.

The vote came with no advance warning to the public, and the board’s four other members have said they were unaware that colleagues planned to seek Lathan’s ouster.

Saavedra backed out of the job three days after the vote, citing “dysfunction” at the school board level. Trustees then voted to reinstate Lathan.

Saavedra told the Chronicle in October that he spoke independently with the five trustees who voted for his appointment prior to the vote. Some of the five trustees have said they communicated one-on-one, but they did not meet as a group.

Under Texas open meetings law, deliberations between school board members about “public business or public policy” subject to a vote must take place at public meetings. State investigators likely will seek any evidence of communications between trustees that could constitute a so-called “walking quorum,” which refers to a deliberative effort by elected officials to communicate as a group in private.

See here, here, and here for more on the Saavedra saga, which didn’t make much sense then and makes even less now. All I can say is that I hope the TEA finds no evidence of the five Trustees forming a non-sanctioned quorum, which would be dumb at the least and a violation of trust at the worst. The TEA already has the power to take over HISD if they feel the need. I sure hope we haven’t given them another reason to consider it.

The TEA could have already taken over HISD

I had not known this.

For more than a year, Houston ISD leaders have fretted over the possibility of a state takeover mandated under a recently passed law, known as HB 1842. The statute directs the Texas Education Agency to close schools or replace a district’s locally-elected board of trustees if any campus receives five straight “improvement required” ratings for poor academic achievement. Houston narrowly avoided that punishment in 2018, when six long-struggling schools met state standard. Four campuses still could still trigger sanctions this year.

However, a lesser-known law quietly has loomed over the district. Texas law states that the education commissioner may replace the school board in a district under scrutiny from a state-appointed conservator for two consecutive years — a threshold Houston crossed in September 2017. Houston’s conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, was appointed in September 2016 to monitor Kashmere High School, which has failed to meet state academic standards for nine consecutive years. Her responsibilities expanded to monitoring the district’s school board and other long-struggling schools in mid-2017.

To date, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath has chosen to not replace Houston’s school board, exercising discretion granted to him under the conservator law. Instead, the TEA has taken several steps to work with Houston administrators and board members: keeping Delaney in place, requiring on-the-ground assistance from outside educators, overseeing campus turnaround plans and offering governance training, among other supports. Lira said trustees have not been threatened with immediate replacement by TEA officials, and that the agency’s staff has been “willing to work with us as long as we have a plan in place.”

In a statement, TEA spokeswoman Ciara Wieland said Abbott and Morath are working in concert to help Houston.

“Any action taken by Commissioner Morath or TEA to ensure Houston ISD has been given ample time, resources and support to achieve the best outcomes for students has also come with the full support of the governor and is in alignment with their shared vision of improving education outcomes in the district,” Wieland said.

Here’s the Chron story about Delaney’s appointment in 2016. This story from July of last year mentions that she had been appointed in January to keep an eye on district governance and the then-10 turnaround schools. I’m a little surprised no one has made anything of this before now, but here we are.

It should be clear why the state has been reluctant to step in, despite Greg Abbott’s nasty tweet. If the TEA takes over, then the TEA owns all of the problems that HISD is trying to solve. That’s a much tougher task than their current advisory role. I strongly suspect that Mike Morath and the TEA really really want the four schools to meet standard this year, in part because they want the schools and the kids to succeed, and in part because they really really don’t want to be saddled with the job of running a massive, diverse, sprawling school district. That’s not their job, and there’s nothing in the track record of past takeovers by state agencies, here and elsewhere, to suggest they’ll do any better at it than HISD has done. There’s a reason why Abbott hasn’t had much to say about this since his Trumpian Twitter moment.

By far the best possible outcome is for these schools to meet standard this year. The question that matters is what can everyone do to help make that happen.