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HISD Board of Trustees

Superintendent House’s listening tour

I like what he’s been doing.

During his first week as Houston ISD’s superintendent in July, Millard House II said he welcomed feedback from everyone, especially those who long have been left out of important discussions.

He has been receiving a steady stream of feedback on small comment cards and at microphones at a series of town hall meetings.

Residents, employees and parents have complained to the leader of the state’s largest school district about campuses that have been neglected, asked him about how he plans to address issues, both new and old, and have urged him to prioritize children.

Specifically, House has heard about transportation woes exacerbated by a driver shortage, the district’s struggles to appropriately educate students with special needs, the neglect of school libraries and unequal access to resources and funding across the district.

The issues have been brought to House’s attention at a series of town halls he hosted in recent weeks.

The discussions are expected to inform conversations about his first strategic plan for HISD as its superintendent. In a brief interview, House said the gatherings were just the first step in collecting information for the plan, the first draft of which he hopes to have ready in the next couple months.

As speakers lined up at microphones, House cautioned audiences he still was new to the role and did not know everything.

“I am just over the 60-day mark, so I am not going to have answers for you this evening,” he said Wednesday at Booker T. Washington High School. “My purpose in being here is to hear you and then to infuse what you are providing to me as a superintendent and let you hold me accountable when it is all said and done.”

At each meeting, House emphasized the strategic plan will not be his or the Board of Education’s but “our” plan.

From the rest of the story, he seems to be doing a good job hearing what people are telling him and taking action, often getting the person asking the question involved in the solution. Each of the HISD trustees and candidates I’ve interviewed so far has had positive things to say about Superintendent House. It’s early, and whatever plan he comes up with to deal with things like special ed and improving underperforming schools and more equitably distributing HISD resources will surely have its share of critics. But he seems to be going about this the right way, and of course we all want him to succeed. There’s a lot on the line here, and we have no time to lose.

Early voting starts today for the 2021 election

Time to strap on the pads and get yourself out to the polling places:

A sample ballot for Harris County is here – note that it covers all of the local elections, so much of what you see will not be on your specific ballot. Early voting hours will be 7 AM to 7 PM every day except Sunday the 24th (12 PM to 7 PM) and Thursday the 28th, which will be 7 AM to 10 PM with 24-hour voting at select locations. You can see a map of locations here – there are a lot of them – and you can use the “find your nearest polling place” utility here. Note that there are also some drive-through locations. This is because the new voter suppression law does not take effect until next year. Enjoy these things while you still can.

Here’s a list of all my interviews for the cycle:

Elizabeth Santos, HISD District I
Janette Garza Lindner, HISD District I
Matias Kopinsky, HISD District I
Sue Deigaard, HISD District V
Maria Benzon, HISD District V
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, HISD District VI
Greg Degeyter, HISD District VI
Anne Sung, HISD District VII
Bridget Wade, HISD District VII
Dwight Jefferson, HISD District VII
Mac Walker, HISD District VII
Myrna Guidry, HISD District IX
Joshua Rosales, HISD District IX
Adriana Tamez, HCC District 3
Reagan Flowers, HCC District 4
Eva Loredo, HCC District 8
Jharrett Bryantt, HCC District 8

There are also the Constitutional amendments. If you’d like someone to explain them all to you with advice on how to vote, the latest edition of the H-Town Progressive podcast, with guest Andrea Greer, has you covered. This is going to be a low turnout election, you should be in and out in minutes at any location, so get out there and make your voice heard.

More on the Mac Walker ballot name situation

Good move by HISD.

Mac Walker

Houston ISD on Tuesday took responsibility for failing to include the nickname of a trustee candidate when it entered his name in a county elections office portal.

Lee “Mac” Walker, vying for district 7, said last week he learned of the issue when a voter asked whether he was on the ballot. On his application to run, he listed his preferred name — Mac — as the name he wanted identified on the ballot. He has been campaigning under the nickname.

He is listed on the ballot, however, simply as Lee Walker.

“HISD acknowledges and takes responsibility for the error in inputting Mr. Walker’s name into the Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office Entity Portal,” district officials said in a statement Tuesday. “Corrective actions and systems in the Office of Board Services have been put into place to ensure that this does not happen again.”

County elections officials said last week the name cannot be changed on the ballot, citing the resources and time required to perform a logic and accuracy test for the entire election before voting begins.

HISD said it will use both Walker’s legal and preferred name in election notices it is required to publish in a newspaper, on the bulletin board used for posting board meeting notices and on its website.

The district said it additionally will publish election notices in the Forward Times, La Voz and Vietnam Post and mail notices of the Nov. 2 election to registered voters in all five of the single-member districts having an election.

See here for the background. Sometimes you make a mistake that can’t be corrected. When that happens, you can at least make amends, and do everything you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s what HISD has done here, and as someone who wants fair elections, I appreciate it. It’s not the best of all possible situations, but it was the best they could do given what had already happened. That’s all you can ask.

Endorsement watch: Incumbents go one for three

In HISD District VII, the Chron goes with a challenger, in this case Mac Walker.

Mac Walker

In unruly classrooms and school boards alike, you’ve got good kids, you’ve got troublemakers, and then you’ve got the good kids who, for some reason, follow the troublemakers down a path to mischief.

That was Anne Sung in 2018. Amid the HISD board’s dysfunction, this Harvard-educated, former award-winning HISD physics teacher and strong advocate for special education whom we had enthusiastically endorsed for District VII trustee joined colleagues who met secretly with former Superintendent Abe Saavedra, which state officials say violated Texas’ open meetings law. Three days later she voted to swap Saavedra for interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

Sung apologized and said she only wanted Saavedra’s advice on state oversight issues and didn’t know of plans to hire him until moments before she voted for it.

“I didn’t understand what was happening,” she told us. We don’t know what’s worse — premeditating a school board coup or hastily voting for it, without public input, after two minutes’ deliberation.

Incumbents only lose our endorsement when there’s a qualified replacement and luckily there’s Mac Walker.

Listed on ballots as “Lee Walker” due to a district error, he’s a first-time candidate whose motivation truly seems to be raising up the district that raised him.

My interview with Mac Walker is here, with Anne Sung is here, with Bridget Wade is here, and with Dwight Jefferson is here. Clearly, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca got luckier with her opposition than either Anne Sung or Elizabeth Santos did. The editorial also touches on the ballot name situation, so hopefully as many people as possible will be properly informed about that.

Over in the HCC races, the Chron stays with one incumbent, Adriana Tamez in District 3.

Adriana Tamez

In 2013, when the editorial board endorsed Dr. Adriana Tamez for an unexpired term on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees, she represented a breath of fresh air on a board mired with longstanding issues of cronyism and dereliction.

Two years later, when we endorsed her again — for a full term this time — it was because she impressed us with her stalwart commitment to workforce development and unabashed calls for financial accountability in her first term. Today, she’s campaigning on the same platform.

Despite some clear blemishes on her record these past six years, her steady demeanor, deep well of educational, financial and managerial knowledge and focused grasp of the remaining gaps in HCC’s system leads us to recommend District III voters give Adriana Tamez, 57, another term representing southeast Houston.

Tamez can point to concrete achievements she’s helped usher in for HCC. From cementing partnerships with Apple and the PepsiCo Foundation to help students access career opportunities, to expanding dual-credit programs in high schools and working on investing COVID funds in resilient online infrastructure, she has put her nearly three decades of educational experience — as a bilingual teacher, principal, HISD central region superintendent, president and CEO of a charter school — to good use.

My interview with Adriana Tamez is here; I did not interview her opponent. I personally think she’s one of the better board members, and we’re going to need all the help we can get with sigh Dave Wilson coming back.

Over in HCC District 8, it’s another challenger as the Chron goes with Jharrett Bryantt.

Jharrett Bryantt

Since 2009, Eva Loredo has been a stalwart on the Houston Community College Board of Trustees, a former board chair who has provided stability and leadership through a storm of scandals.

There comes a time, though, when a bold challenger with fresh ideas can bring new vision to an entity sorely in need of it.

As such, we recommend Jharett Bryantt to represent this diverse district that stretches from southwest Houston to the Port of Houston.

Bryantt, 32, an assistant superintendent for HISD, is considered something of a rising star in education circles. Earlier this year, he was a finalist for superintendent for a mid-sized Utah school district.

His ambitions may go far beyond the borders of District VIII. Yet one of his areas of expertise — college readiness — dovetails nicely with HCC’s mission, and Bryantt impressed the editorial board with his ideas for improving HCC’s subpar 30 percent graduation rate. His proposal to tie graduation rates to the evaluation of HCC’s chancellor would bring much-needed accountability.

This kind of problem-solving was missing from Loredo’s pitch. Loredo, 69, talks about how she puts students first, but didn’t present a single idea on how to improve HCC’s declining enrollment — a 17 percent drop from 2019 to 2020. Loredo waved it off as part of a nationwide trend, which is true, but trustees should still act urgently to address it.

My interview with Jharrett Bryantt is here and with Eva Loredo is here. This is a legitimately tough choice – I have a lot of respect for Loredo, but Bryantt is an impressive and well-qualified candidate. Listen to the interviews and make up your own mind.

Interview with Joshua Rosales

Joshua Rosales

Every election I get at least one late response or contact from a candidate that I had not interviewed. This year I got a reply to my email to Joshua Rosales after the interview I did with Myrna Guidry had run. Rosales is another PTO dad as a two-term President at Hobby Elementary Dual Language Academy who works in strategic planning, marketing and growth at a global law firm. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, HISD District V
Anne Sung, HISD District VII
Elizabeth Santos, HISD District I
Janette Garza Lindner, HISD District I
Matias Kopinsky, HISD District I
Bridget Wade, HISD District VII
Maria Benzon, HISD District V
Dwight Jefferson, HISD District VII
Mac Walker, HISD District VII
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, HISD District VI
Myrna Guidry, HISD District IX
Greg Degeyter, HISD District VI
Adriana Tamez, HCC District 3
Reagan Flowers, HCC District 4
Eva Loredo, HCC District 8
Jharrett Bryantt, HCC District 8

Endorsement watch: Garza Lindner and Vilaseca

The Chron goes against an incumbent in HISD District I.

Janette Garza Lindner

Trustee Elizabeth Santos, 39, is asking voters to keep her on the board representing Houston ISD District I. They shouldn’t.

Santos’ connection to the district is deep. She grew up attending its schools and taught English there. Her dedication to students shines through when she speaks. As a board member, she helped get raises for teachers and staff as a vocal champion for better pay in the district, whose teachers remain among the region’s lowest paid.

That record speaks in her favor, but it does not overcome her weaknesses as a board member.

An early strike against Santos came in late 2018, when she joined four other trustees to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan in a surprise vote that came after the five had met with a former superintendent whom they then named to replace Lathan. The Texas Education Agency cited that apparent violation of the state’s open meetings law as partial grounds for replacing the whole board.

Santos defends her actions, and claimed in our meeting with her she hadn’t known in advance that Lathan would be fired. But the episode was deeply disruptive and showed poor judgment.

That was an early mistake, but unfortunately Santos has not provided the steady influence and smooth leadership that the school board, with all its recent acrimony, so badly needs. In interviews with us and other outlets recently, she has also struggled to share a cogent vision for how she’ll use a second term to steer the district to further success.

On the other hand, Janette Garza Lindner, 45, is a strong candidate. The mother of two HISD students, she grew up in Brownsville, bilingual in Spanish and English, as an adopted daughter of a widow who left school in the second grade and never learned to read. She graduated from the University of Texas and is an energy industry consultant and project manager. In 2019, she received training as a board fellow of Latinos for Education and serves on the leadership committee of Arts Connect Houston.

My interview with Elizabeth Santos is here, with Janette Garza Lindner is here, and with Matias Kopinsky is here. I noted the issue about the Lathan/Saavedra mess when the Chron endorsed Sue Deigaard, noting that she was not involved in the non-compliant meeting, but I totally forgot to mention that Santos was one of the trustees they might have opposed as a result. I don’t know how much this hurts Santos – she was not the Chron-endorsed candidate in 2017, either – but in a low-turnout affair it may boost Garza Lindner a bit. I figure this is going to a runoff anyway, so we’ll see then if Santos may be in some trouble.

Over in District VI, the Chron did endorse incumbent Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca despite her involvement in that meeting.

Holly Flynn Vilaseca

Overseeing the nation’s seventh-largest public school system does not accommodate learning curves. After Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca was appointed to the board in January 2017, the editorial board endorsed her for a full term , reasoning that nine months is hardly enough time to garner a first impression, let alone demonstrate the breadth of knowledge.

Through five years, three superintendents, an attempted state takeover of the district, Flynn Vilaseca has acquitted herself well on the board as a steady voice and an open mind with a deep fluency on education policy. We recommend District VI voters give her another term representing West Houston.

Flynn Vilaseca, 40, a bilingual former early childhood teacher, wants to bolster the district’s investments in special education and better train campus principals on managing finances to avoid wasteful spending. Her support for wraparound services for special education students is admirable and desperately needed in a district still routinely failing students with learning differences.

Flynn Vilaseca’s role in one of the more shameful chapters in the district’s history is a vulnerability. She was among five trustees who allegedly met in secret with former HISD superintendent Aberlardo Saavedra to coordinate replacing the interim superintendent with him. TEA officials alleged the “walking quorum” violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and led the agency to recommend replacing the entire board.

Flynn Vilaseca claims Saavedra was a long-time mentor and that she arranged the meeting so trustees could discuss “concerns on the board,” but never talked about hiring him. Why, then, did she hand Saavedra a copy of another former superintendent’s contract? According to her 2019 affidavit: “Because he had previously asked for it.”

Even if true, it doesn’t excuse how she was willing to vote days later, ostensibly with only a few minutes notice, without public input, to hire Saavedra.

That said, Flynn Vilaseca seemed sincere in her apology, and pledged to rebuild the public’s trust through transparency. We’re taking another chance on her because her collaborative, moderate voice is needed and because her challengers came up short.

My interview with Flynn Vilaseca is here and with Greg Degeyter is here. Maybe the difference in the Chron’s eyes between Santos and Flynn Vilaseca was the quality of the apology. We’ll see how Anne Sung fares when it’s her turn.

Endorsement watch: Deigaard and Guidry

We are in the last week before early voting begins for the 2021 election, and that means it’s time for Chronicle endorsements. This would be waaaaaaaay late in a more normal year, but as we know there aren’t that many races on the ballot, so now is fine. Two endorsements today, both for incumbents, beginning with Sue Deigaard in District V.

Sue Deigaard

In District V, we recommend voters keep incumbent Sue Deigaard, 52, in the seat representing southwest Houston that she’s held since 2017.

Deigaard, a longtime public education advocate, contends House needs an experienced board to continue addressing massive challenges: according to state accountability ratings, 48 of HISD’s 276 campuses are categorized by state accountability ratings as D or F schools, and more than 95 percent of the students at those schools are children of color.

We believe Deigaard’s deep knowledge of finance and education governance will help implement the district’s forthcoming strategic plan to help schools improve. She wants in a second term to continue improving HISD’s education of students with special needs, and better fund not only the district’s worst-performing schools but also schools that are performing “fine” yet are still under-resourced.

Deigaard, who served a one-year stint in 2020 as board president, supported a performance audit to assess district spending and counts among her accomplishments an expansion of high-quality pre-K and helping the board increase teacher salaries this summer.

Unlike some other trustees seeking re-election, Deigaard didn’t take part in a sloppy spectacle in 2018 in which state regulators contend several trustees violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by surreptitiously meeting with a former HISD superintendent and then days later, voting without public debate to install him as superintendent and oust the interim leader.

My interview with Sue Deigaard is here. I also interviewed Maria Benzon, about whom the Chron said some nice things. That last paragraph above makes me think that Anne Sung and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca may have something to worry about. We’ll know soon enough.

The Chron also recommended Myrna Guidry.

Myrna Guidry

Last December, HISD trustees unanimously appointed Myrna Guidry, an attorney, to replace Wanda Adams, who resigned after being elected as a justice of the peace. Guidry, 56, has proven a steadying influence on a board that’s been plagued by dysfunction and has earned our support for a full term.

Guidry’s argument for reelection is that her first 10 months as a trustee have been devoted to selecting a superintendent and stabilizing after a rough patch. She contends the district, under new leadership of Millard House II, is finally on the right path.

We appreciated her straightforward explanation of why she supported a mask mandate in HISD schools. Guidry explained that she listened to the medical experts and also her constituents who “overwhelmingly” supported mask use. Guidry, like the rest of the board, has more to do to earn the full trust of the community she represents. We believe she can. She is engaged in a range of civic organizations and displays a solid grasp of the inequities facing many in District IX and throughout HISD.

My interview with Myrna Guidry is here. I did eventually hear back from her opponent Joshua Rosales, and will run his interview on Friday. I’m a little surprised that the HISD mask mandate wasn’t a bigger part of these endorsement pieces so far – it’s my understanding that at least Caroline Walter in District V is anti-mask – but I suppose there are plenty of other issues to focus on.

I assume we’ll be getting these throughout the week, plus recommendations for the constitutional amendments (yes, we have those on the ballot as well) and perhaps some other area races that may be on your ballot but are not on mine. Get yourself in that voting frame of mind, because ready or not here it comes.

30 day campaign finance reports: HISD

HISD and HCC elections are the main event this November, and as we approach the start of early voting, we can now look at the 30-day campaign finance reports for the candidates. Here’s what things look like in HISD.

Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I

Sue Deigaard, District V
Maria Benzon, District V
Caroline Walter, District V

Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, District VI
Kendall Baker, District VI
Greg Degeyter, District VI

Anne Sung, District VII
Bridget Wade, District VII
Dwight Jefferson, District VII
Mac Walker, District VII

Myrna Guidry, District IX
Gerry Monroe, District IX
Joshua Rosales, District IX


Dist  Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
==========================================================
I     Santos        23,383      7,319        0      18,733
I     Lindner       60,385     12,809        0      44,500
I     Kopinsky       3,492      2,905        0       1,619
V     Deigaard      31,565     15,662        0      42,728
V     Benzon         6,297      2,555        0       3,741
V     Walter        14,792      8,535        0       8,977
VI    Vilaseca      42,632     12,792        0      52,853
VI    Baker          8,370      6,604        0       1,765
VI    Degeyter       1,703      2,887    2,900       1,703
VII   Sung          64,506     18,888        0      61,419
VII   Wade          78,655     58,612    7,000     142,906
VII   Jefferson        712     16,008   17,000           0
VII   Walker        64,776      4,263        0      58,412
IX    Guidry        10,000     11,864    7,500       5,636
IX    Monroe        25,500     15,429   10,000         120
IX    Rosales        1,702      1,818    1,786       1,669

The July reports are here. Incumbents not up for election do not have to file 30 day or 8 day reports, so we’ll next hear from them in January. Not everyone listed here had a July report, so for some people this is all we have.

This is one of those non-city election years, and with all that’s going on nationally and in Austin I don’t know how much people are even aware of these races, let along how much they’re paying attention to them. I live in District I and I do see a fair number of yard signs, for all three candidates. With the pandemic and work from home I’m not out and about much, and as such I have no idea what things might look like in other districts. Are you seeing any signs of activity where you live, if you have an HISD race on your ballot? Please leave a comment and let me know.

I’m a little surprised there isn’t more money in the District V race. Sue Deigaard raised almost the exact same amount as she did last period – I actually went and double checked to make sure I wasn’t looking at the wrong report. I might have expected Maria Benzon, who is being supported by the teachers’ union, to have raised more. I know they’re going to spend some money on her behalf (and on behalf of their other candidates), but I still expected to see some of that in her report. As for Caroline Walter, one of the anti-mask candidates on the ballot, I will note that she got $2,500 from Cal and Hannah McNair. Those of you that haven’t given up on the Texans yet, make of that what you will.

District VII is the race with the most money in it. Bridget Wade had a nice followup to her huge July haul, Anne Sung stepped it up from July, and Mac Walker did well. Dwight Jefferson is the odd one out, but there’s always someone who doesn’t raise much. I’m told that Wade is advertising on TV, and indeed her report shows $30K for “cable/OTT media buy”. Anyone out there seen one of her ads?

In District VI, perennial candidate/loser Kendall Baker got most of his money from himself (he listed a $5000 self-contribution), plus $2000 from Hannah McNair. She sure can pick ’em. Gerry Monroe got $10K from the Conservative Republicans of Harris County, and $10K from Steven Hotze. I sure hope Democrats are paying attention in District IX, because this is Myrna Guidry’s first time on the ballot, and we sure don’t need someone like Gerry Monroe on the Board. He also reported a $50K in kind donation from Aubrey Taylor Communications for “political newspaper advertisements”, which is hilarious and ridiculous on multiple levels. Oh, and a $500 contribution from Hannah McNair.

So that’s the basic landscape at this time. I’ll do a post on the 30 day HCC reports, and will look at the 8 day reports when they come out. As always, let me know what you think.

What’s in a ballot name, 2021 edition

This is unfortunate.

Mac Walker

A candidate for the Houston ISD Board of Education said Friday his name has been printed incorrectly on ballots and county elections officials said it is too late to change the name.

Lee “Mac” Walker, running for the district 7 seat, said the issue came to his attention last weekend when a voter emailed to ask if he was on the ballot. The voter sent him a picture of the ballot, which showed his legal name, Lee Walker, instead of the nickname he has gone by and campaigned under, he said.

Walker’s notarized application shows he wrote he wanted his name to be displayed as Mac Walker on the ballot, according to district records. The application has a notary’s stamp on the bottom. A sample ballot shows his name appears as Lee Walker.

An HISD spokesperson said Friday evening the district was looking into questions from the Chronicle.

“I have gone by Mac since the day I was born,” Walker said. “I am just disappointed.”

[…]

Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria told Walker changing the language of the ballot would require a new logic and accuracy test for the entire election, according to an email sent to Walker that he shared with the Chronicle.

That test requires voting more than 15,500 ballots, five days and more than 60 staffers. Post-test requirements include multiple tasks that would be “impossible” to complete with the test before Wednesday, when equipment and materials will be delivered to early voting sites, Longoria wrote in the email.

“In short: at this point in our election preparations, making a correction in even one race would imperil our ability to start early voting for all the 44 entities on the ballot,” Longoria wrote. “After consultation with the Office of Texas Secretary of State, I’ve decided to move forward with our course of action to avoid derailing the entire Nov. 2nd election.”

Walker forwarded me the email correspondence he had with HISD and the Harris County Elections office regarding this snafu. The error is HISD’s, and at this point it appears to be too late to fix it. (Walker said in his email to Isabel Longoria that he “notified your office on Monday” and that he was disheartened to hear her say that “time is the real bottleneck in the matter when it took you four days to respond”.) I have not spoken to anyone at HISD or in the Elections office – I received this correspondence Friday night after I had gone to bed – so I have no further context to offer for any of this. I am in favor of people appearing on the ballot by their preferred name (within reason), and by any reasonable standard, “Mac Walker” is the name that should be on this ballot. It’s unfortunate that it likely will not happen in this race. Given that, the best I can do is to let you know the situation. Hope this helps.

Interview with Greg Degeyter

Greg Degeyter

There are two challengers running in HISD District VI, and today I present to you an interview with one of them, Greg Degeyter. Degeyter is an attorney who specializes in helping people get disability benefits, after having been a meteorlogist and working for the Environmental Protection Service; he made a career change after suffering an injury in an automobile crash. He has three children with special needs, which he credits as the catalyst to get more involved in politics. Here’s our interview:

(The other candidate in District VI is perennial candidate Kendall Baker. I did not reach out to him.)

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V
Dwight Jefferson, District VII
Mac Walker, District VII
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, District VI
Myrna Guidry, District IX

Interview with Myrna Guidry

Myrna Guidry

There’s one incumbent on the HISD Board of Trustees that you may be less familiar with, and that’s District IX incumbent Myrna Guidry, who was appointed to the Board in December of 2020 to replace Wanda Adams, who had been elected Justice of the Peace that November. Guidry is an attorney focusing on family and probate law and the parent of a recent HISD graduate. She is also a mediator and continues to serve as an adjunct law professor of mediation at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Here’s our conversation:

(Note: I did not reach out to candidate Gerry Monroe.)

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V
Dwight Jefferson, District VII
Mac Walker, District VII
Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, District VI

Interview with Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca

Holly Flynn Vilaseca

I will be finishing off interviews with HISD trustees this week, and then moving into the HCC races next week. We have two incumbents and one challenger to meet, and we begin with Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, the incumbent in District VI. Appointed to fill out an unexpired term in January 2017, she was elected to a full term that November, and has served on the Audit and Special Education committees. A native of Ohio before moving to Houston and attending HISD schools, she is the daughter of Colombian immigrants and was a bilingual pre-k and early childhood teacher for six years, and is now Chief Relationship Officer at thinkLaw, an organization that uses real-life legal cases to teach critical-thinking skills. The interview I did with her in 2017 is here, and the interview I did with her for this election is below:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V
Dwight Jefferson, District VII
Mac Walker, District VII

Interview with Mac Walker

Mac Walker

One more interview this week, still in District VII, with Mac Walker. Walker is a native Houstonian and graduate of Sharpstown High School as the first member of his family to reach that milestone. He went on to get an engineering degree from Duke and an MBA from UT, and is now the owner of a wellness business. He has mentored at-risk high school students at Wisdom High School (Lee) as part of an organization called Mentors of Hope, for which he served on the board, and he has served on the PTO of his kids’ schools, which I as a fellow PTA dad respect. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V
Dwight Jefferson, District VII

Interview with Dwight Jefferson

Dwight Jefferson

Back again to District VII and a visit with Dwight Jefferson, whom we met in 2015 when he ran for Houston City Controller. Jefferson is a graduate of UT Law School after having been co-captain of the football team as an undergrad. He’s a former District Court judge and Metro trustee, he has served on the HISD H.E.A.R Committee and as Chair of the American Diabetes Association, Houston Chapter, and lobbied the Legislature on behalf of HISD during the 2019 session. We had a lot to talk about.

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII
Maria Benzon, District V

Interview with Maria Benzon

Maria Benzon

We move over to District V today for a conversation with Dr. Maria Benzon. Benzon is a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School who got bachelors and masters degrees at UT and a PhD in Educational Psychology at UH. She has been a math teacher and department chair in HISD and an assistant principal at the Southwest Schools, and has been an education researcher and teacher to teachers at UH and elsewhere. Our interview is below.

(Note: There’s a third candidate in this race, Caroline Walter, who has no online presence that I could see and is an anti-masker, as this report from a recent candidate forum makes clear. I did not try to find her for an interview.)

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I
Bridget Wade, District VII

Interview with Bridget Wade

Bridget Wade

I ran interviews two weeks ago with incumbent HISD trustees Sue Deigaard and Anne Sung. This week I will be running interviews with three of the candidates who are running against them – my schedule for publishing interviews is necessarily dependent on my ability to get them scheduled. Today we visit the District VII race with Bridget Wade, who came onto my radar in a big way back in July when I noticed her monster fundraising haul. Wade is a native Houstonian and graduate of Briargrove Elementary and Paul Revere Middle Schools. She is a past President of the Briargrove PTO and Episcopal High School trustee, and has served on numerous other boards and committees. Here’s our interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I
Matias Kopinsky, District I

Interview with Matias Kopinsky

Matias Kopinsky

We wrap up our tour of HISD District I this week with Matias Kopinsky. Kopinsky is the son of Argentine immigrants who grew up speaking Spanish. He attended Herod Elementary, Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School, and Bellaire High School, and got a BS in petroleum engineering from UT. The HISD Board as currently constituted is all female, so if elected he would change that. That wasn’t one of the things we talked about, I just thought about it while writing this intro. Here’s what we did talk about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I
Janette Garza Lindner, District I

Interview with Janette Garza Lindner

Janette Garza Lindner

We continue with HISD District I, and today’s candidate is Janette Garza Lindner. A native of Brownsville, Garza Lindner has lived in Houston for 20 years. She is a UT graduate with a degree in Management Information Systems, and has served as a Latinos for Education board fellow and as the main community representative on the Arts Connect Houston leadership committee. I discovered her candidacy when doing my post on the July HISD finance reports; she was filed as a candidate but had not done any fundraising then. Here’s what we talked about:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII
Elizabeth Santos, District I

Interview with Elizabeth Santos

Elizabeth Santos

This week we will meet the three candidates in HISD District I, which happens to be my district. Elizabeth Santos is the incumbent, having been elected in 2017 after Anna Eastman decided to not run again. Santos is a lifelong resident in the district, and spent ten years teaching in HISD, at Sam Houston and Northside, while getting a BA in English Literature from UH-Downtown. You can listen to the interview I did with her in 2017 here – it was one of the first I did following Hurricane Harvey, which as you can imagine had an effect on the questions I was asking. A lot has happened since then, and you can hear about some of those things in this interview:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V
Anne Sung, District VII

Interview with Anne Sung

Anne Sung

We continue with HISD candidate interviews, moving over to District VII for a visit with incumbent Anne Sung. I almost wrote “first-term incumbent”, but Sung won a special election in 2016 to succeed Harvin Moore, and was then re-elected for a full term in 2017, so technically she’s in her second term and that makes her the longest-serving incumbent on the Board. Sung is a graduate of HISD schools and Harvard University, and taught for several years at HISD and in the Rio Grande Valley via Teach for America. She serves on the boards of the SPARK Park Program, the Texas Association of School Boards, and OCA-Greater Houston, and is a former Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Project GRAD Houston. The interview I did with her in 2016 is here, and the interview I did with her this year is here:

PREVIOUSLY:

Sue Deigaard, District V

Interview with Sue Deigaard

Sue Deigaard

Hey, remember how there are elections this fall? It’s true! Not for the city of Houston, but for HISD and HCC, and you know what that means – candidate interviews. As you may imagine, there are a few topics of interest this year. We begin our quest with District V incumbent Trustee Sue Deigaard, elected in 2017 to succeed Mike Lunceford. Deigaard is a longtime education advocate, having served as as a parent representative on HISD’s District Advisory Committee, a board member on the Houston Center for Literacy, and a founding board member of the Braeswood Super Neighborhood Council prior to her election. She served as Board president in 2020, and is a graduate of Rice University, where she was the first member of her family to attend college. My interview with her from 2017 is here; as noted, I knew her at Rice as we were both members of the MOB. Here’s the interview:

I expect to have interviews with HISD candidates over the next four weeks, then HCC interviews after that. As always, please let me know what you think.

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued a mandatory mask order for Harris County schools and daycares, joining the chorus of elected officials in the Texas’ larges cities in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting local COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo’s order requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools and daycare centers to wear face coverings. Schools also are required to notify parents when a student has close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees already is expected to vote Thursday on a mask mandate proposed by Superintendent Millard House II. House announced he would bring such a proposal to the board last week.

Earlier on Thursday, County Attorney Christian Menefee filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local authorities from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.

Menefee told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday evening that he believes the July 29 order violates the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said grants the governor the power limited authority to suspend laws.

“In his orders, he’ll suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” Menefee said. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

The move came at the end of a whirlwind day where local officials in Dallas and San Antonio prevailed — at least temporarily — in their own legal challenges to the governor’s order.

In Houston, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted to allow County Attorney Christian Menefee to bring his own case, over the objections of the two Republican members.

Menefee said he is undecided but leaning toward filing suit; he said the county would seek a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s July 29 executive order prohibiting local governments from issuing local COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott is exceeding his authority under the state Disaster Act of 1975, Menefee argued, which the county attorney said allows the governor to suspend laws in only narrow circumstances.

“What he’s doing is not helping in furtherance of coping with the disaster,” Menefee said. “Instead, he’s basically taking this power and turning it into a mechanism to tie local officials’ hands. The problem is none of the justifications he’s providing make any sense.”

See here for the background. Obviously, County Attorney Menefee made up his mind since then. Filing this suit, in the same manner as several other jurisdictions, was I think a straightforward choice. Winning it will be another matter.

If the past is any guide, the local governments are unlikely to prevail in court, said University of Texas School of Law Adjunct Professor Randall Erben. Governors have broad power under the Disaster Act, he said, noting that the state Supreme Court sided with Abbott when Travis County attempted to enact a New Year’s Eve curfew for restaurants.

“Given the precedent and given the broad discretion the governor has under that act, he’s probably on pretty solid ground,” Erben said.

The San Antonio Report consulted another expert with a similar opinion.

Political science and law experts agree that the local governments’ mask mandates have an unfavorable path forward, ending with the Texas Supreme Court; all nine justices are Republicans and have shown little appetite for ruling against the governor.

[…]

Despite the crisis, St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Michael Ariens believes the lawsuit’s ultimate success is a “long shot.”

Attorneys for the city and county relied on a dissenting opinion from a judge on the 8th Court of Appeals in a mask mandate case involving El Paso County, Ariens said: that Texas law does not allow the governor to suspend laws giving local governments the ability to respond to public health crises as they see fit.

“A decision by a dissenting [opinion] of the court, while sometimes correct,” Ariens said, “is not as helpful as a decision from a majority of the court.”

But getting the temporary restraining order granted in the first place puts San Antonio and Bexar County in a stronger position, he said, as it allowed the city to get a mask mandate in place in public schools and public facilities. That means “the ball is in the state government’s court,” he said, which will have to make a move “if it wants to change the status quo before Monday.”

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning; lawyers representing San Antonio, Bexar County, will ask to extend the temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction. If granted, the mask mandate would remain in place until trial or until the decision was appealed.

[…]

Abbott’s swift action to get a temporary restraining order lifted was expected, as the governor would not want to be seen as weak while school districts and local governments defy his executive order, said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But no matter the ultimate outcome, Taylor said, Abbott’s political standing will likely remain unaffected.

“A week is a lifetime in politics and this can radically change, but if the governor wasn’t hurt by what happened with the electric grid and the winter storm in February — and for the most part, he seems to have not been hurt by it — it’s probably the same kind of calculations here when it comes to the masking order and mandatory versus voluntary vaccinations,” Taylor said.

Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, had a slightly different take. He believes the collective force of school districts, county judges, and mayors could push the weather vane in the opposite direction.

“He’s playing a tough game with everybody, but if enough people stand up to him and cause enough of an uproar, he’ll back down, I think,” Flores said. “And that might be the safe investment for him to make. … It’ll become too much of a political annoyance for him, and it could end up costing him dearly. He’s going to have to weigh all that.”

If the case moves quickly, and the Texas Supreme Court vacates the temporary restraining order, “chaos” could ensue, Taylor said. Not only would the back-and-forth cause further confusion among parents of schoolchildren, but leaders of Bexar, Dallas, and Harris counties could simply refuse to stop requiring masks.

“This is not some sort of radical rebellion,” he said. “You’re talking about school districts that are following CDC guidelines on masking. The other thing is this: because there’s enough prosecutorial discretion that’s involved, it takes time — obviously justice takes time — and any sort of delay in court action could be months from now, long after, hopefully, the crisis and the spike in delta has passed. It could all be a moot point by then anyway.”

I would quibble with the assertion that Abbott took “swift” action – as you know, I’ve been marveling at how long it took him to respond. Be that as it may, the point about the counties just not moving to undo what they have ordered is an interesting point. Abbott may win in court, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way, at least not right away. And I’d bet none of those county judges suffer for any of it politically, either. We have a ways to go before this is truly settled.

UPDATE: The HISD Board approved the mask mandate that Superintendent House requested.

HISD to consider mask mandate

This would be a big deal, for all the obvious reasons.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday he plans to bring a mask mandate for ratification to the district’s board meeting next week, setting the stage for the state’s largest district to potentially buck a gubernatorial executive order banning such mandates.

Under the proposed mandate, all district students and employees would be expected to wear masks in facilities and buses, House said during Thursday evening’s board meeting.

If approved, the mandate would be among the first of its kind issued by a public school district in the Houston area, and apparently the state, since Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting such directives.

[…]

It was not clear Thursday night if other districts plan to follow House’s initiative.

“We know that we are going to get pushback for this,” House said. “We are not going to be able to please everybody. But what we have to understand is: If we have an opportunity to save one life, it is what we should be doing.”

In revealing the proposal, House noted Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and cited an increasing two-week positivity rate in the county and skyrocketing hospitalizations.

“As superintendent of schools of the largest school system in the state of Texas, that concerns me,” House said. “It concerns me greatly.”

If approved, the mandate will bring the district closer to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which in updated guidance suggested all individuals in schools not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 wear a mask indoors.

Children younger than 12 remain unable to get vaccinated.

Abbott’s order prohibited governmental entities from requiring masks. Any local governments or officials who tried to impose such an order could be subjected to a fine of up to $1,000, according to Abbott’s office.

It was not clear how the fine would be given to school districts that challenged the order or whether any entities that announced mandates this week had been fined already.

Here’s the statement from Superintendent House. As noted, Harris County is back at the highest threat level, and Mayor Turner has ordered city workers to wear masks, also presumably in violation of Abbott’s order, so far without any repercussions. It’s hard for me to imagine that Abbott would let this go by, but all we can do is process the events that occur.

Also as noted, other Houston-area school districts were not planning to defy Abbott, though I’m sure they’re watching to see what happens here. What’s puzzling and infuriating is that the updated TEA guidance to school districts says that schools now don’t have to inform parents of positive COVID cases (though they do have to report that information to state and local health departments, and they also don’t have to contact trace, but if they choose to do so, parents can still choose to send their kid to school if they are a “close contact” of a positive COVID case. It’s almost maximally designed to be risky. There is some limited allowance for remote learning, and I don’t know how that may play out. We’re approaching September as if it were still May.

Superintendent House’s proposed action here – it would still need to be approved by the HISD Board of Trustees, who may decide that’s a step too far – is bold but carries a lot of risk. We don’t know what kind of blowback House and HISD could face from Abbott, who clearly values his primary campaign and pandering to the most extreme members of his party more than anything else. When he finally lashes out – again, I cannot imagine him letting this slide – it’s going to be ugly. But against that, Superintendent House has the best of reasons for his action – putting the safety of the kids and the teachers and the staffers first. I’m on his side and I’m impressed by his willingness to take a stand. We’ll just see how far it can go.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: HISD

PREVIOUSLY: Congress, Harris County, Houston

Elizabeth Santos – Dist I
Kathy Bluefod-Daniels – Dist II
Dani Hernandez – Dist III
Patricia Allen – Dist IV
Sue Deigaard – Dist V
Holly Flynn Vilaseca – Dist VI
Anne Sung – Dist VII
Judith Cruz – Dist VIII
Myrna Guidry (CTA) – Dist IX

Bridget Wade – Dist VII
Gerry Monroe – Dist IX


Dist  Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
==========================================================
I     Santos             0        200        0       2,885
V     Deigaard      31,635        717        0      34,785
VI    Vilaseca      16,150      2,838        0      13,914
VII   Sung          13,307      2,761        0      15,419
VII   Wade         141,236     19,378    7,000     123,517
IX    Guidry
IX    Monroe         5,778      1,267        0

II    B-Daniels          0          9    2,000         191
III   Hernandez          0          0        0       2,192
IV    Allen              0          0        0           0
VIII  Cruz               0          0        0       1,175

I have sorted the table to put the trustees who are on the ballot this year on the top. Myrna Guidry was appointed to replace Wanda Adams after Adams was elected JP last November, though as noted she has filed her designation of treasurer report, so presumably she will have started raising money by now. Her opponent, Gerry Monroe, had run for this position in 2017 as well, though he raised little money. His report did not include a cash on hand total.

That cannot be said for Bridget Wade, whose total for District VII is what I would call eye-popping. She has a long list of donors, some big money – three members of the Butler family, two of whom list their occupation as “Builder” and their employer as “Butler Brothers”, combined to donate $12,500 – and some small. I don’t see any obvious red flags on her website, but I do see a couple of familiar Republican names among her donors – former CD07 candidate from the old days Peter Wareing is among them – so draw your own conclusions. Districts V, VI, and VII all used to be held by Republicans, so such a challenge is hardly a surprise. Incumbent Anne Sung has her work cut out for her.

There are two other declared opponents out there, though so far all they have done is file the designation of treasurer report:

Janette Lindner – Dist I
Kendall Baker – Dist VI

I don’t know Janette Lindner, who is running against my Trustee Elizabeth Santos, but if you’ve read this site before you’ll recognize the name Kendall Baker. He’s more of a troll than anything else, but these off-off-year elections can be weird, and this used to be a Republican district. Don’t take anything for granted.

As for Lindner, her name pops up in this story from 2019, likely taken straight from a press release:

Latinos for Education announced ten leaders were selected to join its Latino Board Fellowship in Houston, an innovative initiative that helps diversify the city’s educational leadership.

Created by Latinos for Education, the Latino Board Fellowship identifies, trains and places exceptional Latino leaders from across sectors onto governing boards of education nonprofit organizations across the region.

Lindner is one of those ten leaders. She is of course running against a Latina incumbent, so make of that what you will. Here’s her bio from her company website and her LinkedIn page; I did not see a campaign website at this time.

Of the remaining incumbents who have to run for re-election, three have been busy fundraising, with Sue Deigaard leading the way. She is the one among those in former Republican districts who does not as of yet have an opponent. Indeed, if you look at her finance report, you’ll see that the previous Trustee in District V, Mike Lunceford, is her campaign treasurer. Not a guarantee of anything, but a nice show of support.

So there you have it. Two potentially interesting races shaping up, and two others that are there. I would expect Trustees Santos and Guidry to start raising money soon, and we’ll see how they’re doing in early October when the 30 day reports are out. If you know anything else about these candidates or others that may be lurking out there, leave a comment. I was going to include the HCC trustees in this post as well, but their reports were not as readily available. I’ll check back on them later.

How HISD intends to spend its COVID relief money

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD expects to spend $1.2 billion of federal relief shoring up academic losses from the pandemic under a wide-ranging plan that would target accelerated instruction to kids that have fallen behind, bolster tutoring and after-school services, seek to retain and recruit teachers with $2,500 stipends, provide laptops to more middle school students and boost technology in the classroom.

Superintendent Millard House II sent an email addressed to “Team HISD” Thursday evening with a 54-slide presentation attached about how the district would use the money, according to a copy obtained by The Chronicle on Friday.

The money comes from $122 billion for Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief funds included in the American Rescue and Relief Plan Act, passed by Congress in March.

HISD has been awarded $804 million from that. It is the second round of education relief funding. The district was allocated $358 million from that earlier round this month.

According to the plan distributed by House, about a quarter of the overall funding will go toward reversing learning losses in reading, math, science and social studies. About $76 million would be spent on before- and after-school programs, $50 million would go to special education, $53 million for college and military readiness, and $60 million would be directed at social and emotional learning, including the hiring of up to 150 additional counselors and social workers.

It is not clear if the plan is final. A timeline included in the presentation lists two dates to submit applications to TEA and July 28 as the date to share the plan with “community.”

These priorities seem right to me. The first order of business is to get students back to previous levels, and that’s going to take a lot of resources. You can see an embed of the plan in the story, and there will be at least one virtual meeting to discuss it. This is a big challenge for the new Superintendent right off the bat, and I wish him and the Board and everyone else all the best with it. We need them to use this funding to its best advantage.

Superintendent House has arrived

He’s got a lot of work in front of him.

When Millard House II officially [started] as the new superintendent of Houston ISD on Thursday, he [had] a stack of challenges awaiting his attention.

Some students fell further behind during the coronavirus pandemic while others were “lost” amid its grip. The district expects to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 stimulus funding with no public plan for the funds in place yet. While teachers are set to receive a raise, their compensation has lagged neighboring districts, and trustees voted three weeks ago to mandate House propose a potentially larger teacher pay raise in August, when the district’s financial outlook may be clearer.

As House assumes his new role, members of the HISD community said they hope he can tackle a variety of priorities, from funding to inequities, and expressed excitement to work with him.

“The first job as a new superintendent is to learn the community, learn our schools, learn our neighborhoods,” said HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who bumped into House this week while visiting schools. “He’s already doing that so I think he’s off to a great start.”

House, 49, who was not made available for an interview this week, arrives from Tennessee, where he led the seventh-largest district in the state, the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System.

[…]

Among the biggest challenges for House and the district will be helping students who fell behind during the pandemic.

Standardized test score data released this week revealed one of the clearest looks yet at the pandemic’s impact. Roughly two-thirds of HISD eighth-graders did not meet math proficiency, compared with 28 percent in 2019.

Additionally, some students stopped attending class altogether, prompting recovery efforts, such as a recent four-day phone bank aimed at convincing some to return.

“We have a tremendous deficit,” said Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson, who leads the district’s largest employees union. “We are very concerned about that. I want him to know that it is not an ‘us against them’ — it is ‘we.’ And we all need to be working together, and I think that if that happens … we can be successful.”

Add the STAAR scores to the pile. Superintendent House and the Board and all the stakeholders will have plenty to do to get things going, with federal COVID relief funds available to help out. Here’s his introductory message:

Welcome to Houston. Now please make yourself available for interviews. Thank you, and god luck.

Millard House officially approved as HISD Superintendent

Welcome aboard.

Millard House II will become Houston ISD’s new superintendent on July 1, following the district’s school board unanimously vote Monday to make his selection official.

The pro forma vote follows the naming of House as HISD’s lone superintendent finalist on May 21. Texas law mandates that school boards name a lone finalist, then wait at least 21 days before formally approving their selection.

Trustees approved a contract for House on Monday, but would not immediately release terms of the agreement. House’s predecessors, former superintendent Richard Carranza and current Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, both earned a base salary of $345,000.

[…]

House has made brief comments twice in the past several weeks about his selection as HISD superintendent, largely focusing on his commitment to working in collaboration with board members and the Houston community. He has not granted interview requests made by the Houston Chronicle.

See here and here for the background, and here for the HISD statement. He seems like a good hire, he seems to know what he’s getting into, and as yet there’s no direct threat to his term from the TEA, though that could change at any time with the Supreme Court. For now, I hope that he will schedule an interview with the Chronicle as soon as possible, so that we can all get a better picture of who our new Superintendent is and what he plans to do with the job. The Press has more.

More on Millard House

The Chron does a profile of the finalist for the HISD Superintendent job.

Early in his tenure as an associate superintendent with Oklahoma’s Tulsa Public Schools, Millard House II found himself thrust into an education administrator’s nightmare: closing campuses and redrawing school boundaries.

Faced with declining enrollment, House’s boss moved in 2010 to shutter 14 campuses spread throughout the city under a plan called Project Schoolhouse. Among others, he relied on House to marshal as much support as possible for the effort, which inflamed deep passions throughout the city.

Ultimately, Project Schoolhouse went off remarkably well given the circumstances. For that, former Tulsa officials give much credit to House, who later orchestrated the logistics of the closures as deputy superintendent.

“He was one of the key players,” said Bob Burton Sr., who served as Tulsa Public Schools’ chief of staff at the time. “He made sure that his principals, community members, parents — if they were going to be affected, everyone was aware of what that would mean for their children.”

The episode required many traits — a calming presence, strong communication skills, a sense of empathy, a willingness to listen — that have become hallmarks of House’s career, catapulting him from a physical education teacher in his native Tulsa to the soon-to-be superintendent of Texas’ largest school district.

House is expected to join Houston ISD next month after the district’s school board plucked him from relative obscurity and named him its lone superintendent finalist last week. Texas school districts must wait 21 days after choosing a lone finalist to sign a contract under state law. Details of House’s compensation package are not yet known, though his predecessors, former superintendent Richard Carranza and current Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, both earned a base salary of about $345,000.

The 49-year-old, who currently leads Tennessee’s seventh-largest district, the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, brings no significant Houston connections and a modest resume by big-city standards. Former colleagues, collaborators and acquaintances, however, warned against underestimating the 26-year educator and married father of two.

In interviews, they described House as an open-minded, data-driven, no-drama executive capable of navigating the kind of complex challenges and competing interests he will face in Houston.

“Just temperamentally, I think Millard has a lot of humility as a leader,” said Chiefs For Change CEO Mike Magee, whose organization tapped House to join its exclusive education administrator network. “He’s going to want to make sure he’s seeing the work from a variety of points of view, taking a collaborative approach to changes in the best interest of kids.”

[…]

For now, House starts with support from HISD’s often-fractured school board, which unanimously voted to name him lone finalist. That show of unity, combined with largely positive reviews from his past stops, have bred measured optimism headed into the summer.

“Everything I’ve heard has been good,” said Houstonians For Great Public Schools Executive Director Jasmine Jenkins, whose nonprofit closely follows the HISD board and endorses trustee candidates. “I know he brings innovative ideas, is not afraid to think outside the box and seems like a fast learner. I’m excited about that potential.”

House initially agreed to an interview for this article but later canceled due to scheduling issues. A Clarksville-Montgomery County schools official responded to several questions in writing about the district, but House did not respond to additional questions about his background. In an introductory press conference last week, House said he will “continue to focus on equity and innovation to lead HISD.”

See here for the previous entry. As the story notes, Superintendent-to-be House has his work cut out for him, and that’s assuming he doesn’t get forced out by the TEA. I hope he gets the chance to have a long interview with reporters soon, but the people who have been talking about him have been positive and complimentary, and that’s a good start. We need Millard House to succeed, that’s for sure.

HISD may have a reprieve

For one year, if this bill passes as is and if the Supreme Court doesn’t intervene.

The Texas House advanced a meaty education bill Tuesday that dramatically reduces the stakes of state standardized tests in 2021-22 and gives Houston ISD another year to raise scores at Wheatley High School before definitively triggering the district school board’s ouster.

House members backed SB 1365 by a voice vote after hammering out a compromise that earned the support of several top Texas education organizations. The proposed legislation, which passed the Senate in early May, still needs to pass a second vote in the House later this week.

The House version approved Tuesday differs significantly from the Senate version of the bill, making the legislation’s path to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk unclear. The Senate version does not include an accountability reprieve for schools in 2021-22 and mandates the immediate replacement of HISD’s school board.

Under the House version, Texas public schools and districts would still be subject to state A-through-F accountability ratings in 2021-22, but the vast majority would not be penalized for poor performance. Schools and districts scoring A, B or C grades under the system would receive their scores, while those with D or F grades would be labeled “not rated.” Accountability ratings are largely based on state standardized test scores, as well as measures of seniors’ college and career readiness.

“Without the passage of Senate Bill 1365, schools will be expected to show two years of learning in nine months, during 2021-22, and will be penalized by the accountability system accordingly,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood.

However, districts still will face severe state sanctions, including the replacement of their school board or the closure of campuses, if any of their campuses have scored five “improvement required” or F grades since 2014 and fail to earn an A, B or C rating in 2021-22.

[…]

In essence, HISD and its new superintendent, who is expected to finalize a contract and begin work in the district next year, would have one year to turn the tide at Wheatley and notch a C-or-better grade under the House version.

The campus appeared on an upward trajectory before the coronavirus pandemic caused the suspension of accountability ratings in 2020 and 2021, but students likely will need intensive support in the upcoming school year after missing valuable in-person class time over the past 14 months.

Here’s SB1365. In its original form, it was identical to HB3270, the Harold Dutton bill that was intended to fix the law that the courts have said the TEA did not follow correctly in ruling to halt the takeover. The bill now goes to a conference committee, which could strip out the provision that gives HISD a one year reprieve, but we’ll see.

Regardless, the TEA is still pursuing its litigation against HISD, and the Supreme Court could still intervene. I think it may be more likely that they would choose to sit it out if the Huberty version of SB1365 passes, since in a year’s time either Wheatley has made the grade and HISD can continue on as is, or it hasn’t and HISD has no grounds to stop a takeover. Why stick your nose in when the calendar will resolve this for you? That’s just a guess, and I could easily be wrong. Or maybe SB1365 doesn’t pass in this form. HISD is in slightly better shape today than it was on Monday, but it ain’t over yet.

HISD names its Superintendent

Welcome to Houston, Millard House II. I hope the state lets you stay.

Houston ISD trustees unanimously voted Friday to name Millard House II as their lone superintendent finalist, tapping the leader of Tennessee’s Clarksville-Montgomery County School System to guide the district past a tumultuous period of instability.

House will arrive in Houston after spending four years as superintendent of Clarksville-Montgomery, a public school district home to about 37,000 students near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. House previously worked as chief operating officer of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, deputy superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma and as a school leadership consultant.

With the board’s nine members standing behind him at district headquarters, House announced his arrival Friday afternoon by focusing on his ability to lead, innovate and unite. He acknowledged the looming threat of state intervention in HISD, which could cut his tenure short, but said he remains focused on the opportunities for growth in the district.

“There are great people here in HISD,” House said. “I think we have the tools in our toolbelt to move beyond some of the drama, the issues that have plagued the school system. We’re really looking forward to building the capacity, building the united front.”

See here for the background, and here for the email sent by the Board to parents. HISD is a much bigger district than what House has worked with before, but that’s true of almost anywhere else. He seems to have good experience, and I appreciate the fact that he’s willing to come here despite the risk of the state booting him out in the near future. As far as that goes, we’ll have to see what the Supreme Court does, and whether the Lege will pass that Dutton bill. However long your stay in Houston is, Superintendent House, I wish you the best of luck.

HISD has a Superintendent in mind

They will announce this person on Friday. After that, insert shrug emoji here.

Houston ISD trustees expect to name a lone superintendent finalist Friday, three days earlier than initially planned, barring another last-minute intervention by the state.

Trustees are expected to complete their candidate interviews and agree on a finalist Thursday, then take a formal vote and publicly introduce their selection Friday, HISD Board President Pat Allen said.

The board’s selection would take over in mid-June from Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who has held the position since the abrupt department of Richard Carranza in early 2018. Lathan accepted the superintendent position at Springfield Public Schools in Missouri two months ago, after HISD board members voted against retaining her long term.

It remains unclear, however, whether trustees will get to complete their superintendent search.

Two state-appointed conservators overseeing the district’s special education department could order trustees to halt their effort at any point, a step that a different conservator took in 2019 as HISD board members closed in on naming a lone finalist. State law allows a conservator to “direct an action to be taken” by the board of trustees, superintendent or any campus principal.

See here, here, and here for some background. As the story notes, there’s the ongoing litigation over whether the TEA can take over HISD, as well as Rep. Harold Dutton’s bill that would moot said litigation, which he is quite determined to pass, standing as potential obstacles. My personal opinion is that if there is no current legal impediment to the Board naming a Superintendent, then the Board should be able to name a Superintendent. I’m sure the courts and the Legislature will defer to my opinion. Whoever this finalist is, I wish you all the best of luck, and a lifetime supply of Maalox. You’ll need both of them.

Magnet school change proposals put off again

Not a surprise.

Houston ISD’s administration has dropped plans to revamp the district’s prized magnet program before the next school year, a response to multiple concerns raised in recent weeks by school board members, district leaders confirmed [last] week.

The announcement means that several magnet recommendations issued by a district-led committee in early 2019 will remain unaddressed for another year. The suggested changes included adding magnet programs at all neighborhood middle and high schools currently lacking one, installing the same type of program at all schools in a given feeder pattern and eliminating magnet funding for elementary schools.

The recommendations resurfaced earlier this month, when district administrators proposed to make those changes by August. However, several trustees expressed skepticism about the timing of the overhaul, particularly given Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s imminent departure and the relatively short time window for building out new programs.

“Based on input from principals, the Board of Education, and various stakeholders, HISD has decided to change our timeline on implementing the magnet program proposal,” the administration said in a statement. “The 2021-2022 school year will be utilized as a planning year in preparation for phased changes that would take place during the 2022-2023 school year, if approved.”

[…]

A committee of roughly 30 HISD employees, parents and community leaders gathered in 2018 and early 2019 to consider tweaks to the magnet program, aiming to create a more equitable system. HISD administrators implemented several of the committee’s smaller proposals, such as eliminating entrance requirements at many middle schools and tweaking the entrance scoring matrix to widen magnet access.

The larger and more politically charged recommendations went unaddressed for two years, with administrators and board members showing little interest in taking them up. Lathan and HISD Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Rick Cruz reintroduced the proposals two weeks ago as part of the district’s budget planning for the 2021-22 school year — but trustees recoiled at the move.

HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said administrators were moving too hastily to add magnets, failing to gather input from the students and families that would see new programs. The administration’s proposal called for installing magnets at two campuses in Santos’ board district, Fonville Middle School and Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center.

“If you don’t survey, get to know the community and engage the community, then the community doesn’t have a product they can buy into,” Santos said.

HISD Trustee Judith Cruz similarly questioned the speed of the proposal, saying she worried the district lacked enough time to install strong new programs that would drive student academic success.

HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard also argued that the district should not undertake major overhauls ahead of a change in leadership. Lathan is expected to leave in June after accepting the superintendent position at Springfield Public Schools in Missouri. HISD trustees are conducting a nationwide superintendent search, with a lone finalist set to be named in late May.

See here for some background. The reasons for waiting given by the Trustees are sensible. The bigger question is why the 2019 recommendations had been shelved for as long as they had been. Maybe when we hire the next Superintendent we’ll see some movement on this. Don’t hold your breath.

Anti-transgender sports bill revived

Screw you, Harold Dutton.

Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton on Friday revived and helped advance a bill that would restrict transgender students from participating in school sports, in what appears to be a retaliatory effort directed at members of his own party for sinking one of his bills.

Senate Bill 29, abhorred by fellow Democrats, would require the University Interscholastic League to force students to play on the sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity.

The bill, which already passed in the Senate, is a priority of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Dutton, who chairs the House Public Education committee, brought the legislation up for a committee vote on Tuesday, where it failed to advance, in large part, because Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty was absent that day and because Dutton himself abstained from voting for or against the bill.

On Thursday night, Dutton, who is from Houston, presented his own bill to the House floor that would give Texas Education Commissioner Michael Morath the ability to take over a district that fails to meet various academic standards and remove school board members. The bill is largely in response to a current legal battle between the Texas Education Agency and Houston ISD after the agency attempted to take over the district in 2019, but was blocked from moving forward by a temporary injunction that’s been upheld by the state’s Third Court of Appeals. Dutton’s alma mater in Houston ISD, Wheatley High School, has received an F rating for multiple years.

That bill, which is largely unpopular among Democrats, was blocked from being voted on after a fellow Houston Democrat Rep. Alma Allen sank it on a procedural technicality. Dutton and Allen sparred over the bill’s intent on the House floor with Allen arguing the bill would provide the TEA with too much latitude to take over an independent school district without providing any recourse for a district.

“When the school goes down, the community goes down and the developers move in,” she said as Dutton repeatedly rejected her assessment. “That’s the long effect of this bill passing.”

Dutton made several references to his bill’s failure on Friday morning in the House Public Education committee as he brought the transgender student athlete bill up for another vote.

“The bill that was killed last night affected far more children than this bill ever will. So as a consequence, the chair moves that Senate Bill 29 as substituted be reported favorably to the full House with the recommendation that it do pass,” he said.

He and Huberty, who is vice chair of the committee, then joined with the previous yes votes, giving SB 29 an 8-5 majority and advancing it out of committee. The bill must still be approved by the House before it can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

See here for the previous update about HB29, and here for Dutton’s TEA takeover bill. “Petty” and “vindictive” are the words that come to my mind about this; I’m sure others can think of more. I hadn’t even considered this scenario as a possible route to this bill getting revived, but here we are. That doesn’t mean it will pass – it still has to come to the House floor, and if Speaker Dade Phelan is true to his earlier words about not wanting to bash LGBTQ+ people anymore, then it can get lost on its way to the Calendars committee. We’ll see about that. In the meantime, let’s start gathering support for the next primary challenge to Dutton, hopefully without any ghost candidates this time. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Where HISD stands today

In a holding pattern, waiting for direction.

In the winter of 2019, two committees composed of Houston ISD employees, parents and advocates issued recommendations for how the district should tackle two of its thorniest issues: campus funding practices and access to magnet programs.

Some of the proposals would require sacrifice, committee members warned, including the potential closure of low-enrollment campuses and the elimination of magnet funding to elementary schools. Yet other recommendations, such as staffing all schools with essential support personnel and expanding magnet programs to all neighborhood middle and high schools, would offer more opportunities to students with the greatest needs, they said.

Two years later, HISD administrators and school board members have implemented few of the proposals, let alone discussed them at length publicly.

The inaction, local leaders and advocates said, speaks to a pattern in the Houston Independent School District of avoiding difficult but potentially consequential reforms in recent years, leaving the state’s largest school system mired in a status quo that holds back lower-income children of color.

Despite receiving numerous studies, investigative reports and committee proposals, HISD administrators and board members have not moved swiftly to address multiple challenges. The festering issues include inequitable distribution of resources and programs, declining student enrollment, inadequate support of students with disabilities, lagging employee pay and the long-term viability of small campuses.

The reasons for the paralysis are numerous — a fractured school board, a reticent administration, the ever-present threat of a state takeover, and once-in-a-generation natural and public health disasters — but each reflect how a $2-billion bureaucracy can become stagnant in the face of calls for reform.

“It feels like HISD has been in a holding pattern, and any type of substantive change hits a wall pretty quickly,” said Jaison Oliver, a community advocate who has urged HISD to implement multiple educational and social justice reforms.

The article delves into the reasons and the prognoses from there, and you can read the rest. Broadly speaking, while the district continues to perform well overall, racial and economic gaps exist, special education is still a mess, the magnet program remains controversial, and the school board is still divided. Harvey, coronavirus, and now the freeze have caused enough disruption to make anything beyond crisis management nearly impossible to attain, and oh yeah, there’s no Superintendent but there is a continuing threat of state takeover. In some ways it’s a miracle the district is performing at all. Maybe there’s some light in the tunnel now, we’ll see. Read the story and see what you think.