EducationElections 2021Local NewsRunoff Elections in Troubled Houston School District Set to Begin

Four challengers prompted runoff elections in the state’s largest school district, although a court ruling could allow the state to appoint a new board in the future.
November 23, 2021
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Runoff elections for four seats on the Houston Independent School District (HISD) board are slated to begin next week while the beleaguered district remains under the threat of a state takeover.

Following years of chronically underperforming schools and an investigation into multiple ethics violations by the board of trustees, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) moved to take over HISD in 2019.

The district obtained a court-ordered injunction to block the takeover last year and the matter remains pending before the Supreme Court of Texas. A new state law that took effect on September 1 may bolster the TEA’s position and eventually allow the state agency to replace the HISD elected board of trustees with an appointed board of managers, but for now, the district may proceed with elections. 

Allegations of HISD board misconduct, inability to significantly improve student performance, and a projected 2022 budget deficit of $105 million drew extensive interest from the community, and multiple candidates filed to challenge incumbent trustees in the general election. 

Trustee Myrna Guidry, appointed to the board in 2020, was the only incumbent to win her race outright on election day, successfully fending off two challengers to garner more than 60 percent of the vote.

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Incumbents for single-member geographic districts 1, 5, 6, and 7 are Elizabeth Santos, Sue Deigaard, Holly Flynn Vilaseca, and Anne Sung. The 2019 TEA investigation specifically accused Santos, Vilaseca, and Sung of violating Texas open meetings laws by conducting a “walking quorum” while considering a new superintendent. 

The TEA investigator’s report also indicated that incumbents Santos, Vilaseca, and Sung had engaged in trustee overreach that included “monitoring, directing, influencing or interfering with administrative actions in the areas of operations (including campaign events), contracting, grievances and personnel.” 

Santos, a former teacher who has served on the board since 2016, will face Janette Garza Lindner, a consultant who has served on the Latinos for Education board and an advisory board for school choice. Both candidates have expressed opposition to the state takeover, but Santos has been endorsed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo along with other prominent local Democrats. 

Lindner has endorsements from Houstonians for Great Public Schools, the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board, and homebuilder David Weekley.

The two have recently sparred over campaign donations, with Lindner noting that more than 70 percent of Santos’ campaign funds come from Washington, D.C.-based Patriot Majority PAC

Patriot Majority, a left-leaning political action group largely funded by the American Federation of Teachers union, has also contributed to the campaigns of Vilaseca and Sung.

In the District 5 runoff, incumbent Deigaard faces challenger Caroline Walter. An activist for public education issues, Deigaard won election to the HISD board in 2017 and has endorsements from Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX-07), state Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston), and Houston City Councilmember Abbie Kamin.

Walter, an HISD parent involved in multiple area charities, captured 36 percent of the vote to Deigaard’s 49 percent in the general election and has been endorsed by the Conservative Coalition of Harris County, the Harris County Republican Party (HCRP), and business political networking organization BIZPAC.

For District 6, incumbent and former teacher Vilaseca will head to the runoff against challenger Kendall Baker, a well-known local pastor who vocally opposed Houston’s controversial transgender rights ordinance known as HERO. 

Baker also previously ran for mayor of Houston in 2019 and is part of the Houston Area Pastor Council. A former manager for Houston’s 311 Help and Information Center, Baker faced accusations of sexual harassment that ended his employment with the city in 2013. 

Vilaseca touts a lengthy list of endorsing entities including the Texas Gulf Coast AFL-CIO and Houston Federation of Teachers unions, as well as the Houston GLBT Caucus, Fletcher, Hidalgo, and other elected Democrats.

Baker received endorsements from the county’s Republican party, Houston Business Connections Newspaper, and several local Republican officials and groups. 

Also garnering right-leaning endorsements, Bridget Wade took more than 40 percent of the vote to incumbent Sung’s 37 percent in the four-way race for District VII. President of a local school Parent Teacher Organization who serves on multiple other boards, Wade has called for school district emphasis on reading and math skills. 

A former HISD teacher who graduated from Harvard, Sung won election to the board in 2016 and says she has worked for reforms in the district that have led to improvements in college and career readiness. Her lengthy endorsement list includes local unions and Democratic groups and elected officials.

Like many other public school districts around the state, HISD has adopted a focus on “equity.” Last year the district partnered with Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium to study educational equity, and an HISD mission statement webpage reads, “we believe equity is a/the lens through which all policy decisions are made.”

Goals outlined by the current board include increasing the percentage of third grade students reading at grade level to 50 percent and performing math at grade level to 54 percent by 2024.

Early voting for the HISD runoff elections begins on Monday, November 29 and continues through December 7. Election Day is December 11.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.