Last week the Texas Education Agency (TEA) filed a damning report summarizing an investigation into the Houston Independent School District Board of Trustees. The preliminary report recommends that the Commissioner of Education appoint a conservator and Board of Managers to replace the elected Trustees.
While Houston ISD has been operating under threat of state intervention for several years due to chronically underperforming schools, the most recent TEA investigation and subsequent recommendations are based entirely on the elected Board of Trustees’ failure to comply with state laws on governance and ethics.
Filed with the U.S. District Court in Austin, the TEA document details the findings of a Special Accreditation Investigation conducted by the agency’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU.) The SIU examined three main allegations: that HISD Trustees 1) had violated Texas Open Meetings Law, 2) acted individually and exceeded the scope of their lawful authority, and 3) had failed to follow contract procurement rules and procedures.
The 35-page SIU report details board dysfunction and multiple violations, and concludes that “findings establish a systemic breakdown of the HISD Board of Trustees ability to govern and oversee the management of HISD.”
The SIU states that in October of 2018, five of the district’s nine elected Trustees participated in a “walking quorum.” Trustees Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos, Anne Sung, and Board President Diana Davila are all listed as having participated in a staggered, secret meeting to engineer a vote replacing the interim District superintendent with their preferred candidate.
The document also documents instances of Trustees allegedly exceeding the bounds of their authority and violating state laws for contract awards.
HISD Board President Diana Davila is frequently mentioned in the SIU findings.
Allegedly on April 16 of this year, Davila visited the newly constructed High School for Law and Justice and ordered the removal of a completed wall; a change that resulted in a $20,000 cost increase. Davila and her husband are also alleged to have pressured administrators to shift already-awarded contracts to other vendors, even to the point of threatening administrator’s jobs.
The SIU report also alleges that HISD Trustee and 2nd Vice-President Elizabeth Santos hosted a campaign event on HISD property that was paid for by the district.
While none of the nine elected Trustees nor the interim superintendent escape mention in the SIU findings, some allegations seem relatively benign, such as electronic communications from Trustees to staff asking for the location of certain reports online. But numerous communications dating back to 2016 document instances of possible abuse of authority and blatant violations of state law.
In one instance, Trustee Wanda Adams seems to be pressuring the district to hire a friend, and in another, Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones appears to advocate for the Chief of Human Resources to change a former employee’s rehire status.
Section Two of the SIU report concludes that “individual trustee overreach is common, and individual trustees have a long-standing practice of monitoring, directing, influencing or interfering with administrative actions in the areas of operations (including campaign events,) contracting, grievances and personnel.”
“Specifically, Trustees Skillern-Jones, Adams, Flynn Vilaseca, Deigaard, Santos, Sung, and Davila engaged in this practice.”
The third section of the SIU report details the HISD Board’s failure to follow contract procurement rules and procedures. The section also resurrects allegations from a 2016 audit that has been hidden from the public due to the settlement terms of a whistleblower lawsuit.
SIU’s filing documents 14 instances of job order contract “splitting” to circumvent state rules that govern contracts valued at more than $500,000. Although at times total contracts awarded to the same vendor at the same site totaled nearly $1.2 million, the Board of Trustees voted to divide work into multiple contracts listing dollar amounts under the $500,000 threshold.
The SIU report again cites Diana Davila and her husband, who allegedly pressured an administrator to cancel a previously awarded custodial contract with MetroClean in favor of Accel Building Maintenance (ABM.)
According to the report, when the administrator protested that ABM was no longer considered a reputable vendor, Trustee Davila replied, “It will happen if we want it to happen.” The SIU also describes an alleged attempt by Davila and her husband to bully MetroClean into accepting ABM as a paid consultant.
The report also notes that while elected HISD Trustees have received board training from the Texas Association of School Boards, TEA could not verify that any training had taken place with the Office of Ethics and Compliance.
In addition to replacing the elected Board of Trustees with a state-appointed board of managers, the SIU investigator recommends lowering the district’s accreditation status. Despite HISD’s extensive problems, the TEA currently lists the district as having an “A-Superior” financial integrity rating.
HISD has until August 15 to respond to the report and request an informal review.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that the Houston ISD had an A- Superior accreditation rating. However, the TEA lists the district as having an A- Superior financial integrity rating. The article has been updated to reflect that. We apologize for the error.
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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.