After a scrutinous investigation from the Texas Education Agency (TEA), Commissioner Mike Morath notified the Houston Independent School District (HISD) that the state agency would proceed with the takeover of the district.
While most schools in the state’s largest district have performed at acceptable standards, some — such as Wheatley High School — have persistently failed to meet TEA’s requirements.
As such, the agency is taking over in hopes of improving the situation.
But the poor performance of a few schools is only the beginning of TEA’s concerns.
The larger problem lies with the poor governance by the board of trustees.
A final report released by TEA at the end of October upheld earlier allegations against the district and its board.
“The report makes findings of fact identifying serious and persistent instances where individual board members exercise decision-making authority in violation of Texas Open Meetings Act and violated laws relating to contracting,” wrote Morath in his notification to the board, referencing two of the main allegations made in the investigation.
Several board members violated the Texas Open Meetings Act last year during a controversial attempt to replace the acting interim superintendent of the district.
Five trustees — Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos, Anne Sung, and Board President Diana Davila — were all alleged to have participated in a meeting with Dr. Abelardo Saavedra.
The meeting, which took place at a local restaurant without the knowledge of the other trustees, was considered to be a “walking quorum,” as the board members allegedly conducted a “de facto interview” with the intent of hiring Saavedra in place of Dr. Grenita Lathan.
At the meeting, Flynn Vilaseca reportedly gave Saavedra a copy of a previous superintendent’s contract, an indication that the meeting was about potentially hiring Saavedra for the role.
During a heated board meeting a few days later, Davila made the motion to replace Lathan with Saavedra. The board approved the motion in a 5-4 decision — along the lines of those who attended or did not attend the secret meeting.
Not long after the extremely controversial board decision, TEA began their investigation of the district and the board reversed the removal of Lathan.
In addition to the violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, the TEA report also found that in many cases, individual board members had violated laws relating to contracting.
Davila, for instance, was reportedly involved in attempting to pressure an HISD administrator to cancel janitorial contracts from one business and award it to another.
When the administrator told her that the other business had a poor reputation, Davila reportedly responded, “It will happen if we want it to happen.”
In other cases, TEA found that trustees had circumvented a law requiring all contracting proposals costing more than $500,000 to be approved by the board in a vote.
Instead of voting on the contracts, they broke them down into multiple payments below the high threshold.
One construction company in Houston received over $2.5 million through the vote-evading scheme.
The findings of the report led Morath to lower the accreditation status of the district and appoint a board of managers that will essentially take the place of the board of trustees for an extended period of time.
Trustees will continue to be elected and hold their position during the time period, but the managers appointed by Morath will exercise the authority.
The managers will be selected from applications submitted by members of the community. Applications are open until January 2, 2020, and appointments will be made after that.
The TEA takeover could reportedly last anywhere between two to five years, before returning the authority to the board of trustees.
The Houston Federation of Teachers has sharply criticized the change and has reportedly considered filing a lawsuit to stop the takeover.
Andy Dewey, the vice president of the teachers union, called TEA’s actions “unprecedented.”
Such takeovers of an ISD by TEA have occurred before, but HISD has been the largest school district to see it happen.
The union is concerned that the administration of the district directly under TEA may lead to some of the schools being turned into charter schools, though there is no clear indication that this is being considered.
State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has applauded TEA’s actions, stating, “This is a real recognition of the obvious, and what I have been saying for well over a year. When a school district Board of Trustees continues to have chronically failing schools and board members that are unable to function together under the laws of Texas, the State has an obligation to step in on behalf of the 200,000 students, families, and the Houston community.”
TEA will be holding two meetings soon to discuss the issue with members of the community:
- Thursday, November 21st, 12:00 – 1:30 pm, Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center | E-101 & E102, 4400 W. 18th St. Houston, Texas 77092
- Thursday, November 21st, 6:00 – 7:30 pm, Chavez High School | Auditorium
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.