At the Houston Independent School District’s first “official” board meeting since a complete and utter breakdown of board decorum, trustees were able to keep it together long enough to appease cameras, staff, and the few parents who packed the boardroom. Despite the quality show put on by the state’s largest school district, the dislike between trustees remained palpable.
Unlike most adults who put differences aside and act in the best interest of those they work for or serve, HISD trustees are proving unable. They’ve shown that the current makeup of the board is nothing short of dysfunctional and the only answer left is for the Texas Education Agency to exert its power for the sake of the 215,000 students HISD serves.
In September of 2014, when Texas Scorecard began covering the district in earnest, it was not without its issues.
Then-trustee Paula Harris was locked in a battle with Third Ward residents over the redevelopment of Jack Yates High School, made possible by the district’s 2012 $1.89 billion bond. Two hundred rain-drenched protestors showed up to Yates to protest the project and call for Harris’ resignation.
Later that same year, during the 84th legislative session, State Rep. Harold Dutton (D–Houston) helped usher in House Bill 1842, which seemed marginally relevant then but would provide the solution to the district’s long-running problems years later. HB 1842 provided a pathway for the Texas Education Agency to essentially “take over” districts with continually failing campuses.
In September of 2015, a $211 million shortfall in the district’s bond funds became public. Despite being charged with oversight regarding the waste, mismanagement, and abuse that led to the shortfall, trustees began calling for an audit.
Ahead of the audit, an employee of HISD and an outside construction vendor separately came to Texas Scorecard with emails and documents showing their repeated attempts to alert board members, district officials, and others about the abuse they saw happening with bond projects.
That’s when the board’s perceived lack of oversight morphed into negligence.
HISD’s auditor at the time, Richard Patton, released a scathing audit that directly pointed to mismanagement within the bond program as the reason for the shortfall.
As a “thank you” for his discovery, Patton was suspended and then fired a few months later.
Patton first filed a whistleblower grievance, then a whistleblower lawsuit against the district for retaliating against him over the audit. The case was only recently settled, with the district awarding Patton $205,000.
This all brings us to 2018, where the board is mired in racial tension and the calls for Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones to step down have steadily grown.
What is worse is that there is no stability within the district. In one fell swoop, a single board member submitted a surprise motion and was successful in replacing the interim superintendent. Though the action was later reversed, the obvious disconnect among board members is deeply concerning.
During a recent press conference, trustee Jolanda Jones said the board would hire an executive coach to assist them in working through these issues, but every day the board infights rather than turns the district around is another day that HISD fails the students who attend its campuses.
With Harris ignoring her constituents, the calls for Skillern-Jones to step down, and an employee, vendor, and auditor blowing the whistle, it seems there is a theme in HISD. The district’s board members do not listen to the people they serve or the experts who work within the district itself.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan has done tremendous work fixing some of the structural issues within the district during her short term. But with an erratic and uncooperative board, there is no certainty the work she has done will remain or continue to receive the support it needs to be as successful as possible.
It is not just in the best interest of the district for the state to take over, it is the state’s responsibility. The TEA has the resources, experience, and capacity to turn around a failing district.
When discussion of a TEA-appointed board of managers comes up, many assume that would translate into Austin bureaucrats dictating what HISD should do, which couldn’t be further from the truth. A board of managers would consist of Houstonians who are otherwise qualified to serve on the board of trustees but chose not to run. These would be individuals who have successfully managed districts in program or administrative roles in the past and know how to begin tackling the issues HISD faces.
It’s time to face it: the HISD board is not working.
Many members of the HISD community oppose the idea of a TEA takeover because they feel it waters down their ownership of their neighborhood schools. But if the schools are not delivering for the children or the taxpayers, then it is time to put personal feelings aside and take bold action.