Texas’ largest school district has seen better times. Houston Independent School District is mired in a number of very real and very concerning problems from budget shortfalls to school closures numbering in the double digits, to name a few. These are issues the public expects its elected board of nine trustees to handle without complaint and in the public’s best interest.
That isn’t happening.
Eighth months ago, word came down from the Texas Education Agency that 10 Houston ISD schools were on the state takeover list, meaning HISD either had turn them around in due time, bring in a partner for help, or risk takeover from the state.
Then-board president Wanda Adams and Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones held a two-man press conference last summer to discuss the imminent issue. Skillern-Jones, who was originally elected to the board in 2011 and is now in her second, non-consecutive term as president, said then that the work was going to start and they weren’t going to wait months to address the issue. Yet here we are nearly a year later.
At the conference, Skillern-Jones pinned a majority of the blame for the potential school closures on the Texas Legislature for passing House Bill 1882, authored while Jones was board president. The bill enabled a pathway for the TEA to assume control of districts that have had one or more campuses rated “improvement required” for five consecutive years. Despite the bill’s author being fellow Houston Democrat State Rep. Harold Dutton, Skillern-Jones chalked it up to a tactic at pushing school choice, saying, “this is a precedent to dismantle public education.”
It was then that Skillern-Jones showed that she was unwilling to entertain every option possible to save the district, vowing to give up her position before allowing these schools to close.
“I will say if it comes to a point if the choice is closure or board of managers, as a trustee I would rather walk away from this position, than to see school closures.”
Since that statement, it seems as though she’s at least figuratively walked away from the position.
HISD is currently facing a $115 million budget deficit. To deal with this, trustees have decided to start laying off employees for the 2018-2019 school year. According to the local teacher’s union, the district originally wanted to lay off 700 teachers, but has since reduced that number to between 200 and 250. But HISD trustees knew this shortfall was coming for some time. The board has always been aware of the district’s financial troubles and only chose to address them when given no other options.
Both the financial trouble and the legislation that paved the way for the potential state takeover of HISD schools were issues readily apparent during Skillern-Jones’ first term as board president, but they went unaddressed.
Now, as Skillern-Jones’ second term as president is well underway, parents are calling for her removal as board president. A series of moves that broke public trust culminated in the arrest of two parents, after Skillern-Jones ordered officers to clear the public from a board meeting because she didn’t want to hear their concerns.
Last Tuesday’s board meeting quickly devolved into chaos as the board was set to vote on bringing on partners to manage the district’s 10 failing schools. Parents, advocates, and activists have long opposed this plan and took to the meeting to voice that. But after a series of expectedly angry testimony, that didn’t happen. Skillern-Jones decision to shut down the meeting to the public is just another escalation in her tactics to supress public opposition.
Over the course of her tenure she has moved to limit public speaking and even asked presenters not to address board members by their name.
Now parents are asking for three things.
A group called HISD Parent Advocates is circulating a petition calling for the board to vote to remove Skillern-Jones as president, saying in a video, “Let’s know that she put lives in jeopardy that night, and that discretion that she has as chair is very powerful and the trustees need to put that power in new leadership as a first step.”
They are also calling for a revision to board policy that explicitly disallows use of force by HISD police unless a danger is present. This comes from Skillern-Jones using her discretion to order the room to be cleared, leading to two moms being dragged out.
Third, they are calling for a change to policy regarding public speaking at board meetings. The group feels that there have been policies enacted that suppress public speaking in exchange for the comfort of the board members.
The online petition, which has garnered nearly 1,000 signatures already, is going to be delivered to the board at their May 10 meeting.
“After years of increasingly adversarial actions by the board with public participation and after the tragic events of April 24th we believe that taking the above actions are the minimum steps this board needs to follow in order to restore confidence in the open, transparent and peaceful governing of the Houston Independent School District and the 284 public schools with 215,000 children it serves.”
HISD has largely destroyed any trust with the public, and as the board president, Skillern-Jones bears the responsibility for that. For the public to support any future effort pushed by the district or this board, they must begin repairing the broken relationship, which should begin with the removal of Rhonda Skillern-Jones as president.