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Texas agency says Houston school board should be replaced

Aug. 12, 2019
A six-month investigation by the Texas Education Agency found several instances of alleged misconduct by some board members.

The Texas Education Agency has recommended that a state-appointed governing team replace the Houston school board after a six-month investigation found several instances of alleged misconduct by some board members,

The Houston Chronicle reports that the findings will not become final until Houston district officials have had an opportunity to respond. The deadline for responding is Aug. 15.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who leads the agency, ultimately will decide whether to oust the Houston school board.

The agency has recommended that board members be ousted because of their “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are followed.”

The agency has ousted several Texas school boards in recent years, including those in Beaumont and El Paso, but have never removed local control from a district as large as Houston. It is the state’s largest school district, with nearly 210,000 children in more than 280 schools.

In their report, state investigators outline multiple years of failed oversight and improper behavior by Houston's school board, which long has grappled with in-fighting and distrust.

Conflict within the board reached a boiling point in 2018 when members clashed over whether to retain Lathan, who was appointed interim superintendent following Richard Carranza’s departure to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

Five board members had grown particularly frustrated with Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, believing she had not been responsive to their desires for the district and failed to adequately protect them from a threat posed by a community activist.

Through interviews and a review of text messages, state investigators determined the five board members — Board President Diana Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — secretly met with former superintendent Abelardo Saavedra in two separate groups to coordinate ousting Lathan and installing him as interim superintendent.

Investigators determined that arrangement constituted a “walking quorum,” in violation of state law that requires board members to conduct district business in public.

Three days later, the five board members voted to replace Lathan with Saavedra, offering no advance warning to the public or the other four board members about the move. The board reinstated Lathan within a week following intense public backlash. She remains the district’s interim leader.

State officials concluded that Dávila and Lira falsely asserted in interviews with investigators that they met one-on-one with Saavedra. In separate interviews, Saavedra and Flynn Vilaseca placed Dávila and Lira at the restaurant meetings, the report states.

The state investigation expanded into a wider review of the board’s actions in March, just as it was about to select a permanent superintendent. Through interviews with current and former district administrators, as well as a review of documents, investigators discovered multiple instances in which board members interfered with day-to-day operations, violated rules related to vendor contracts, failed to monitor job orders and strayed from board policies, according to the report.

State officials also identified several instances in which district officials “manipulated contract procurement rules” by splitting job orders into smaller amounts, apparently to avoid requirements that board members vote on the agreement. 

Houston's school board has continued to operate throughout the investigation, though a conservator appointed by the Texas Education Agency exercised her authority in late March to halt the district’s search for a permanent superintendent.

Houston's school board also may face ouster in the coming months because of chronically low performance at a few of its 280 schools. If any one of four long-struggling campuses — Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools — fails to meet state academic standards this year, state officials must close the still-failing campuses or appoint a new school board. State officials have strongly hinted they would force out the school board before closing schools.

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