By Jeffrey L. Boney
This past Thursday, October 11, in one of the most low-down, unlawful and disrespectful acts in recent memory, the HISD Board surprisingly voted, 5 to 4, to remove Dr. Grenita Lathan as its interim superintendent and replace her with troubled former HISD superintendent Dr. Abelardo ‘Abe’ Saavedra. Saavedra served as HISD superintendent from 2004 to 2010 and left under a cloud of suspicion and with an exit package that cost taxpayers nearly $1 million (it was actually $978,967.00, according to the district).
What made this action so troubling was that one of the items listed to be discussed on the October 11th HISD Board agenda was to: Consider employment of interim superintendent and employment contract through September 30, 2019.
The consideration was for Dr. Lathan – at least that is what the HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones and a few of her other colleagues were prepared to decide on. There was never a discussion amongst the full board that they would be considering an employment contract for any other interim superintendent other than Dr. Lathan. An agenda item to remove Dr. Lathan as the interim superintendent was not on the Board Agenda that posted for the regular meeting.
Dr. Lathan’s status of having her contract extended as the interim superintendent had not yet been decided upon, and a decision needed to be made to ensure stability at the top so the district could move forward, as it continues to face academic and financial crises and a potential state takeover.
The Forward Times recently reported that just a month prior, HISD Trustees voted 6 to 3 to use the executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates to help identify their next permanent superintendent, much to the disappointment of several trustees.
Trustees decided to move forward with a national search even though there was an actively serving interim superintendent — who was doing a tremendous job of getting the district in order. An unprecedented decision that had the markings of blatant racism all over it.
Out of nowhere, as the HISD Board was preparing to vote on an extension of Dr. Lathan’s employment contract, trustee Diana Davila took out her cell phone and began to propose a motion to dismiss Dr. Lathan as HISD’s interim superintendent and replace her with Saavedra, effective the following Monday morning.
That pre-drafted written motion was seconded by another trustee in what appeared to be a planned and coordinated action. Based upon their actions, it was obvious that prior planning and discussions had to have occurred. Davila was joined by trustees Elizabeth Santos, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung.
The nerve. The audacity. The blatant disrespect.
People in the audience began yelling and shouting their disapproval, as blindsided trustees tried to make sense of what was happening.
Why would the majority of HISD trustees decide to replace a competent interim superintendent with another interim superintendent who also had a checkered past with HISD, for only 6 months?
More importantly, how could these trustees decide to hire someone that had not been properly vetted or presented to the full board for consideration as interim superintendent.
This was a shocking development. Several members of the HISD Board, who were blindsided by the move, expressed their disbelief from the dais. This action by the remaining board members was the most recent in a series of disrespectful attacks against Dr. Lathan, African American members of the HISD Board and some staff members.
“I don’t know how one trustee gets to talk to the interim and then he gets to be interim without the input of the other members,” said HISD Board President Skillern-Jones. “I go back to transparency, because if we pull the tape from the last meeting, the same trustee said, when we asked to give this lady (Dr. Lathan) a contract, ‘we are not because my community has not vetted that. We are not going to go behind closed doors and make deals and then come out and give an interim superintendent contract to her.’ So, for me, I’m very confused at the hypocrisy of it all. Very confused.”
Skillern-Jones was referring to Davila, who voted against a motion last month to extend Dr. Lathan’s contract for 12 months.
“This is disrespectful,” said trustee Wanda Adams. “I did not know about this at all. Some of my other colleagues did not know about it. Some knew about it. It goes back to my original statement about racism on this board.”
Adams continued to state that racial division exists between Black and Latino trustees and was adamant that the proposal that was sprung on the board should have been discussed in closed session rather than on the dais.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner immediately chimed in on the issue, calling the HISD Board’s actions a “disappointing and destabilizing move that will harm the district’s school children and reputation.”
“You can’t govern such a large institution by taking actions that don’t appear to be well thought out,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “My number one interest is what’s best for the kids.”
On Saturday, October 13th, “Protect Our Progress Coalition,” a group of elected officials, civic, community, business and faith leaders, parents, educators and residents, gathered to demand that Dr. Lathan be reinstated. The group also called upon HISD to unify around the principles of stability and educational excellence for the sake of the children.
After tremendous community pressure and backlash, the HISD Board met on Sunday and decided to reverse their decision to remove Dr. Lathan.
One of the most disturbing issues that has captured the attention of legal experts and members of the community is whether those five HISD trustees violated the spirit of the Texas Open Meetings Act, which was enacted to ensure that Texas government is transparent, open and accountable to all Texans. It requires that state and local governmental entities conduct public business responsibly and in accordance with the law.
Currently, HISD is required to post public notices prior to each meeting to give notice to interested individuals of the public who may want to comment on issues to be considered by a public agency.
More importantly, did those five trustees break the law by putting together a “walking quorum,” since Saavedra has already gone on the record to state that prior to the vote, he had spoken to the five trustees that voted for him to replace Dr. Lathan.
According to Carroll G. Robinson, Associate Professor, Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and former Houston City Council Member, from a legal standpoint this is a very big deal and the five trustees should be concerned.
“Based on everything we know, what happened at HISD was based on a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” said Robinson. “Violations of the Act subject elected officials to both civil and criminal penalties. To prevent this kind of behavior in the future, it requires the District Attorney to take action to investigate and prosecute this matter, and for parents to take legal action against the Trustees who violated the law to send a loud and strong message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated.”
In order to help the public’s understanding of what happened regarding recent HISD superintendent decisions, the Forward Times has submitted a request under the Texas Public Information Act, to inspect or obtain copies of public records related to any communication concerning the HISD superintendent position, particularly any communications regarding the decision to relieve Dr. Grenita Lathan of her position as HISD superintendent and hire former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra as the interim HISD superintendent effective Monday, October 15.
The Forward Times will continue to follow the details concerning HISD and will keep its readers abreast of the outcome of its Public Information Request regarding these recent actions by the HISD Board that have caused a tremendous level of discord in the Greater Houston area.