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August 9th, 2019:

It looks like we’re getting a new school board

What a mess.

Texas Education Agency officials have recommended that a state-appointed governing team replace Houston ISD’s locally elected school board after a six-month investigation found several instances of alleged misconduct by some trustees, including violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts and making false statements to investigators.

The recommendation and findings, issued by TEA Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt, will not become final until HISD officials have had an opportunity to respond. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who leads the agency, ultimately will decide whether to oust HISD’s school board. HISD officials have until Aug. 15 to respond, and Morath likely would issue a final decision in the following weeks.

In his recommendation, Hewitt wrote that HISD trustees should be replaced by a state-appointed board due to 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.”

[…]

In their report, state investigators outline multiple years of failed oversight and improper behavior by HISD’s much-maligned school board, which long has grappled with in-fighting and distrust. Conflict within the board reached a boiling point in the summer and fall of 2018 when trustees clashed over whether to retain Lathan, who took over as interim superintendent following Richard Carranza’s abrupt departure to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

Five board members had grown particularly frustrated with 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 trustees — Board President Diana Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — secretly met with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra in two separate groups to coordinate ousting Lathan and installing him as interim superintendent. The meetings took place at a Houston restaurant on the same day in October 2018, the report said. Investigators determined that arrangement constituted a “walking quorum,” in violation of state law that requires trustees to conduct district business in public.

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

TEA officials interviewed trustees as part of their investigation, ultimately determining that Dávila and Lira falsely claimed in interviews with investigators that they only met one-on-one with Saavedra. In separate interviews, Saavedra and Flynn Vilaseca placed Dávila and Lira at the restaurant meetings, the report states.

In an interview Wednesday, Dávila said she provided her best recollection of meeting Saavedra to TEA investigators, and denied that she attempted to mislead state officials.

“They wanted us to remember things that happened six, seven months prior to us being interviewed,” Dávila said.

So in the end it will be the ethics investigation that brings down the Board. We’ll get the performance results for the schools, including the four that needed to meet standards this year, on August 15, so there may be another cause for the demise, but this one came first. This isn’t final yet – the Board has until the 15th to respond to this report, and then TEA Commissioner Mike Morath gets to make his ruling – but the handwriting on the wall is quite clear. The state is stepping in to take over the HISD Board.

The report isn’t public yet – I presume it will be by the time Morath issues his ruling – but the Chron got to see it. The other misconduct allegations reported in the story apply to Diana Davila, with Sergio Lira also being accused of not being truthful to investigators. I feel like in other circumstances, with a Board that wasn’t already under a conservator, this would be an embarrassment but not the end of the existing Board. In such other circumstances, I might be moved to outrage at the prospect of our democratically elected Board being summarily replaced, even if only for a couple of years, by state-selected trustees. I find it hard to muster any such reaction this time. I find myself resignedly in agreement with this:

Trustee Jolanda Jones, who frequently has criticized colleagues who voted to oust Lathan, said replacement of the school board is “sadly, unfortunately” in the district’s best interests.

“I think it’s tragic, but I think the alternative is worse,” Jones said.

The good news, such as it is, is that the four schools in question, which have been making progress, will probably not be closed. That was a huge point of contention with the parent groups. If that’s truly off the table, then my guess is that reaction to this will be somewhat more muted. Who is going to step up to defend the current board, and demand that the TEA leave them in place?

It should be noted that there will still be elections for HISD trustees this November. These elected trustees, along with the others that are not on the November ballot, will still serve but have much less power in the interim. At least two of the four trustees whose terms are up this year (Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is running for HCC Board, and Jolanda Jones) have announced they are not running for re-election, with Davila being rumored to not run again as well. If the end result of all this is that in another two or four years we get to elect nine new members, and (hopefully) the sword of Damocles that is the academic standards issue is not looming over us when we do (good luck with that, whoever the TEA picks to run the place), I find it hard to be too upset about that. I’m certainly not more upset than I am about everything that led to this.

TDP sues over Bonnen-MQS secret meeting

Here’s an interesting turn.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas Democratic Party is suing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, alleging they created an unregistered political action committee and violated other state election laws.

The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court on Thursday, stems from a June 12 meeting Sullivan had with Bonnen and Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows in Bonnen’s Capitol office. In the meeting, Sullivan has said, Bonnen and Burrows offered to give writers at his website, Texas Scorecard, House media credentials in the next legislative session in exchange for Sullivan’s political group targeting 10 Republican incumbents in next year’s primary elections. Sullivan said he rebuffed the offer.

But Democrats allege that meeting and any agreements reached in it show a coordinated effort “between political actors intended to influence the election or defeat of specific candidates” and amounts to an unregistered political committee as defined by state law.

The Democrats also allege that Bonnen and Burrows directed Sullivan to make political contributions or expenditures at their request under his political action committee, Empower Texans, which is illegal under Texas campaign finance law. They further claim that the alleged quid pro quo Bonnen offered Sullivan of public benefits in return for targeting elected officials amounts to a violation of state law.

The complaint says any contribution proposed at the meeting violated state law because it was made in the Capitol and during the Legislature’s fundraising moratorium.

[…]

As part of their lawsuit, the Democrats request that Sullivan produce the entire recording of the June meeting and any other recordings Sullivan has of Bonnen and Burrows. The Democrats also ask Sullivan to produce a list of all the people who have listened to the June recording and any documentation relevant to that meeting.

Ramos, a Richardson Democrat, is a plaintiff in the case because the Democratic Party says she “is one of the candidates mentioned in this recording as a target of the coordinated political efforts between the Speaker and Sullivan.” It is unclear whether she was named as a target, though multiple people who have heard the recording confirm Bonnen called her “awful.”

“Texans deserve to know exactly what happened on June 12, 2019 and they deserve accountability from their elected officials,” Ramos said in a prepared statement. “There needs to be accountability for any violations of ethics or the law that occurred during a meeting between a Republican activist and the Speaker of the House.”

You can see the TDP press release here, and a copy of the lawsuit here. We know about the tape. There’s no argument I can see for keeping it secret, though I’m sure MQS will come up with something. The Texas House General Investigating Committee investigation may also serve as a way to get the tape released, though I’d put more faith in the courts to serve as a fulcrum if it comes to that. One caveat about the House investigation:

But the actions of the committee – which can issue subpoenas, hire outside investigators or tap the state’s existing criminal investigative capability, such as the Texas Rangers – may complicate matters.

Under state law, a person testifying about incriminating behavior before the Legislature may not be prosecuted or indicted for any actions about which they truthfully testify, potentially giving Bonnen, Burrows and Sullivan immunity in any further legal actions if they testify before the committee.

If we didn’t have complications, we wouldn’t have anything. That said, MQS will not be able to delete the recording while the litigation is active, either, so we’ve got that going for us. Juanita and the Trib have more.

The Harris County bail lawsuit effect on Dallas County

The Trib looks to see if the recent Harris County bail lawsuit settlement might affect the bail lawsuit in Dallas County.

“Anytime one county settles, it could possibly provide a roadmap for another county, but I can’t say that it will,” said Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, whose county’s bail practices have also been slammed by a federal judge. “The landscape of this lawsuit is different.”

A big piece of that is because Dallas’ lawsuit, like another in Harris and one in Galveston, targets bail practices not only for misdemeanor defendants, but for felony cases, too.

[…]

“I’ve been studying very closely what’s happening in Harris County, and I think that it’s a step in the right direction and something that we should … modify or use as a blueprint for felony cases,” said State District Court Judge Brandon Birmingham, a Democrat and defendant in Dallas’ lawsuit. He was especially interested in the idea of an open-hours court.

Adding felonies to the lawsuit against bail practices in Dallas brought a new complication, however. The judges work for the state, not the county, and are being represented by the Texas attorney general’s office, which claims they have no jurisdiction over early bail decisions. County officials, who are largely Democratic, have said the attorney general’s office, run by Republican Ken Paxton, has stalled settlement talks and reform efforts.

“The fact that felony judges are part of the lawsuit complicates resolution,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat. “The AG office’s public positions on criminal justice reform and bail reform are not the same as the Commissioners Court or most of our elected judges.”

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a court filing last month, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins wrote that the Dallas lawsuit goes too far by including felony judges. He said bail decisions are set by county judicial officers before felony judges assume jurisdiction over criminal matters.

“Despite tens of thousands of words spilled in this case so far, [the plaintiff] has yet to articulate just what she expects the felony judges to do, going forward, to remedy her alleged harm,” Hawkins wrote.

But things appear to be moving toward resolution. Two district judges, including Birmingham, recently began conducting their own bail hearings every morning and hired a lawyer to represent them instead of the attorney general. Jenkins and Creuzot confirmed that the parties are now headed to mediation to hopefully come up with a settlement proposal or consent decree.

See here for more on the second Harris County lawsuit, the one involving felony cases. It was filed in January and I haven’t seen any updates as yet, nor do I know if the AG’s office has gotten involved. Be that as it may, it seems to me that the underlying principle is the same, and should be viewed through a similar lens by the federal court. This time, Harris will follow behind Dallas, so we’ll see where they lead us.