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Abe Saavedra

Superintendent search will continue

For the time being, at least.

Houston ISD’s pursuit of a permanent superintendent will continue after trustees rejected a motion Thursday to suspend the search amid a recently launched state investigation into potential violations of open meetings laws.

Trustees voted 5-3 to continue the search for a permanent leader to replace former superintendent Richard Carranza, who left the district in March 2018 to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Three trustees who favored suspending the effort argued the district cannot attract qualified candidates with the looming threat of sanctions tied to the state investigation, while the five opponents argued the district should push forward despite the inquiry.

“I promised my community that I would do a superintendent search, and that’s what I’m following.” said HISD Board President Diana Dávila, who voted against suspending the search.

[…]

The three trustees who supported suspending the search — Wanda Adams, Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones — have all advocated for permanently retaining Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, arguing she has proven her ability to lead the district.

The trio of trustees have been highly critical of five board members who secretly communicated with former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, then voted in October 2018 to replace Lathan with Saavedra. Allegations of open meetings act violations by the five trustees who spoke to Saavedra triggered a special accreditation agency investigation by the Texas Education Agency. The five trustees have denied wrongdoing.

Supporters of suspending the search argued the potential for severe sanctions tied to the investigation will limit the pool of candidates willing to jump to HISD. If state officials order the replacement of the HISD board, new trustees could immediately replace the freshly hired superintendent.

“I cannot imagine that a highly qualified candidate who is rational and sane would come here in the face of uncertainty, when they may not have a job soon,” Skillern-Jones said.

The five trustees who voted against the motion Thursday — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — have pushed for a nationwide search. Trustee Sue Deigaard, who previously supported giving Lathan a short-term contract and simultaneously conducting a nationwide search, abstained from Thursday’s vote, telling her colleagues she is “not going to be part of this divide anymore.”

“We all need to figure this out and not continue to be divisive on this subject,” Deigaard said.

I mean, as a matter of principle it’s generally a good idea to search far and wide for the best candidate. Under normal circumstances, the HISD job is pretty plum – it’s a big district with a good financial foundation and a lot of high-performing schools, and more than one former Superintendent has gone on to bigger things. For obvious reasons, the job isn’t quite as attractive right now – the search firm says the potential of a TEA takeover has been mentioned by numerous candidates. There’s a good case to be made for Trustee Deigaard’s position of extending Superintendent Lathan for now, and resuming the search later, say in a year or so, when the immediate issues have been clarified, if not resolved. One can also reasonably argue that with so much on the line right now, it’s wiser to leave the Superintendent in place who has been doing the work to get the four schools that need to meet standards up to those standards. By all accounts, the current program for bringing the schools in need up to standard has been working well. I don’t know enough to say that I’d support making Superintendent Lathan permanent at this time, but I’d definitely support keeping her in place for the near term and revisiting the question at a later date. As I’ve said before about all things HISD, I sure hope this works out. The Press has more.

HISD back under scrutiny

Let’s hope this turns out to be no big deal.

The Texas Education Agency is investigating possible open meetings violations by some Houston ISD trustees last year when they engaged in private discussions that led to the abrupt ouster of the Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

TEA officials notified the district Tuesday that an investigation would begin following “multiple complaints” made to the agency over the vote to replace Lathan with former district superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, according to a letter sent to Lathan and HISD board President Diana Dávila. The Houston Chronicle reviewed a portion of the letter outlining the allegations.

“Houston ISD Board of Trustees may have violated The Open Meetings Act by deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting regarding the potential removal of the current interim superintendent and the installation of a new interim superintendent,” the notice read.

TEA officials confirmed they opened a special accreditation investigation into HISD, though they declined to specify the nature of the inquiry.

A special accreditation investigation gives TEA officials wide discretion to review potential wrongdoing and issue a range of sanctions. If investigators find repeated or extensive misconduct, the most severe punishment could be a state takeover of the district’s locally elected board. However, state leaders could issue nominal punishment aimed at preventing future missteps by trustees.

[…]

The investigation stems from an October 2018 vote by five trustees — Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Elizabeth Santos, Sergio Lira and Anne Sung — to replace Lathan.

The vote came with no advance warning to the public, and the board’s four other members have said they were unaware that colleagues planned to seek Lathan’s ouster.

Saavedra backed out of the job three days after the vote, citing “dysfunction” at the school board level. Trustees then voted to reinstate Lathan.

Saavedra told the Chronicle in October that he spoke independently with the five trustees who voted for his appointment prior to the vote. Some of the five trustees have said they communicated one-on-one, but they did not meet as a group.

Under Texas open meetings law, deliberations between school board members about “public business or public policy” subject to a vote must take place at public meetings. State investigators likely will seek any evidence of communications between trustees that could constitute a so-called “walking quorum,” which refers to a deliberative effort by elected officials to communicate as a group in private.

See here, here, and here for more on the Saavedra saga, which didn’t make much sense then and makes even less now. All I can say is that I hope the TEA finds no evidence of the five Trustees forming a non-sanctioned quorum, which would be dumb at the least and a violation of trust at the worst. The TEA already has the power to take over HISD if they feel the need. I sure hope we haven’t given them another reason to consider it.

Trustees apologize for Saavedra/Lathan mess

It’s a start.

Houston ISD trustees on Monday offered a public apology to students, parents and teachers for their behavior the past 10 months, particularly the chaotic meeting last week when a faction of the board surprised their colleagues and the audience by replacing the interim superintendent.

Trustees said they hoped the apology and pledge to work better with each other is the first step toward quelling infighting on the board, restoring the public’s trust and showing the Texas Education Agency that HISD is capable of governing itself.

“Our actions have not modeled the behavior we desire to instill in our children that we serve,” said Trustee Diana Dávila at a lectern surrounded by her eight colleagues. “We sincerely apologize to all of you.”

[…]

Trustee Jolanda Jones said the board at a special meeting Thursday morning would set an end date for its search for a permanent superintendent, consider hiring an executive coach for the school board and Lathan, and request a new governance counselor from the Texas Education Agency, which has been monitoring the board for months.

The trustees then left the boardroom, refusing to answer questions about what convinced trustees to change course, whether they had broken the law in secretly recruiting Saavedra and why the public should trust this latest pledge to do better.

[…]

Despite her contrition, questions remain about whether Dávila and four colleagues violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by approaching Saavedra about taking over as superintendent before informing the rest of the board or the public.

Saavedra, who served as HISD’s superintendent from 2005 to 2009, told the Chronicle on Sunday that he spoke separately with five trustees — including the four Latino members — in the days before the vote to appoint him.

Of the five trustees who voted for his appointment, Davila, Sergio Lira and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said they met with Saavedra beforehand. The other two “yes” votes, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Joe Larsen, a Houston First Amendment lawyer and expert on Texas’ open meetings and public information laws, said Saavedra’s acknowledgment that he spoke with a majority of trustees privately is evidence that they may have broken the law.

“It certainly would appear to indicate there’s some coordination between those five individuals toward a specific goal, constituting a majority,” Larsen said. “That’s precisely the sort of thing that should have been deliberated in public.”

The district attorney’s office would need to investigate any possible violation of the Open Meetings Act, Larsen said, which is a misdemeanor. A spokesman for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said the office does not comment on investigations that may or may not exist.

See here and here for the background. It’s good to hear the Board speak in this fashion, and to apparently recognize the lack of trust they have earned with the public, but suffice it to say that their actions will speak far louder than any words of contrition. I say this as someone who knows nearly all of them – I’ve never met Diana Davila, and I have only spoken to Sergio Lira over the phone – and who likes and respects them. For a broad range of reasons, I really really want them to work together to solve problems and make HISD the best it can be. This is a start, but there’s a very long way to go, and that’s before we consider the possibility that the Open Meetings Act was violated. One step at a time. The Press has more.

Saavedra out

Whiplash.

Trustees are expected to announce Monday that interim superintendent Grenita Lathan will remain at the helm of the Houston Independent School District, an attempt to diffuse fallout from a contentious 5-4 vote last Thursday that was preceded by shouting matches and accusations of racism from board members.

After a six-hour discussion during a weekend retreat Sunday, trustees and Abelardo Saavedra – who led HISD from 2004 to 2009 and was to return Monday as the district’s new interim leader – mutually agreed that he would withdraw, Saavedra said.

“It became apparent to me that the dysfunction is not at the superintendent or leadership level, it’s at the board level,” Saavedra said, adding that he was unaware the move to hire him was going to catch some board members by surprise.

Lathan is expected to return as the interim leader of the nation’s seventh-largest school district while a search continues for a permanent superintendent. District officials said late Sunday that trustees would “discuss the recent vote to make changes to the interim superintendent’s position” at a 5 p.m. Monday press conference, but offered no further details.

[…]

Bob Sanborn, CEO of the nonprofit Children at Risk, said he believes Lathan remaining in her role is good for students, but he said the damage that has been done cannot be reversed by the trustees simply standing together at a press conference.

“Nothing has really been diffused. You still have this divide on the board – racial, political or otherwise, it’s a clear divide – and they’re going to have to work through it if they want a good superintendent, whether it’s an African-American or Latino or any other turnaround leader,” Sanborn said. “They’re going to have to put aside some of these differences and make it work or our school children will be the ones to bear the brunt of their dysfunction.”

See here for the background. If you’re feeling dizzy, you’re not alone. I have no idea what is going on with the Board, but good Lord they need to get it together and work as a unit rather than as factions. None of this should have happened.

Saavedra 2.0

This was unexpected.

In a raucous school board meeting filled with shouting and accusations lobbed by trustees against each other, the Houston Independent School District’s board of trustees late Thursday replaced interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan with former HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra.

The vote, which followed a motion that several board members said came as a surprise to them, returns Lathan to her previous role as chief academic officer.

The vote marks the third leader this calendar year for the 214,000-student school district.

The unexpected discussion came as trustees were about to decide whether to extend Lathan’s contract through Sept. 30, 2019.

[…]

Before trustees voted on Lathan’s contract, trustee Diana Davila proposed a motion to dismiss Lathan as the district’s temporary leader and insert Saavedra.

That motion drew passionate criticism from trustee Wanda Adams, who said there was a racial divide on the board between African-American and Latino trustees. She said the proposal should have been discussed in closed session rather than sprung on the dais.

“This is disrespectful,” Adams said. “I did not know about this at all. Some of my other colleagues did not know about it. Some knew about it — (Sergio) Lira knew about it, Holly (Flynn Vilaseca) knew about it and (Elizabeth) Santos knew about it. It goes back to my original statement about racism on this board.”

In a discussion about this on Monica Flores Richart’s Facebook page, it was suggested that having an interim Superintendent who does not want the job on a permanent basis is better for conducting a national service than having an interim Super who is a candidate for that job. Saavedra (apparently) does not want the job long term, while Lathan does, and has the backing for that of at least the three African-American members of the Board. I think this is a plausible argument, but I agree with Trustee Adams that it’s the sort of discussion that should have been had with the whole Board before making any decisions (much less a motion). For sure, having this kind of public fight won’t do anything to attract decent candidates, and that’s before we take into account the continuing specter of a state takeover. I understand Saavedra has a good record dealing with a district that faced similar problems in recent years, but one wonders how much clout a known short-time boss will have, especially given the recent exodus of senior leaders within HISD. I wish Saavedra all the success in the world in his temporary gig, because we’re sure gonna need it. The Press has more.

“Denied”: HISD and special education

There are problems here as well.

Superintendent Richard Carranza announced Thursday that the Houston Independent School District has decided to conduct a detailed review of the way that it serves students with disabilities.

The effort will include asking “independent, third-party experts to conduct a deep-dive analysis of our special education operation,” Carranza said.

The newly-hired superintendent announced the review in a statement, saying it would be the district’s “first order of business when the new year begins.”

“We will have a tough conversation about the importance of serving all children, regardless of any disability,” Carranza wrote. “Together, we will find solutions that serve our children because that is what Houston expects, and that is what Houston’s children deserve.”

The announcement came one day after the Houston Chronicle published a story detailing how Houston ISD has deliberately denied special education services to thousands of students with disabilities over the past decade.

Here’s that earlier story. It’s pretty damning.

Houston schools provide special education services to a lower percentage of students than schools in virtually any other big city in America. Only Dallas serves fewer than Houston’s 7.26 percent. The national average is 13 percent.

For months, as special education has come under increasing scrutiny in Texas, Houston Independent School District officials have described their percentage as a good thing, saying it is the product of robust early interventions that have helped students without labeling them.

But a Houston Chronicle investigation has found that HISD achieved its low special education rate by deliberately discouraging and delaying evaluations in pursuit of goals that have clearly denied critical services to thousands of children with disabilities.

Records show the largest school district in Texas enthusiastically embraced a controversial state policy that has driven special education enrollments to the lowest in the United States. In fact, after HISD officials reduced their enrollment rate from 10 percent to the Texas Education Agency’s 8.5 percent target, they set an even more restrictive standard: 8 percent.

To accomplish the objective, HISD officials slashed hundreds of positions from the special education department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until second grade and created a list of “exclusionary factors” that disqualify students from getting services, among other tactics described in district documents, court records and dozens of interviews.

Read the whole thing. This is a travesty, and it needs to be fixed. Whatever it takes, this needs to be fixed.

HISD set to hire Grier

But not without some drama first.

The Houston school board is expected to officially hire Terry Grier as superintendent Thursday and offer him a multiyear contract that is likely to top $400,000 a year in salary and perks over time.

Three weeks of intense negotiations on the deal dragged into Wednesday evening, with trustees trying to ensure they didn’t end up repeating the costly deal they had with Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, who stepped down last month.

Saavedra’s exit package cost taxpayers $978,967, according to the district. Much of the payout was for unused time off he had accrued over his career, plus extra vacation days the board granted him.

HISD Trustee Paula Harris said Saavedra’s contract served as a “lesson learned,” and this time around the board paid “a lot more attention to detail.”

“It’s a fair contract,” Harris said. “Both sides should be quite pleased.”

Harris said she expects the board to unanimously appoint Grier at its 5 p.m. meeting today — though state Sen. Mario Gallegos is threatening to derail the process.

Gallegos, D-Houston, said he is prepared to ask Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ office to investigate the school board for possible violations of the state’s open-meetings law.

He said he believes trustees unlawfully deliberated about Grier’s contract before naming him the lone finalist for superintendent last month, and he has requested documents from the district to try to prove his case.

“I’m serious about this,” said Gallegos, who sent a letter with his demands Tuesday to HISD’s outside counsel, Chris Gilbert. “I believe the public was shut out.”

I doubt Sen. Gallegos will get any joy out of this, but as one who’s on record opposing the secret superintendent search, I am interested in seeing what he finds out. I do think the Board should have been more open, and if they say that makes their job of finding superintendents too hard, then it’s on them to lobby the Lege to write a new law that explicitly allows them to do it their way. I hope in the end that Dr. Grier will be such a success that all of this will some day be looked back on as a mere trifle, but in the meantime we ought to know if all the rules were followed in hiring him.

Saavedra’s exit interview

Now-former HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra grades his performance. His answers are sadly too short to most of the questions. I’d really have liked to have heard more on this:

Q: If you could wave a magic wand and unilaterally change any HISD policy without school board approval, what would it be?

A: It would center around the issue of governance. I would reorganize the school board to where five of the seats would be single-member districts and four would be at-large. I don’t believe single-member districts are good for the system.

Why do you think single-member districts are bad for the system? I’m not really sure I could say. Anyone want to speculate?

Terry and Abe

Here’s another get-to-know-Terry Grier story, focusing on his time in San Diego. The most interesting bit to me is right here:

Abelardo Saavedra, the man Grier is in line to replace in Houston, endured more than his share of criticism for making big decisions without public input during nearly five years on the job. And many of Saavedra’s biggest proposals — courting outside groups to take over troubled high schools and scaling back busing for HISD’s popular magnet school program, for instance — failed after meeting swift and powerful opposition. His $805 million bond referendum in 2007 almost died because of intense lobbying from some of Houston’s most powerful black politicians and activists, who felt left out of the process.

But HISD school trustee Paula Harris, who was part of the unanimous vote to name Grier as the sole superintendent finalist, said Grier has the political skill to succeed where the less charismatic Saavedra stumbled.

While the two men may have some similarities, Harris said, “Terry’s going to be able to sell his ideas better.”

I can believe that Grier will be a better politician than Saavedra, and that he will have less trouble selling some of his ideas as a result. But part of Saavedra’s problem wasn’t so much the sales job as it was the lack of public input before the sales pitch. If Grier repeats that pattern he’ll have trouble no matter how good his political skills are. Get people on board beforehand, especially when making changes, and the rest follows a lot more easily. We’ll see how good he is at that.

No vote from HISD on several school upgrades

Last week, I noted that a parents group and some HISD trustees were complaining about there not being a vote on three school construction projects that were promised as part of the 2007 bond referendum. Even though we now have a new Superintendent in tow, which was supposedly the holdup on these items, they’re still not getting any action.

Parents trying to get facilities upgrades at several Houston ISD campuses said Monday that Board President Larry Marshall has once again thwarted efforts to bring the matter to a vote this week.

Saying she is in a “complete state of shock” after the posting of the board’s workshop schedule for Thursday morning, which contains only three of seven schools, education activist Mary Nesbitt is calling on parents and others to come to the workshop to get the board to honor commitments by Supterintendent Abe Saavedra to correct facilities deficits at Bellaire High School, Grady Middle School, Sam Houston High and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Nesbitt called Marshall’s actions “completely unprecedented and without regard for the wishes of the other board members who made a formal request to put forward the package of seven schools.”

Nesbit sent out another message to the Facebook group HISD Parent Visionaries about this, which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. Trustee Harvin Moore said on Twitter that this was “The most bizarre power play I have witnessed in six years on the HISD board”. The workshop will be held at 7:30 a.m. Thursday in the Board Services Conference Room at district headquarters, 4400 W. 18th St., and I daresay it will be contentious. Be there if you can.

(more…)

Meet the new HISD boss

Here’s more on Terry Grier, the new HISD Superintendent-to-be.

Grier, 59, has been at the helm of the 135,000-student San Diego Unified School District since March 2008. He’s won support for his efforts to boost student achievement and curb dropouts, but his relationship with the teachers’ union and the labor-friendly school board has been rocky.

“Throughout his career Dr. Grier has built a strong reputation for innovation and school reform,” HISD school board President Larry Marshall said in a written statement. “The entire board was impressed with his innovative approach and passion to reform schools and improve student achievement.”

In Houston, Grier will face a larger district with a stubborn dropout problem and a board friendlier to some of his reform ideas, such as performance pay for teachers. The board’s announcement today marks the end of an intense five-month search cloaked in secrecy. The search, which cost taxpayers more than $100,000, intensified in recent weeks with the board interviewing about a dozen people behind closed doors.

[…]

Grier has the misfortune of being hired by a board in San Diego that underwent significant turnover after he signed his contract.

“It’s a different board than the board that hired him,” said San Diego board President Shelia Jackson. “I think he’s used to a board that kind of accepts what he says as gospel, and that’s not particularly true of this board.”

Grier could be walking into a similar situation in Houston, where five of nine school board positions will be on the November ballot. Some of those seats will be occupied by newcomers who won’t have been involved in Grier’s selection. Two incumbents — Natasha Kamrani and Dianne Johnson — have already announced they won’t seek re-election.

Grier’s supporters in San Diego acknowledge his rift with the board and the union, but they praise his leadership and focus on student achievement. Test scores released this week for San Diego rose to an all-time high, although it’s difficult to say how much of that is a result of Grier’s efforts during his short tenure, which covers just one full academic year.

[…]

Camille Zombro, president of the teachers’ union, the San Diego Education Association, said Grier has a “short-attention-span reform style.”

“I’m really sad for Houston,” Zombro said. “It’s not about the particular initiatives or programs he’s put into place or supported. It’s about who he is and his ineffectiveness as a manager.”

One of Grier’s more divisive ideas in San Diego mirrors an ongoing debate in Houston: whether to include student test score data in teachers’ evaluations.

Gayle Fallon, the Houston Federation of Teachers president, reserved judgment.

“I don’t know the man, and we give every superintendent a chance to establish his own relationship with us,” she said. “It’s up to a superintendent to determine whether they want a positive relationship or whether they want to fight.”

Like Gayle Fallon, I’ll reserve judgment for now. I think it’s a good move to hire someone who has had success in lowering dropout rates. If he can do that here, he’ll be a success pretty much no matter what. Hair Balls, School Zone, and Marc Campos have more.

Parents call on HISD to keep promises Saavedra made

With the revelation that HISD may have chosen its new superintendent, this Chron story from yesterday about how parent groups who were promised certain specific actions from outgoing Superintendent Abe Saavedra relating to the bond referendum, and the Board of Trustees’ apparent reluctance to act on them until they have a new super in place, may now be moot. But it’s still an interesting look at how the Board can operate, and why folks feel frustration about them.

Board President Larry Marshall denied a request by Trustees Manuel Rodriguez Jr., Harvin Moore and Dianne Johnson — who wanted the board to move forward with several construction projects at a meeting this Thursday.

Saavedra’s administration was prepared to recommend $56 million in upgrades to Lockhart Elementary School, Bellfort Academy, Grady Middle School, and Bellaire, Sam Houston and Worthing high schools. Saavedra, who declined to comment on the proposal, also was seeking a $40 million new High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, pending private sector help in finding a downtown location.

Marshall said he would not consider the trustees’ request until after the board selects a new superintendent — which could happen as soon as Thursday.

“It is most inappropriate to allow such distractions to interfere with the search process,” Marshall wrote in a letter to his fellow trustees.

Some parents have questioned Marshall’s response, [Mary Nesbitt, vice president of Parents for Public Schools] said, because he is allowing trustees to a discuss another divisive topic Thursday: paying higher wages to construction workers. Saavedra promised to push for higher wages during the 2007 bond campaign in exchange for support from labor unions.

It would seem that distraction is no longer present. We’ll see how the Board reacts to it. A message from Nesbitt to a Facebook group called HISD Visionaries regarding this is reproduced below.

(more…)

Has HISD chosen its new superintendent?

The Chron says Yes.

The man in charge of the San Diego, Calif. public schools has emerged as the frontrunner to take over the Houston Independent School District, the Houston Chronicle has learned.

Terry Grier, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, could be named the sole finalist for the HISD job as soon as Thursday. HISD gave notice this afternoon that a vote on a new superintendent is likely to happen Thursday or Monday. (Here is Grier’s biography in San Diego.)

Grier has been on the job in San Diego since March 2008. He ran the Guilford County School District in Greensboro, N.C. for about eight years before leaving for California.

A former teacher and principal, Grier has overseen eight school districts in 25 years and has a reputation as a fast-charging leader. In San Diego, he has had a rocky relationship with the teachers’ union and the school board. Less than a year after Grier was hired, a school board election changed the make-up of the board and it became more supportive of labor.

“It’s a different board than the board that hired him,” said Shelia Jackson, the president of the San Diego school board. “The board that we have now is a board that’s very progressive so we tend to ask questions. I think he’s used to a board that kind of accepts what he says as gospel, and that’s not particularly true of this board.”

Hair Balls did a little googling and found that Grier’s tenure in Greenville was somewhat contentious. I’m wondering what the reaction will be to a superintendent that’s not a minority in a school district that’s overwhelmingly non-Anglo. I look forward to seeing what folks have to say about Grier, if he is indeed the chosen one.

UPDATE: As Greg notes, Grier is on Twitter.

Eight candidates for HISD Superintendent

We don’t know who the candidates are for HISD Superintendent, but at least we know how many of them there are. There’s a Heisenberg joke in there somewhere, I’m just not certain how to find it.

The Houston school board president said Thursday that trustees could possibly hire a new superintendent in the new few weeks.

The board interviewed three candidates for the job Thursday, bringing the total number to eight.

Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra plans to step down Aug. 31.

“Our goal would be to have someone in place on or before Aug. 31,” school board President Larry Marshall said.

Asked if that was likely, he said, “It seems achievable.”

The board plans to conduct more closed-door interviews next week, perhaps as early as Monday, said Les Csorba, one of the board’s search consultants. Csorba and Marshall would not say whether the upcoming interviews will be with new candidates or follow-ups with ones interviewed already.

“I can’t tell you whether it’s round two, three, four, five or six,” Marshall said. “We’re still in the ring.”

Csorba, a partner with Heidrick & Struggles, said the search still is open for last-minute applicants who wanted to lead the Houston Independent School District.

“It’s starting to get late,” he said. “The window’s closing.”

Well, whoever it is will have to deal with this.

Nearly 90 percent of Houston ISD schools meet federal accountability standards, state officials announced today, but the school district itself faces possible sanctions for failing to meet the mark, as do a handful of chronically under-performing campuses.

The preliminary federal ratings come one week after HISD celebrated a record number of schools — 77 percent — achieved top ratings under the state system.

Although both rating systems are based largely on students’ scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, they often produce conflicting results.

Twenty-nine HISD campuses — including Challenge Early College High School and T.H. Rogers Elementary School, both rated exemplary by the state last week — failed to meet the federal mark.

HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra lamented the conflicting accountability measures.

“The results are extremely confusing,” he said. “It does not make sense when schools that receive the state’s highest rating receive the federal government’s lowest rating and schools that receive the state’s lowest rating receive the federal government’s highest rating. We have long maintained that these two systems need to be aligned so that there is just one, clearly understood method for determining accountability.”

Good luck with that, whoever you are. And please note, the problem here may be with the state standards, or at least the way they’re computed, not the federal standards.

The secret Superintendent search continues

HISD continues its stealthy ways in seeking a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Abe Saavedra.

The Houston school board, trying to protect the candidates’ identities, will interview the job seekers behind closed doors at its headhunting firm’s downtown office.

The board is scheduled to call the meeting to order at 9 a.m. [today] in a conference room at Heidrick & Struggles, located on the 68th floor of the Chase Tower.

The public part of the meeting is expected to last a few minutes before trustees go into closed session to question the job candidates.

I still think this is ridiculous. What are they going to do, bring the candidates in with bags over their heads? What’s their plan in the event one or more names do get leaked? Just be open about it and you don’t have to worry about these things.

The Texas Open Meetings Act appears to allow the school board to meet anywhere that is “accessible to the public,” said Matthew Festa, an assistant professor at South Texas College of Law.

“I would say reasonably any place in Houston is accessible. Nothing says it has to be in the official chambers,” Festa said.

Seems to me to be a glaring weakness in the law as written. I hope someone remembers this in 2011.

Csorba said the public can attend the brief open session before the interviews, though he’s not expecting a crowd.

It would be awfully funny if he were to be proven wrong about that. Which leads to another question: What happens if someone shows up with a camera and an Internet connection? Would they throw him out? Would that be allowed under the Open Meetings Act given that this is taking place on private property? This very likely won’t happen, but if it does, we’ll all see the lawsuit coming a mile away.

The secret Superintendent search

Bad idea.

Houston ISD trustees decided this afternoon that they will release to the public only one name in the superintendent search — the person they intend to hire. The board, at the urging of its search firm, Heidrick & Struggles, said it will not divulge the names of any applicants or any people they interview for the taxpayer-funded job. They intend to name only one finalist.

Search consultant Les Csorba told the board many potential candidates have asked about confidentiality and are worried about their names being let out of the bag. “I think the most outstanding candidates are those actively involved in a leadership role right now where they have a number of risks associated with their potential candidacy,” Csorba told trustees. “Anything this board can do to reassure and reaffirm this confidentiality of the process would go a long way.”

I didn’t like this before, and I don’t like it now. If this is the norm for superintendent searches, then I think it’s a bad norm. This is a public position, and it should be filled in a manner that’s open to public scrutiny. Frankly, I’m not sure I buy Lee Csorba’s assertion about the need for confidentiality. If this is such a great opportunity that everyone knows about as he claims, then it’ll still be so if the candidates’ names are disclosed as part of the process. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what these candidates’ current colleagues think about them now, instead of after he or she gets hired? Besides, as Stace points out, what are the odds this will stay a secret all the way through? Do it in the open and save yourself the trouble, HISD.

By the way, Superintendent Abe Saavedra’s last day will be August 31, one week after the fall semester starts. It’d be nice to have a replacement in place by then.

Help choose the next HISD Superintendent

The HISD Board of Trustees will hold a series of eight public meetings to get feedback about what people want in their next Superintendent.

Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search firm hired by the schol board, will lead the community meetings and plans to use the input in its hunt for superintendent candidates.

Meetings also will be held with various business, faith-based, parent, educational and employee groups.

Trustees have set a goal of hiring a superintendent in July but have said the timeline is flexible.

The meeting schedule is as follows:

  • Today: 6:30 p.m., HISD South Region Office, 4040 W. Fuqua
  • Tuesday: 6:30 p.m., Bellaire High School, 5100 Maple
  • Wednesday: 6:30 p.m., Wheatley High School, 4801 Providence
  • Thursday: 6:30 p.m., Washington High School, 119 E. 39th
  • May 4: 6:30 p.m., Revere Middle School, 10502 Briar Forest
  • May 5: 6:30 p.m., Reagan High School, 413 E. 13th
  • May 7: 6:30 p.m., Deady Middle School, 2500 Broadway
  • May 9: 2 p.m., Ryan Middle School, 2610 Elgin

Please participate if you can.

Search openly

Is there really a debate about whether or not we should conduct a search for a new HISD Superintendent in an open manner? Because I think the choice is clear.

The Greater Houston Partnership, which represents the business community, is lobbying the school board to introduce a few leading contenders to the public — something the board hasn’t done in a search in nearly two decades.

“There are challenges to transparency, but the payout is huge,” said Jeff Moseley, president and chief executive of the business partnership.

[HISD President] Marshall said he supports naming multiple finalists — perhaps three — but not all his colleagues have been as quick to embrace the idea. Some worry fewer people will apply for the job if word of their job search will get back to their current school boards.

“I just think we need to stop using that as an excuse if we really and truly believe in transparency,” Marshall said. “Good superintendents can sit down with their boards and say, ‘Here’s an opportunity.’ I don’t think they add value to their candidacy by insisting on secrecy.”

Trustee Manuel Rodriguez Jr., on the other hand, prefers naming only one finalist.

“If the Greater Houston Partnership wants to know the candidates, they ought to run for school board,” he said. “By releasing the names of candidates, we put those candidates in jeopardy of losing their own jobs.”

Sorry, but I am unimpressed by Trustee Rodriguez’s argument here. Hell, college and pro coaches get vetted for other jobs all the time, usually with the knowledge and blessing of their current employer. Smaller programs generally consider it to be a positive when the bigger ones interview their coaches, because it’s a sign that they’re doing something right, and because being a place that provides opportunities for advancement is in itself a lure for good employees. I just don’t see the downside here.

And if that wasn’t enough, this would more than clinch it for me:

During the 2004 search that resulted in [Superintendent Abe] Saavedra’s hiring, board members conducted late-night interviews that ended with the candidates being hurried out of the administration building and into waiting cars. Extra HISD police officers were brought in to help keep track of reporters trying to catch a glimpse of the contenders.

In Florida, one of the most open states when it comes to superintendent searches, the names of all applicants are public record, and the community is allowed to attend meetings where school boards interview candidates.

Which one of these processes sounds healthier and more likely to produce a positive result? Seriously, this is an easy call.

Saavedra to step down

In 2010.

Houston ISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra plans to step down from his post by spring of 2010, he announced this morning.

“I have recently informed the school board of my intention to retire within the next year. I want to make sure that the board has adequate time to conduct a comprehensive national search for my successor,” he said in a written statement. “Selecting a superintendent is the most important decision that a board makes. Making the right decision ensures that the progress that we have made as a district, as a community, will continue forward. I have full confidence the board will select an individual that will take this district to the next level of performance.”

[…]

Saavedra has led Texas’ largest school district since June 2004, first serving as interim superintendent before being named the permanent chief a few months later. He is the Houston Independent School District’s first Hispanic superintendent.

Saavedra, who will turn 58 later this month, has had a rough run lately, from the district’s $805 million bond referendum barely passing in November 2007 to the recent parent outcry over his proposal to reduce busing to the popular magnet schools. Several school trustees have repeatedly criticized Saavedra’s poor community skills, saying he fails to reach out to the community and to the school board.

However, student test scores and school ratings under Saavedra’s tenure have generally risen, and the district announced last week that Saavedra’s performance earned him a $77,500 performance bonus on top of his annual $327,000 salary.

That more or less captures my opinion of the man. He’s done some very good things, and he’s done some things that have made me shake my head and say “What the hell was he thinking?” Whoever replaces him will have some big challenges, but will also have a system that has a lot of good things going for it. Building on those good things, replicating their own successes within the system, and improving on HISD’s openness and communications with its stakeholders will be the top priorities. Best of luck to Saavedra in whatever he wants to do next, and to HISD in finding his successor.