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Grenita Lathan

City tries again with non-profit charter for HISD

Nobody seems to like this idea.

Juliet Stipeche

The city of Houston’s education czar and three well-connected, civically engaged residents plan in the coming weeks to seek control of some long-struggling Houston ISD schools in a bid to improve academic outcomes and help the district stave off major state sanctions tied to chronically low performance at the campuses.

State business records show Juliet Stipeche, the director of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Office of Education Initiatives, and the three board members have formed the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston, a nonprofit that could partner with HISD to take over campuses under a state law encouraging charter agreements between school districts and private organizations.

If an agreement with HISD were struck, the nonprofit envisions assuming control of academics, finances and governance at an undetermined number of schools. The portfolio likely would include four campuses in danger of triggering sanctions — either forced campus closures or a state takeover of HISD’s locally elected school board — if any one of them fails to meet state academic standards in 2019. In exchange, the state would provide an additional $1,800 per student in funding to the nonprofit, and it would grant HISD a two-year reprieve from sanctions if it surrendered control of the four campuses.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and school board members have shown little enthusiasm for such arrangements to date, but they have not precluded the possibility ahead of a state-imposed deadline in early February 2019 to submit any agreements. The arrangements are intended to be temporary, with control over the campuses returned to a school district after a contractually agreed-upon period.

Stipeche, who served as an HISD trustee from 2010 to 2015, said the coalition will seek to engage other local civic organizations in providing resources to students who attend schools that often fail to meet state academic standards. The coalition has not yet solidified its educational framework or crafted a proposal for public viewing, Stipeche said.

“We envision working through a collective-impact approach to lock arms with the community, to reimagine what we can do to support our schools as centers of excellence, equity and innovation,” Stipeche said. “We are working on finalizing an overview of what we would like to present to the board for their consideration in terms of how we work, what our core values and vision are, and what our building blocks of success are.”

The coalition includes three founding board members: Trinidad “Trini” Mendenhall, the co-founder of the grocery chain Fiesta Mart and president of the real estate investment firm Fulton Shopping Center; Stephanie Nellons-Paige, the vice president of external affairs for Texas Central Railway and wife of former HISD superintendent Rod Paige; and Corbin Robertson Jr., CEO and chairman of the mining company Natural Resources Partners.

See here, here, and here for some background. HISD doesn’t seem to be into the idea, there’s some very vocal opposition from activist groups, and as Campos reasonably notes, the city has its own big issues to deal with instead of trying to solve the problems that HISD’s trustees were elected to solve. All of that mitigates against the city getting involved, but I find it hard to get too upset over this. Not to be all alarmist or anything, but the clock is ticking, and I don’t know what HISD’s intentions are. Obviously, it would be great if the schools could be brought up to standard this year – that is the ultimate goal, after all. Alternately, getting a bill passed in the Lege to modify the law that is putting HISD under the threat of takeover by the TEA would obviate the need for this kind of intervention. All I want to know is, what is the plan if these things don’t happen? Given what the law as it is mandates, what is the least objectionable outcome if one or more schools do not measure up? I don’t know what the consensus answer to that is, or even if there is one. I would love to see this resolved with a fully positive ending – successful schools, functioning governance at HISD, sufficient engagement by and with the parents and students and teachers and residents of the affected neighborhoods, etc. I just want to know what Plan B is if that doesn’t happen.

TEA offers to lend HISD a hand

Could be a decent deal.

A top Texas Education Agency official offered Tuesday to intensively work with Houston ISD’s much-maligned school board to dramatically overhaul its approach to governance, shifting focus toward student outcomes and away from distracting personal agendas.

The pitch from TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance AJ Crabill marks a unique olive branch to the state’s largest school district, which has struggled in recent months to reach consensus on vital issues.

“We can scrap all of what you’re doing now and redesign from scratch a governance system that honors your values and focuses on student values,” TEA Deputy Commissioner of Governance AJ Crabill told trustees during a school board meeting.

Trustees in attendance offered mostly positive responses to Crabill’s offer, which would be free of charge, agreeing that HISD’s school board needs dramatic changes to restore confidence in its governance. Board members agreed in October to seek an executive coach in the aftermath of the covert attempt to replace Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, but employing a TEA official as their coach was not widely expected.

[…]

Trustees could vote as early as mid-December on Crabill’s proposal, though HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said she would not put the move up for vote if any trustee opposes the move.

HISD’s school board is responsible for setting district policy, hiring the superintendent and approving the district’s budget. The nine trustees are elected by voters in single-member districts.

Crabill’s offer came with some strings and relatively few concrete details. He said trustees must unanimously approve of his presence and “immediately resolve” any “gamesmanship” around his involvement. A few trustees, led by Jolanda Jones, have been fiercely critical of TEA leadership. Jones was not present for most of Crabill’s presentation and did not voice an opinion on it Tuesday.

Crabill said his primary goal would be moving toward trustees spending at least half of their time during board meetings focused on student outcomes. In recent months, trustees have spent significant amounts of time discussing relatively minor financial and policy matters, while occasionally engaging in deeply personal arguments.

Crabill did not outline a concrete vision for his work for trustees, but told them: “If you’re not comfortable with extreme discomfort, I’m not your guy.”

I mean, it’s worth hearing him out, if the other end of the bridge is an intact HISD with the four schools in question meeting standards. I can understand why some trustees might be leery of this, but it can’t hurt to hear the pitch. It would also be a good idea to let parents and teachers hear what Crabill has to say, since they’re going to be directly affected by whatever he might have in mind as well. See what he has in mind, and go from there. We’re no worse off if we decide to say “thanks, but no thanks”.

HISD still trying to figure out what to do with the four schools that didn’t meet standards

Don’t take too long on this.

After months with little public discussion about whether to temporarily surrender control over four long-struggling schools, Houston ISD officials are expected to start ramping up talks about any such plans as state-mandated deadlines quickly approach.

HISD administrators and trustees said they will meet after the Thanksgiving holiday to consider how they will approach the possibility of giving up control of the four campuses, which would stave off major state sanctions tied to chronically low academic performance at the schools.

The politically fraught option drew backlash from some community members in the spring, when trustees did not vote on Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s recommendation to give control of 10 campuses to a local charter school network, but district leaders say they remain open to employing the option before an early February 2019 deadline.

To date, administrators and trustees have not had extensive public conversations about if and how the district would approach surrendering control of the four campuses — even though the two sides have known since mid-August that HISD potentially faces sanctions if those schools remain under district authority.

If HISD does not hand over control of the four schools to an outside organization, and if any one of the four fails to meet state academic standards in August 2019, the Texas Education Agency must close campuses or replace the district’s school board.

“I wish that we could have started these earlier, but I still think it’s better late than never,” said HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who is helping to coordinate the post-Thanksgiving public meeting. “I think we’re starting to make some progress on having a timeline and plan for these conversations.”

[…]

Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who generally has opposed private partnerships, said HISD administrators and board members should have more transparent discussions after remaining relatively quiet over the past few months.

“My biggest concern is that I don’t want a repeat of April 24, and that seems to be what’s happening,” Santos said. “We’re going to be pushed into a corner where we limit our options. This has been staring us in the face since last year.”

See here and here for some background. I agree with Trustee Santos, we need to get this show on the road. There are options, beyond the optimal one of bringing all four schools up to standard, that would satisfy the law and avoid excessive intervention by the state. If the intent, with which I largely agree, is to also avoid partnering with a charter school, then the previously explored possibility of teaming up with a city-run non-profit, or the not-as-far-as-I-know-explored potential for a pair-up with HCC should be on the table. Even more fundamental than that, the parents and teachers and students in the schools that are at risk need to be engaged so HISD isn’t caught flat-footed by the response to their actions. HISD needs to get everyone who has a stake in this involved, listen to what they do and don’t want, and lead the way in finding the best path forward. Sooner rather than later would also be appreciated.

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.

A clean separation

Well done.

Richard Carranza

Former Houston ISD superintendent Richard Carranza’s resignation from the district involved no financial settlements, and the two sides agreed not to sue each other following the separation, according to documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

A written agreement between Carranza and HISD board members shows a clean break after Carranza announced in early March that he planned to become chancellor of New York City public schools. Carranza officially resigned on March 31 and started his job in New York City on April 2. HISD board members have appointed Grenita Lathan, who previously served as the district’s chief academic officer, to serve indefinitely as interim superintendent.

Carranza’s three-year contract ran through August 2019, leading to questions about whether he would face any repercussions for resigning midway through that term. His contract didn’t include any penalties for resigning before August 2019, and it did stipulate both sides could mutually agree to end the agreement.

Carranza was paid his regular salary of $345,000 and benefits through March 31. He was allowed to take accrued but unused personal days through the last week of his employment.

[…]

Trustees have given no timetable for hiring a permanent superintendent. District officials on Wednesday named an interim chief academic officer, Noelia Longoria, to fill Lathan’s position. Longoria previously served as assistant superintendent of HISD’s Office of School Choice.

No drama is fine by me, and the terms are boringly normal. May it be this easy finding the right candidate to replace Carranza.

On a side note, the Chron editorial board calls for a change in how HISD trustees are elected.

One significant change that Houston ISD should consider is changing the way it elects school board members. Currently, the nine trustees are elected from single-member districts, rather than by voters from throughout the school district.

Texas law allows a couple of alternatives. One would be a board made up of a mix of single-member and at-large trustees. This is similar to how Houston’s City Council is elected. Sixty smaller school districts across Texas use this governance system, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.

Another alternative would be to switch to cumulative voting, where voters across the school district would be allowed to cast as many votes as there are candidates. This option has been available to Texas school districts since 1995 and is used by a number of smaller school districts for at-large trustee elections.

Changing the governance model could help address one of the biggest challenges facing the school board: Members are concerned about struggling campuses in their own electoral district, but not necessarily in the districts of other trustees.

Single-member districts have played a major role in assuring more diversity on school boards. They help ensure that multiple voices are heard in the development of education policy. But they also can result in a balkanized school district, with trustees focused on their individual parts rather than the whole.

The Chron notes that this “balkanization” was one of the reasons Rep. Harold Dutton pushed through HB 1842, the bill that now has HISD under the gun for the chronically low-performing schools. I’m kind of meh on this idea. I suppose a hybrid district/at large model would be all right, though I’d like someone to try to persuade me that At Large Council members are better at looking out for the interests of the entire city than the district members are (and I say that as someone who supports having At Large council members). I’m not convinced we need to change to do a better job of achieving our goals, but I’ll listen if you want to make a pitch. Campos has more.

HISD will not change its funding mechanism

Not this year, at least.

Houston ISD officials have abandoned plans to overhaul the way the district funds its schools, opting to keep HISD’s long-standing financing system as they work to fill a $115 million budget deficit.

Schools will continue to receive an allotment of money based on their enrollments next school year, but the amount campuses receive will shrink by nearly $200 per student.

The announcement walked back proposals made by former Superintendent Richard Carranza in January to centralize some staffing and budgeting decisions now made by principals.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district needs to do more outreach and study its funding mechanisms before changing the way schools are allotted money. The district will create a committee in the coming months to study resource allocation.

“We wanted to pause and take a step back and give some proposals to the board about how do we engage the community about the funding allocation,” Lathan said. “What does it look like for HISD and our community?”

See here and here for some background. I was in full-on primary mode when the original plan was announced and I never quite had the brain space to pay close attention to it, and now it looks like I won’t have to. The plan now is the old-fashioned easier-to-understand one of cutting back a little bit here, there, and everywhere. It may be simpler, but I hope HISD will do outreach to make sure everyone has a chance to know what to expect. The Press has more.

HISD chooses partnerships for low-performing schools

In the same story as the one with the news about interim HISD Superintendent Grenita Lathan, we get this news as well:

HISD administrators are recommending the district temporarily surrender significant control over 10 chronically underperforming schools as part of their plan for avoiding major state sanctions. Lathan has taken a large role in the process.

District leaders originally recommended forming partnerships for six of the 10 schools, while closing and reopening four other schools. But on Thursday, they announced plans for partnering all 10 schools.

Under a partnership, the district would surrender significant control over each campus to an outside organization, such as a nonprofit or higher education institution. District leaders are recommending the partnerships last for three years.

Under a closure-reopen plan, the district would maintain control over the school, but each campus would only serve limited grade levels in 2019-20 and the entire staff would be replaced.

“That was a major concern under a closure-restart” proposal, Lathan said.

Here’s an earlier version of the story, from just before Dr. Lathan’s appointment as interim Superintendent, and here’s a story about the previous proposal, which drew a lot of opposition from the community. I’m going to reserve judgment about this plan until I see how the people who will be most affected by it react.

HISD names an interim Superintendent

Congratulations!

Grenita Lathan

Houston ISD trustees unanimously appointed Grenita Lathan as interim superintendent late Thursday, elevating the district’s chief academic officer about two weeks after Richard Carranza announced he’s stepping down.

Lathan, 48, will serve as acting superintendent starting Friday, then become interim superintendent on April 1. Trustees accepted Carranza’s resignation, which takes effective immediately, on Thursday. Carranza is leaving to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

HISD board members chose Lathan after spending nine hours in closed session. Trustees referenced considering four internal candidates – Lathan, Deputy Superintendent Samuel Sarabia, Chief Student Support Officer Mark Smith and Chief of Staff Cynthia Wilson – before landing on Lathan. All nine trustees briefly spoke in favor of Lathan’s appointment, which occurred shortly before midnight.

“I think you exemplify the things we look for when we look at leadership,” HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones told Lathan.

Lathan joined Houston ISD in 2015 as chief officer overseeing elementary transformation schools, reuniting with her former boss and then-Superintendent, Terry Grier. Following Grier’s departure in 2016, Carranza elevated Lathan to chief academic officer.

“(It’s) excitement and, I’ll be very honest, validation for the work that’s been done not only by myself, but our entire team,” Lathan said.

Lathan served as superintendent of Peoria (Ill.) School District 150, home to about 14,000 students, from 2010 to 2015. She previously worked as interim deputy superintendent and chief elementary school improvement officer at San Diego Unified Public Schools, where Grier spent 18 months as superintendent. Prior to that, she held several positions, including teacher and principal, in North Carolina and Illinois.

The HISD press release is here. I presume Interim Superintendent Lathan will also be a candidate for the permanent job. Regardless, and for however long she has it, there’s a lot of work to be done. I wish Interim Superintendent Lathan all the best. The Press has more.