In a Tuesday phone interview as well as a 49-page amended complaint filed last week in federal court – where Austin law firm O’Hanlon, Demerath & Castillo is representing HISD in its lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and the conservator he appointed to oversee the district – O’Hanlon described HISD as healthy, functional and mostly successful. He pointed to the high B the district recently received in the TEA’s state accountability ratings, its solid financial standing and the fact many of its 280 campuses are performing well academically.
He also claimed the preliminary findings of a TEA investigation into HISD’s board of trustees are flawed, and that Morath has no legal grounds to replace them with a state-appointed board of managers as recommended by the TEA investigator. O’Hanlon said such a move would be disenfranchising and racially discriminatory to the Houston voters who elected the trustees, who are alleged to have violated open meetings laws, overstepped their authority and mishandled business dealings.
Now, I’m no legal expert, so I can’t say whether O’Hanlon’s points will hold up in court. But I know he works for HISD, and he confirmed the district is paying him with taxpayer money.
The latter fact is the latest example of dysfunction by the HISD board, which should be spending less time and money on lawsuits and more on educating the children of Houston. Because no matter how many of its campuses are doing well, the failures of one likely will be the undoing of the much-maligned board.
On Aug. 15, a day before the court filing, HISD’s Wheatley High School received a failing grade of 59 in the TEA’s accountability ratings. It was the seventh year in a row that Wheatley did not meet state academic standards, which likely will trigger a 2015 state law that amounts to an ultimatum for Morath.
If a campus fails to meet state academic standards for five consecutive years – Wheatley received a waiver last year because of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 – the commissioner of education must either close the campus or replace its district’s trustees with a board of managers.
O’Hanlon said it’s not clear whether the law applies in Wheatley’s case, partly because last year’s waiver could have broken the string of consecutive poor reviews. The TEA did not respond to questions seeking clarification before press time Wednesday.
But at this point, do technicalities like that even matter? There is mounting evidence and growing public sentiment that the HISD board is not adequately serving its constituents and needs to be removed – even among the board members themselves.
Trustee Jolanda Jones, during last week’s celebration of a passing grade received by Kashmere High School, acknowledged “nonsense on the board” has contributed to struggling campuses and said trustees need to “get out of the way” of interim superintendent Grenita Lathan. Trustee Sue Deigaard echoed the sentiment in a recent editorial she wrote in the Houston Chronicle, saying, “We must focus less of our attention on our own well-being as adults and more on our students’ well-being.”
It’s also clear that at least some of the trustees are resigned to the fact their days on the board are numbered. Neither Jones nor Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who represents some of the schools in our area, filed to run again in November’s election.
Elizabeth Santos, the other trustee who represents area schools, and who is alleged to have violated open meetings laws when she voted to replace Lathan last October, announced this week she is exploring a bid for a soon-to-be-vacated seat in the Texas House of Representatives. And Santos isn’t even halfway through her four-year term on the school board.
The writing is on a big chalkboard at HISD headquarters, and it’s in big, block letters. HISD’s trustees have had their chance at governance and need to be replaced by board members who can improve the district’s image, transparency, functionality and, most of all, performance.
And it doesn’t matter much whether Morath replaces them because of Wheatley’s failing grade, because they didn’t award contracts properly or because they circumvented the rules in an attempt to swap out superintendents.
What matters is preventing the HISD board from spending any more taxpayer money on lawsuits against state agencies. Morath and the TEA are not problems for the largest school district in Texas, which has created many of its own issues and has plenty of other pressing matters at hand.
Among them is the start of a new school year on Monday. HISD’s priority should be providing the best possible education to each of its students on each of its campuses.
The city it serves is counting on that, no matter who serves on the board.