It was a sometimes emotional Houston ISD board meeting on Nov. 12, when trustees voted 6-3 not to make interim superintendent Grenita Lathan more permanent in the position with a two-year contract. Lathan has been the temporary head of the district since Richard Carranza left to become the chancellor of New York City public schools in March 2018.
“Now we have a star that can lead this district,” Trustee Wanda Adams said of Lathan, also expressing frustration about the lack of cooperation and quarreling among the board. “Are we a team of 10? No, we are not a team of 10.”
Adams, who is leaving the board to take on a Justice of the Peace position, voted to make Lathan the only finalist for the superintendent job, as did District IV Trustee Patricia Allen and District II’s Kathy Blueford-Daniels, who represents a number of area schools. All three also voted no on resuming a national search for a new superintendent.
Three of the trustees who voted to keep Lathan as an interim leader and resume a search — Anne Sung, Holly Marie Flynn Vilaseca and District I’s Elizabeth Santos — also voted to replace her as interim with former HISD superintendent Abe Saavedra in 2018, a move which was widely criticized and quickly reversed.
Although most of the community speakers were in favor of Lathan becoming superintendent, those who dissented said the short notice for the motion was reminiscent of the Saavedra vote.
This sentiment was echoed by Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo, who said in a statement that “after two years and eight months of searching for a permanent superintendent, we are not pleased that the option of naming Lathan a sole finalist or restarting the entire search was put on the school board agenda with no notice to our union or any other stakeholders.”
Still, HFT said it would support a 12-month permanent contract for Lathan.
Among those who spoke on Lathan’s behalf were the principals of Katherine Smith, Wainwright and Love Elementary schools, as well as the principal of Booker T. Washington High School and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who lauded the “hope and inspiration” Lathan gives to students.
Love’s Eden Bass said Lathan was the only superintendent who took the time to visit her school and follow up with measures to support it. Ryan Hutchings of Wainwright said Lathan was one of HISD’s strongest leaders, and Washington’s Carlos Phillips said she “has proven herself to be collaborative and student focused.” Melinda Daugherty at Katherine Smith gives Lathan credit for the rise in student performance at the school.
Even those who voted against Lathan complimented her leadership.
“This is not a ‘no’ but an invitation,” said Santos, who represents area schools along with Blueford-Daniels.
Trustee Judith Cruz said it was the board’s responsibility to be transparent about a search. Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said it would never be an ideal time to move ahead with one but that it was necessary to go through the process.
“We want a leader who can articulate the clearest vision for moving our district forward,” she said. “This process will provide space to hear that.”
Allen countered that notion, saying that because of the pandemic and the possible board takeover by the state, HISD would not be drawing from the best candidates. She also said it is not a good time to engage in an expensive search. According to the Houston Business Journal, the firm the board decided to use in 2018 to look for Carranza’s replacement cost approximately $75,000.
A lawsuit is still pending to determine if Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath can replace the HISD board with a state-appointed board of managers. He announced plans to do so in November 2019 because of what he said was the board’s “failure of governance” and failing academic performance of Wheatley High School. HISD’s superintendent search was previously ordered to be suspended by Doris Delaney, appointed in 2016 by Morath as conservator for HISD.
Santos said a renewed search would give HISD time to see how the lawsuit progresses.
“This is the most important decision that we make as a board,” she said.
Greg Meyers, a former board president who served on the HISD board from 2004-16, took part in three searches for a superintendent. Once the board chooses the search firm, he said it is vital to engage the community.
“You go to every corner and ask, ‘What do you want to see in a superintendent?’” Meyers said.
Blueford-Daniels said that since a final selection would be many months away, the district would go into the 87th Texas Legislature in 2021 with an interim superintendent, which she feels will impinge on the district’s negotiating ability. She said the authority is needed at a time when district enrollment, tied to funding, is down by more than 10,000 students compared to last year.
“Interim doesn’t have the same weight,” she said.
Blueford-Daniels likes what Lathan is doing in her district to improve student outcomes.
Still, she said they do not always agree.
“I don’t drink (her) Kool-Aid,” Blueford-Daniels said. “But she’s already done two-and-a-half years. In all fairness, why not give her a contract?”