In its April 29 report about a multiple-student melee in the Waltrip High School gym, Houston television station KTRK said Elizabeth Santos wanted answers from the school district she helps oversee.
Two days later, in an email to me that was copied to the school principal and the Houston ISD press office, Santos criticized me for asking questions about the April 26 incident that caused concern among parents and, according to HISD, resulted in injuries to students. The HISD Board of Education trustee also questioned my coverage of the fight, which was posted to our website the same day it happened and, just like the TV report, included a video of the brawl that was shared on social media.
In her note, Santos described the fight as a “hiccup” and said there was no “lack of student control” on the Waltrip campus.
“I don’t appreciate you attacking our community or using the videos to gain readership,” she wrote.
As made clear last week by our publisher, Jonathan McElvy, The Leader had the following reasons for writing about the fight, showing video of it and pressing the press office for information about it: Our community needed to know about the fight and what caused it, and we want to help make sure that campus conditions improve and such an altercation never happens again.
It’s also clear that reporting about the incident was the right call, based on the majority of the feedback we’ve received from readers and the response by Waltrip and HISD. Our coverage helped spark necessary conversations among school stakeholders, who discussed concerns about campus safety and ways to improve it at a Monday night meeting at Waltrip.
Santos’ stance on all this, meanwhile, is much muddier. She said she wanted answers, and then she criticized us for asking questions.
So which is it?
“I want to apologize for making it seem like I was talking out of both sides of my mouth. I really don’t,” Santos said Wednesday. “I am not your typical politician. … I don’t do double speak. I’m known for my honesty.”
My dealings with Santos, a former HISD student and teacher who was elected to the school board in 2017, have been limited. We had our first phone conversation Wednesday, after I told her I was writing this column and wanted to give her a chance to comment.
I first heard from Santos in February, shortly after I published a column about HISD’s initial refusal to answer my questions about crowded classrooms at area campuses. I reported that Santos had not responded to an email seeking comment, and she then emailed to explain why she hadn’t.
She also said she’d be “more than happy to sit and talk” and gave me her cell number, adding, “The Leader should have access to me as often as needed.” Santos ended the email by saying, “I welcome the hard questions.”
My story about campus enrollment came out two weeks later and, beforehand, I made more attempts to talk to her about the issue. She never complied.
Santos has been more responsive regarding the recent issues at Waltrip, which surfaced after three students and two parents expressed concerns about the campus as well as school and HISD administrators at a school board meeting last month. She said she was receptive to those concerns, relayed them to interim superintendent Grenita Lathan and was “determined to improve the culture” at the schools she represents.
According to Waltrip band director Jesse Espinosa, the concerns had previously been expressed to Santos at one of the monthly community meetings she holds. Espinosa said Santos told the concerned students and parents they could voice them in front of the school board.
About two weeks after that happened, the melee broke out in the gym. When I texted Santos to get her reaction, she said, “I’ve reached out to the interim superintendent and she has not responded.”
The next day, when I asked if she had any more details, Santos said, “HISD Administration will not/have not given me any information other than an email with their public statement.”
It sounded strange that a school board member would not be privy to more information regarding a school she is charged with serving. It also sounded like she was pressing the district for more information.
After her response to my questions to the press office, though, I couldn’t help but wonder how hard she pressed or whether she had been forthcoming about being denied more information. It also struck me that Santos went out of her way to say Lathan had not responded to her.
It should be noted that, according to the Houston Chronicle, Santos is part of the Texas Education Agency’s special accreditation investigation into the HISD board. The paper reported that the investigation centers around possible open meetings violations by Santos and four other trustees, who are alleged to have discussed voting out Lathan prior to doing so at an October 2018 school board meeting (Lathan was later reinstated as interim superintendent).
Santos denied the allegations Wednesday and said she has been honest with the TEA. I’ll reserve judgement until the TEA releases the findings of its investigation.
Transparency, or a lack thereof, has shown itself to be a big problem for the biggest public school district in Texas. Santos told me the district needs to communicate better with its community, but she still might be contributing to that problem — which is an even bigger problem than the ongoing issues at Waltrip.
Santos needs to do what she says she wants to do. She should actually answer hard questions instead of trying to avoid them. She should demand more from HISD if she’s not getting it.
And she shouldn’t do these things for me or The Leader. She should do them for the people who elected her.