In 2016, Richard Carranza’s comically short tenure as Houston ISD’s superintendent began with a great deal of so-called “listening.”
Just prior to Carranza’s selection, trustees held “listening sessions” to hear from constituents about the qualities desired in the district’s next leader. The search consultants ultimately used words like “community-focused,” “financially and politically savvy” and “transparent communicator” to describe the type of person people desired to lead HISD.
During the search process, I had asked several trustees when they planned to write a new vision for the district. After all, the current vision document was authored decades ago and prior to the hiring of the last several superintendents. Furthermore, the then-new board, ushered in with the election of Diana Davila and Jolanda Jones, spoke of significantly different values than the board that just a few years prior had extended Terry Grier’s contract. Trustees’ answer to when they would rewrite the district’s vision: We’ll do it after we hire a new superintendent and he can lead us through it.
Then, Mr. Carranza arrived in Houston and immediately went on a “Listen & Learn” tour where he visited schools throughout the district to hear from parents and community members and learn about HISD’s strengths and weaknesses. During these meetings, issues like the inequity among schools, the crisis in special education, massive turnover among teachers and principals, and Texas school finance were front and center.
In those early months, Carranza challenged the HISD family by saying, “We must set a common, shared vision for our children and then all pull together in the same direction.”
I wondered when the district would actually write that vision.
Then, a trustee resigned and an election in November 2017 brought the board another new trustee.
A couple of months later in January 2017, the school board and senior administrators had their first retreat together to plan for the district’s future. My wife and I were there. And we watched trustees struggle over the meaning of words like “equity” and “achievement” and “failing schools” and “historically underserved.” Ultimately, trustees set those discussions aside in the interest of time and moved forward with setting test-centric goals like “The percentage of students reading and writing at or above grade level for grade 3 through English II will increase by 3 percentage points annually between spring 2017 and spring 2020.”
Still no vision.
Then the realities of Texas’ school accountability system set in. A trustee resigned, and a replacement was appointed. Achieve 180, the superintendent’s plan to turn around low performing schools was launched. Then a budget was rolled out. It was amended a bit, and at the last minute, it passed in the middle of the night. Strategic efforts on big issues like inequity in HISD’s magnet program or the continued under-identification and under-serving of special needs students went unaddressed in material ways.
Then a trustee passed away and two trustees chose not to run for re-election. All of a sudden, six of nine school board seats were up for election.
Then, Hurricane Harvey hit. The storm was devastating to buildings, to homes and to kids in HISD. But the storm also destroyed the board’s attention on anything long-term or strategic and gave it cover to wait yet again for new trustees and a new year.
The new school started late. The election brought three new trustees to the board. And now, along the current board of nine trustees, only two were on the board just three years ago.
Then, on January 20, 2018: the annual board retreat. Mr. Carranza—empowered by a statistically-inflated budget deficit, encouraged by a handful of trustees demanding equity in their part of town, and emboldened by the Texas Education Agency, which was holding the threat of a state-takeover over the board’s head—set out to make sweeping changes to how the district is run. He proposed centralizing campus budgeting, redefining the magnet program and chartering or closing 15 schools chronically labeled low performing by the state. He made all the proposals at once and intended to implement them all this year. And Carranza did all of this without the board ever writing, debating or voting on a new vision for the district.
Carranza’s proposals were a mile wide and an inch deep and drew fire from every corner of the district. The superintendent’s justification for budget centralization was immediately contradicted by his own Chief Financial Officer and summarily dismissed as a power grab by the majority of district principals. The administration’s magnet program changes were diluted within a week—first giving up the quadrants and efficiency-seeking transportation changes, then later whole programs being saved from cuts using the new power of centralized budgeting. Finally, the district’s plan to partner with non-profits to take over troubled schools turned out to not really be a plan so much as “concepts,” as the superintendent called them in last month.
Once trustees realized what these plans meant for students and teachers and the need for new charter applications to the state, and as hundreds of people poured into the February board meeting to protest the closure of HISD’s historic Black & Brown schools, the board’s support for these changes vanished, too.
And then within a few weeks more, Carranza vanished, too.
Today, the board is fighting. First, about who will be named interim superintendent—a person who will surely make the board’s short list for the permanent job. And soon, they’ll surely be naming a search firm to help them in the process to select a successor.
But the most important question still remains: When will the board write a new vision for the district? When will it do the hard work of defining words like equity, inclusion, access, transparency and achievement. When will it set such well-defined priorities that the administration crafts budgets with the board’s end in mind rather than starting with a proposal and lobbying the board to support the administration’s ideas.
Will the board learn from this 19-month false-start with Carranza and put policy before execution?
Will this board, with its many new members and six-year veteran president, finally be finished with the listening and learning and do the job they were elected to do: set a vision for the district, hire the best person to execute that vision, and hold that person accountable for her or his performance of making that vision a reality.
I’m not sure they will. I hope I’m wrong.
Ben Becker is owner of Becker Strategies, a small consulting firm that specializes in digital business transformation. Together, he and his wife run the website HISDparents.org which helps local parents stay informed about, and gain a voice in, the policies and priorities that impact Houston ISD schools.