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HISD asks for injunction aimed at blocking TEA takeover of board

HOUSTON – The Houston Independent School District has filed a motion requesting a federal judge issue a preliminary injunction on a recommended state takeover of the school district, KPRC 2 learned Thursday. 

The request, filed Tuesday, said an injunction was the district's only option to preempt an almost inevitable takeover by the Texas Education Agency. 

"The public interest would be protected by issuance of an injunction," the document read. 

HISD has accused the TEA of playing politics in an attempt to strip the school district of its power, including replacing the board of trustees with a board appointed by Mike Morath, commissioner of education. 

"It is paramount to the public and the public's interest that a democratically elected board exercise the responsibility they were elected to conduct," the document continued. 

The request for preemption was yet another step in HISD's fight with the state over control of Texas' largest school district. 

The document requests a federal judge issue a preliminary injunction to: 

1. Remove the TEA's imposed halt of a search for a new HISD superintendent. 

2. Prevent the TEA from taking any other direct action in the form of sanctions. 

3. Prevent the TEA from replacing HISD's elected board of trustees with a TEA-appointed board. 

The request came one day before the TEA issued its final report on an investigation into alleged wrongdoings at HISD. 

TEA final report: HISD board's 'demonstrated inability to govern' 

A final report from the TEA issued Wednesday again recommends replacing the Houston Independent School District's board of trustees with a panel of state managers. 

The report is over 300 pages long and includes analysis, HISD responses, proof of findings, and other supporting documents. 

It includes three allegations and findings for each: 

1. Did the HISD board of trustees exercise decision-making powers without deliberating in a public quorum of trustees or posting a public meeting notice as required by Tex. Government Code Chapter 551 Open Meetings? 

The report found HISD board of trustees violated the Open Meetings Act. 

The question is whether five members of the trustee board violated the open meetings law by assembling privately. 

The report alleges the members: Diana Dávila, Sergio Lira, Anne Sung, Elizabeth Santos, and Holly Maria Flynn-Vilaseca devised a plan to oust interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and replace her with former HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra.  

On Oct. 11, 2018, Dávila, the current board president, filed a motion to replace Lathan with Saavedra.

It passed 5-4, and the report claims that's because days earlier, the five in support met privately with Saavedra and pitched him the job.  

The report also claims a copy of former Superintendent Richard Carranza's contract was present for reference. 

HISD disputes this in the report, writing, "Then-Trustee Dávila did not discuss the potential removal of the current interim Superintendent and the installation of a new interim Superintendent with Dr. Saavedra."  

Dávila also refuted the allegation. 

"When you read the 300-page report, there are documentations that support the side of the trustees where it states facts versus what has been seen in my eyes as rumors," Dávila said Thursday. 

2. Did the HISD board of trustees act individually on behalf of the board, exceeding the scope of their authority in violation of Texas Educational Code 11.051 Governance of Independent School District? 

The final report ruled yes, the HISD board of trustees acted individually on behalf of the board numerous times. 

The report examined emails and other correspondence in which decisions were made without the formal board present for a vote at a meeting. 

3. Did HISD board of trustees fail to follow contract procurement rules and procedures, and fail to ensure staff followed these rules and procedures when awarding contracts for goods and services in violation of Texas Educational Code 44.031?

The report concluded yes, alleging some trustees tampered with contracts already awarded and attempted to award contracts indirectly by contacting vendors during the request for proposal process. The report also alleges some trustees advocated for specific contractors and manipulated contracts to circumvent the application process. 

Concluding remarks

John Hewitt, of the TEA's special investigations unit, said in his conclusion that HISD's board has "demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority by circumventing the authority of the superintendent and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are followed." 

The conclusion recounts many of the allegations laid out in a preliminary report from the agency that was issued in August

Reaction

KPRC 2 reached out to all nine members of the HISD board. Some said they were still reviewing the report and would make a statement when done. 

Jolanda Jones, a trustee who represents District 4, said the actions of five board members leave the TEA with no choice other than to step in. 

"What else do you do?" Jones, who isn't seeking reelection, asked. 

Jones was one of the four trustees caught off guard by the surprise vote to oust Lathan in October 2018. 

"If you have a majority of the board which can care less about the law then you have to replace us -- on governance grounds," Jones said. 

Others questioned the timing of the TEA's report, recommending a state takeover days before Election Day. 

Andrew Dewey, executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, stressed HISD has made improvements since last year. The TEA in August gave the district a high B grade, improving its score over previous years. 

"Why TEA wants to focus on the governance aspect of HISD is frankly a question TEA needs to answer," Dewey said. "This school district is functioning and functioning well."

However, TEA still considers one school, Phillis Wheatley High School, as failing. House Bill 1842, a state law, all but guarantees a state takeover or school closures if a school doesn't meet state standards for five years or more. 

What happens next?

The recommendation by the TEA does not make a takeover certain. However, a decision by Morath is expected by January.