HOUSTON – The Houston Independent School District Board of Trustees has been ordered to suspend its search for a new superintendent. The news comes days before the district was to announce the sole finalist for the position of superintendent.
Dr. Doris Delaney, a conservator for the state, sent a letter Monday directing the board to immediately stop searching for a new superintendent until the Texas Education Agency completes its special accreditation investigation.
"I am directing the Houston ISD Board of Trustees to take no further action regarding the selection of a new Superintendent until the Board receives written authorization from the Conservator to resume the search activities," Delaney said in the letter.
It is not clear how long it will take to complete the accreditation investigation, which began in January.
“It’s not like the Texas Education Commissioner did not know our time frame and, so for us to get a note today -- an email today -- asking for us to take a pause on the superintendent search, of course it’s very surprising and at the same time, disappointing,” said HISD Board President Diana Davila.
Davila said they had planned to announce a sole finalist either on Tuesday or Thursday and were caught by surprise.
She said the district allocated up to $75,000 to find a permanent superintendent, and have spent a lot of time gathering input.
“It’s not just the money -- it’s the town hall meetings we’ve hosted across the district; it’s the input we took from many families and students; it’s those voices that have kept us going to this point and have actually kept us on a timeline, because this board took a commitment to announce a sole finalist in the month of April and we were on schedule to do that,” Davila said.
The board president believes the timing of the order is suspect.
The TEA has been investigating HISD since January for allegations of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. While the board has said it welcomes an investigation, board members just want to know why the suspension happened now versus earlier.
“I shared with the commissioner that timing of this, for me, is very intentionally," Davila said. "You could have told me last week. You could have told us a month ago. You could have told us two months ago. He admitted he could have, and maybe he should not have allowed it, but he did.”
Zeph Capo, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, agreed that the news feels ill-timed.
“My first reaction was ... like, a gut punch," Capo said. "The fact that they are suspending the superintendent search one day before the board was about to make a decision one way or another is alarming.”
Capo has been critical of HISD not choosing a permanent HISD, but said recently it seemed like they were on track to doing so and feels like the state put a wrench in the process.
“Now, when the Board seems to have focused on making a decision we have the State of Texas to blame for keeping the District in the air,” said Capo in a statement. “Lack of a permanent superintendent with a bona fide contract allows for a vacuum in the checks and balances necessary to make any district run effectively. It sure feels like TEA is weighing in to put their thumb on the scales for some reason or somebody and that is unfortunate.”
Capo said he worries that with the continued instability, teachers and other staff may opt for other districts.
This is all happening during a time when there has been talk about the state taking over HISD. While there was no mention of that on Monday, it is on the back of people’s minds.
Board member Jolanda Jones said she was surprised to receive the letter from the TEA, but hopes the board will follow the directives.
"Right now, HISD is in a positive direction and Dr. Lathan needs to stay the superintendent, so I’m glad TEA came in when they came in," Jones said. "I don’t know what took them so long, but thankful for it.”
HISD sent a statement to KPRC2 that read, "HISD is referring any media inquiries to TEA’s Communications Division at 512-463-9000."
The Houston Federation of Teachers released a statement to KPRC2 that read:
"The Houston Federation of Teachers president Zeph Capo stated the following in response to the announcement that TEA has halted the HISD Superintendent Search, 'They couldn’t have picked a worse time to interfere. Our community was one day away from a decision where the community would see for themselves if the Board is making decisions in the best interest of the District or not and the state has ripped that away from the citizens and tax payers of our district.
"Questions have risen over several months regarding the objectivity of the assigned conservator resulting in a request for reconsideration of the appointment. This decision today seems to give new credence to those earlier concerns.
"Our district has been without a permanent superintendent for more than a year. The slow-walking of the decision has been a critique of the HISD Board by HFT for some time. Now, when the Board seems to have focused on making a decision we have the State of Texas to blame for keeping the District in the air. Lack of a permanent superintendent with a bonafide contract allows for a vacuum in the checks and balances necessary to make any district run effectively. It sure feels like TEA is weighing in to put their thumb on the scales for some reason or somebody and that is unfortunate.'"
Sen. Borris Miles released a statement: "I commend the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for stepping in to take drastic, but necessary measures regarding Houston Independent School District's (HISD) superintendent search and for putting the students' interests first. I look forward to continue working with the governor, the TEA and HISD as we move forward to achieve the best outcome for our students."
In February, the board voted to continue searching for a permanent superintendent.
Grenita Lathan was named interim superintendent after Richard Carranza's departure in March 2018. The district then named former superintendent Abe Saavedra as interim superintendent in October 2018, only to go back to Lathan after Saavedra removed his name.