HOUSTON - At its meeting Thursday night, the board voted 5 to 4 to replace Grenita Lathan with Abe Saavedra as interim superintendent. Saavedra served as Houston Independent School District superintendent from 2004 to 2010.
Saavedra, who district leaders said is not interested in returning to the permanent position, will serve a six-month term as interim superintendent starting Monday. That will be followed by month-to-month terms.
Some board members seemed blindsided by the fact that Saavedra was being considered, and that sparked a heated debate.
“I’m ashamed," said board member Wanda Adams. "I’m ashamed for the kids, (and) the parents who have to see this, to witness this. We (were) about to be taken over by the state. The leader who they just let go last night is the one that saved us. So, you let go (of) the one who saved us, but you hired the one who put us there. (I'm) not understanding that at all."
Adams, who said she believes the change was about race, said the five Hispanic board members who voted in favor of it might have had plans to bring back Saavedra.
Board member Diana Davila, who introduced the motion, said race was not a factor. Davila said she had the interest of students at heart.
“I think he will bring a wealth of knowledge that we currently don't have,” said Davila.
Davila is speaking about Saavedra’s work as the superintendent of the South San Antonio Independent School District. Davila said HISD is under the Texas Education Agency’s microscope because of underperforming schools. She said Saavedra faced similar challenges at his prior job and led the district away from a state takeover.
“Dr. Saavedra has worked with the TEA conservator for the last five years and has taken that board out of the conservator's watch,” said Davila.
Davila also said she was concerned that the pool of potential applicants for the district’s top job would be narrowed while an insider held the position.
“People are going to see her as having the upper hand and community support,” said Davila. “So they’re not going to risk losing their current job by applying for a job where they see someone as having an inside track.”
She said Lathan can now apply for the position without any conflicts of interests or advantage over the other candidates who want to enter the pool.
Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Friday, "I was asked to share my opinion about the @HoustonISD board of trustees’ surprise decision to replace the interim superintendent. I believe it was a disappointing and destabilizing move that will harm the district’s school children and reputation."
Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, released a statement Friday that read, "The conduct of the HISD’s board was nothing short of embarrassing and harmful. It demonstrated a dysfunction that does not serve our community, our school district and our students well. The ensuing chaos became personal and ugly. We respect the right of the board to make final leadership decisions, but the manner in which interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan was removed was not consistent with our values. Respect is a two-way street; you must give it to receive it.
"The board and district need to move forward in an accountable manner, given the very serious issues that need to be addressed, including the school district budget and recruiting a permanent superintendent. All eyes are on the board’s actions now, and all board members should remember they are public servants first."
Parents who watched the exchange Thursday night said the abrupt swap and discord among the board members sends the wrong message to students and future superintendent candidates.
“A lot of animosity, no unity, prejudice, racism amongst the board members,” said Koffey Smith, one of the parents at the meeting. "So, a lot of them (were) exposing what they felt about each other.”
“You’ve divided the educational community in the city of Houston,” said Geery Monroe, another parent at the meeting. “You have made this a black versus Latino situation and the sad part about it, it does not have to be like that because most of the African-American schools are populated by Latino children.”
LaTrice Ferguson has three children in HISD and is part of a 3,700-member parent group that watchdogs HISD’s budget.
“I don't have a problem with Saavedra or anyone being superintendent. I have a problem when you put your political agenda ahead of my children,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson’s concern is that the board did not seek enough community input before making this decision and hopes there will be community input on a search for a permanent superintendent.
Ferguson said she feels board trustees focus too much on their respective districts and not enough on tackling challenges facing HISD as a whole.
“There's a poor definition of equity and equality and how to achieve that in the school system and everyone twists it to their benefit,” said Ferguson.
District leaders said Lathan will return to her position as the chief academic officer.
Watch the video below to see the vote.
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