SHUTDOWN AT HISD: Over 28,000 Employees at Risk

Are Black Women in Leadership the Real Target?

Dr. Grenita Lathan

Wanda Adams

Rhonda Skillern Jones

          Jolanda Jones

Another day. Another issue involving the Houston Independent School District (HISD) and its dysfunctional Board of Trustees. This time, however, there are more glaring and noticeable issues that are going on that supersede politics and are seemingly racially-motivated.

HISD is now facing a potential government shutdown, similar to what we have been seeing in Washington D.C., that is about to endanger the future of HISD staff members, employees, students, contractors and the community as a whole.

It is no secret that the current HISD Board President, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, is a Black woman; so is the current interim superintendent of HISD, Grenita Lathan. There are also two other Black women who make up the nine person Board of Education – Wanda Adams (District IX) and Jolanda Jones (District IV and First Vice President).

Now while that shouldn’t be the point of focus, when it comes to the most recent decision made by five members of the HISD school board to vote against the proposed 2018-19 school year budget presented by Superintendent Lathan, it raises some serious and suspicious red flags.

HISD Trustees Sue Deigaard, Diana Davila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Anne Sung and Elizabeth Santos, all voted against the proposed budget without giving any indication they would vote against it and without expressing any reservations about it prior to the meeting.

In addition to the three African American females on the board, Trustee Sergio Lira joined the ladies in voting to approve the proposed budget. The budget was rejected by a 5-4 vote.

The proposed $2 billion budget included $16.7 million in increases for special education, dyslexia programs and the continuation of the Achieve 180 program that was introduced this school year to support underserved and underperforming schools.

The budget proposal presented by Superintendent Lathan also included $2.5 million for a forthcoming performance audit, with plans to use approximately $19 million from HISD’s rainy-day fund to cover the expected shortfall the district is anticipating.

Anything sound out of line relative to the budget presented by Superintendent Lathan this past Thursday so far? No, because just last year many of those same members of the HISD Board of Trustees voted to approve the 2017-2018 school year budget of $2.1 billion that included almost $49 million in salary increases, $2.2 million for special education, $15 million set aside for the Achieve 180 program and the use of approximately $108 million of the district’s rainy-day fund balance.

The decision to approve last year’s budget put the district in a starting position for the 2018-2019 budget planning process with a $69 million deficit. This year, however, Superintendent Lathan found herself in a position to present a balanced budget to HISD Trustees, which included slashing about $83 million in spending, resulting in hundreds of layoffs, while only using $19 million from the rainy-day fund to deal with the shortfall. Nevertheless, it didn’t pass.

So, three of the HISD Trustees (Davila, Sung and Vilaseca) who voted last year to approve a $2.1 billion budget which included using approximately $108 million from the district’s rainy-day fund under former HISD Superintendent Richard Carranza, a Hispanic male, are the same trustees who are now rejecting a $2 billion proposed budget where they are only slated to use approximately $19 million dollars from the same rainy-day fund they drew from a year prior. So, what is the difference between now and then, other than the numbers? This year, the superintendent is a Black woman, and so is the HISD board president.

This is a problematic issue for HISD, as state law requires a budget to be passed by June 30, which is the end of the fiscal year. According to Skillern-Jones, she is not sure why her colleagues voted against the proposed budget, but wants the public to understand that her colleagues have the ability to do something about ensuring the district doesn’t shut down.

“Any 3 members of the Board of Trustees can request a meeting to place the budget back on the agenda at any time before the deadline through the Board President,” said Skillern-Jones. “As the President, I could schedule a meeting with the uncertainty of attendance and or failure of the item again. To date, however, I have not received a request for a meeting from 3 of any of the 5 trustees who voted against the proposed budget, and I have not been made aware of the issues they seemingly have with the budget.”

Trustee Jones wasn’t so reserved. When asked why she thinks the five trustees voted against the budget, she stated that she believes there are some racial and political reasons behind their decision. She wants people to know how dire the situation that HISD is faced with truly is.

“Anne Sung, Holly Vilaseca, Diana Davila, Elizabeth Santos and Sue Deigaard voted AGAINST the HISD budget, so when HISD shuts down and HISD’s bills aren’t paid, it’s their fault,” Jones emphatically declared. “When HISD gets taken over by TEA because those five trustees failed to pass the budget, it’s their fault. Of course, my five colleagues probably don’t need jobs, but most HISD workers need their jobs.”

The reality of the situation is that many of the lowest paid HISD employees could potentially have their homes foreclosed on, get evicted from their apartments, have their cars repossessed, be forced to make tough decisions about whether they can eat versus pay for their medication, or have other critical bills go unpaid because they won’t get a paycheck due to this government shutdown. Also, students who are currently enrolled in summer school won’t be able to finish the credit hours they need to get promoted or graduate from high school because of this decision. Also, students who are currently enrolled in summer school won’t be able to finish the credit hours they need to get promoted or graduate from high school because of this decision. HISD Trustee Jolanda Jones believes the Black female trustees and superintendent are experiencing tremendous racism publicly and behind closed doors.

Jones states that a lot of the treatment they are receiving stems from some political unhappiness by some of the trustees who are unhappy that Black people are holding key positions on the board and in the administration that they believe they should be entitled to. She believes this is the reason the trustees rejected the budget and are now refusing to call a meeting to bring resolution to this budget issue to help avoid a government shutdown.

“Now, after disrespecting the Board President, the Superintendent and the rest of the Board, they refuse to call a meeting to fix their hypocritical vote and behavior, with the three signatures they need to get this done like they have for numerous agenda items at the last few board meetings with no notice to any other board members,” said Jones. “These five individuals need to use that same power they have masterfully and disrespectfully used in the past to fix what they screwed up.”

According to Skillern-Jones, the final date to post a meeting to the public is June 27.

Summer school ends on July 3rd. There is no money budgeted after June 30. Without an approved budget by June 30, all HISD employees, students, staff, contractors and others are at serious risk of being negatively impacted.