Last Thursday morning, January 14, started off with a lot of buzz and excitement at the Hattie Mae White Administration Building, located at 4400 West 18th Street – known to many as the home and headquarters of the Houston Independent School District (HISD).
A new crop of HISD Trustees were being sworn in for 2016, after winning their respective election, or being re-elected to serve the constituents in their respective district.
Later that evening, in the same location, the buzz and excitement of the HISD Trustees being sworn in wore off, and it was time for the new look HISD board to get down to business.
Thursday evening’s HISD board meeting proved to be far different than any of the past HISD board meetings in recent memory.
Prior to Thursday’s meeting, several contentious things took place.
First, an impromptu, closed-session board agenda review meeting was held on last Monday, with the outgoing board members chose to hold a vote on giving outgoing HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, who plans to step down at the end of next month, an additional $75,420 bonus on top of the $98,600 bonus payout he received in November of last year. Only five of the nine board members were present and the board voted 3-2 in favor of the bonus payout.
Then-Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Trustee Anna Eastman voted against the bonus payout, while Trustees Paula Harris, Harvin Moore and Manuel Rodriguez, Jr. voted in favor.
Secondly, there were major concerns expressed by a few members of the HISD school board leading up to the Thursday meeting concerning the extremely packed agenda put forth by then-Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who did not mince words when asked about the items she placed on the agenda.
“We could no longer kick the can down the road,” said Skillern Jones. “These are issues that have been talked about all year long, and now is the time to address it.”
And address them they did.
The board voted to rename four out of eight schools named after individuals who had Confederate ties; create ten new magnet programs; discontinue a suspension policy of students from pre-K through the second grade; lighten up their ethics policy related to campaign contributions; and approve an outside study of all school attendance boundaries.
In a 5-4 vote, trustees voted to rename Henry Grady, Richard Dowling and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson middle schools and Robert E. Lee High School. Lanier and Johnston middle schools, as well as Davis and Reagan high schools, were removed from the agenda to allow for more discussion with members of the community.
In another 5-4 vote, trustees voted to allow eight campuses to become schools focused on fine arts, and two specializing in the sciences. In addition, each school will receive extra funding plus the coveted magnet label to help with student recruitment. Atherton, Crockett and Kashmere Gardens elementary schools; Dowling, Key and Ortiz middle schools; and Kashmere and Westbury high schools, will all be getting fine-arts magnet programs. Hartsfield Elementary will become a magnet focused on environmental and animal science, and Stevens Elementary will specialize in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
In an extremely contentious debate, the board also voted 5-4 to change its ethics policy to change from the $500 cap they were under, to now allow trustees to accept up to $2,000 in a year from a single vendor or nonprofit organization before that trustee has to recuse themselves from any discussion or votes involving contracts or other business the school board does with that entity.
The board also voted to overturn the vote of last year’s board which allowed for the suspension or expulsion of students at the second grade or lower level, something that has been proven to overwhelmingly and disproportionately impact African American students more than any other group. The vote passed by a 5-3-1 vote, with Mike Lunceford abstaining.
The board vote to approve an outside study of all school attendance boundaries, is a decision that will more than likely jumpstart major dialogue surrounding where students are zoned to attend.
Lastly, the school board voted to unanimously elect the following trustees as officers on the board: Wanda Adams was named vice president; newly elected trustee Diana Davila was named second vice president; newly elected trustee and former city councilwoman Jolanda Jones, who replaced Harris, was named secretary; Skillern-Jones was named assistant secretary; and Manuel Rodriguez, Jr., who was also unanimously elected to serve as the new board president.
Immediately after the six-hour long board meeting, several racially-driven narratives were beginning to take shape and hit the Houston streets and various media platforms.
The Houston Chronicle published an article, whereby the first sentence of their article read:
“A racially divided Houston school board on Thursday approved sweeping changes that include becoming the first large district in Texas to ban suspensions of young students.”
The next day, another article appeared in the HoustonPress, with a headline that read: “A Racially Divided HISD School Board Kicks Off 2016.”
Almost immediately, the narrative was seemingly put forth by members of the mainstream press suggesting that the minority trustees, who were elected by the people to represent their specific interests and who each only have one vote to represent those constituents, somehow cast their votes in the manner in which they did because of race and not because of common interests.
Jolanda Jones, who has been known by many as a vocal supporter of equitable and fair treatment for all Houstonians, spoke up at the first board meeting to express her desire to see inequities addressed immediately, and she spoke against the implied notion that each trustee could not think independently for themselves.
“It is amazing to me that the mainstream media would choose to paint a picture that focuses on race, rather than the common interests that these board members share,” said Jones. “To see members of the mainstream press seek to create a false narrative that suggest that the board is somehow ‘racially-divided’ when people of color choose to vote together, but when non-minorities vote together consistently on key issues they are simply carrying out democracy, that is flat-out wrong and it needs to stop.”
Jones has said that she plans to continue being vocal and fighting for her constituents, as well as continue fighting for what is right for all HISD residents.
“We (the board) shared common interests, so we voted in common,” said Jones. “I am proud to be a part of a board where the people of color, who have been historically and specifically overlooked, worked with each other to tackle key issues, rather than fighting each other for crumbs from the table.”
Based off of Jones’ comments, and because of the recent actions taken at the first HISD board meeting of the year, it would appear this new HISD board is not “racially-divided,” but is rather a board that has taken on a new identity that reflects the overall wants and needs of the broader HISD community.
The Forward Times will continue to monitor the growth and status of this new HISD school board and keep our readers abreast of any new and exciting developments that may arise, including the search for who the next HISD Superintendent will be.