Instead of hiring proven leader, HISD trustees voted along racial lines to launch a national search despite her nearly 3 years of navigating unprecedented challenges
After nearly three years of navigating the Houston Independent School District (HISD) through hurricanes, floods, a potential state takeover, numerous investigations and, most recently, challenges related to COVID-19, longtime interim superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan was again denied an official appointment to HISD’s top job.
Instead, a 6-3 vote of HISD trustees along racial lines launched a national search for a superintendent to oversee the district’s 280 schools and 210,000 students.
The Nov. 12 decision dealt a devastating blow to those who believe Lathan has earned the right to have interim removed from her title after leading the district through unprecedented challenges.
The three Black members of the board – Wanda Adams, Patricia Allen and Kathy Blueford-Daniels – voted to declare Lathan the sole finalist for the superintendent position, teeing her up for a multi-year contract. (This was the last meeting for Adams, who resigned to assume the Harris County Justice of the Peace Precinct 7, Place 1 seat to which she was elected this month.)
All of the other trustees voted no. The six nays came from Judith Cruz, Dani Hernandez, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca Ocampo, Elizabeth Santos, Anne Sung and Board Chair Sue Deigaard.
Flynn Vilaseca Ocampo said trustees owed students, the community, constituents and taxpayers of the state’s largest school district and nation’s seventh-largest school system “a transparent and thorough search process.”
The district is majority children of color and predominantly Hispanic. According to HISD figures, the student population is 62 percent Hispanic, 24 percent Black, 9 percent White and 4 percent Asian with 1 percent American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander or multiracial.
After the vote, Adams said she wasn’t surprised by the outcome, but remained positive about trustees selecting a permanent superintendent.
“I just hope and pray that as you all move forward, that you lead with honesty and integrity,” she said.
Several trustees encouraged Lathan to apply for the position.
If chosen, she would have become the district’s first Black female superintendent. Officially.
An educator for three decades, Lathan came to HISD in 2015 to serve as chief school officer in charge of elementary transformation schools. She led more than 20 schools out of an “improvement required” state rating to a “met standard” designation. She was elevated to chief academic officer for the 2016-2017 school year before being named interim superintendent in March 2018 after the unexpected departure of Richard Carranza, who left to become chancellor of the New York City public school system.
The story of Lathan’s tenure with HISD could have ended two years ago in October 2018 when a five-member group of trustees that included Flynn Vilaseca Ocampo, Santos and Sung tried to oust her and reinstate former HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra. That 5-4 vote also was along racial lines. (The perceived backroom orchestration of a superintendent swap led to allegations of a potential violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, which remains under investigation.) The action was withdrawn a week later after the three Black board members at that time – Adams, Jolanda Jones and then-Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones – said they had no idea there was a plan to bring Saavedra back. Given the dissension on the board and public outrage, he quickly withdrew from consideration.
So now, Lathan has been publicly voted down twice and, in a few weeks, the district will be headed into another legislative session without a permanent superintendent.
Before the Nov. 12 vote, Lathan released this statement:
“During my five-year tenure with HISD, my focus has been, and always remains, on putting children first. As HISD’s interim superintendent for the past 2 years and 8 months, my team and I have worked diligently on behalf of our students and their families to initiate programs to improve academic performance, led historically underperforming schools out of Improvement Required status and expanded fine arts education. During this time, the district’s financial condition has continued to be strong and the district has maintained its AAA bond rating from Moody’s and AA+ from Standard and Poor’s. In addition, we have led the district through Hurricane Harvey’s recovery efforts and continue to navigate together through the current global pandemic. Through it all, our focus is and will continue to be our students’ success. I would welcome the opportunity to continue the work to elevate the academic, social, and emotional outcomes for all students in our district.”
According to the Houston Chronicle, “Lathan’s tenure coincided with scathing state reports documenting extensive operational and special education issues in the district. One of HISD’s longest-struggling campuses, Wheatley High School, also received its seventh straight failing grade in 2019, triggering a state law that resulted in Education Commissioner Mike Morath moving to replace the district’s elected school board.”
The board’s lawsuit to stop the Texas Education Agency from ousting the elected trustees remains pending before the Texas Supreme Court. If HISD loses, Morath would select the district’s superintendent and new board members.
Shortly before the Nov. 12 vote, Houston Federation of Teachers president Zeph Capo issued a news release stating that the union was prepared to support a one-year contract for Lathan for the sake of stability and questioning the board’s leap to start a search. He also hoped the short-term contract would allow time to evaluate the superintendent position once the novel coronavirus pandemic subsides and legal wrangling over TEA’s efforts to replace trustees is resolved.
“After two years and eight months of searching for a permanent superintendent, we are not pleased that the option of naming Lathan a sole finalist or restarting the entire search was put on the School Board agenda with no notice to our union or any other stakeholders,” the statement said. “We are prepared to support Lathan being the sole finalist for another 12 months and serving as our district’s leader, because we need stability right now facing issues around the pandemic, a possible state takeover, and a federal investigation. … HFT also recommends that the HISD Board use this time to evaluate whether to extend her contract or begin a search at a time when the devastation of the pandemic, disruption from the TEA takeover, and the disgrace of a criminal investigation are put behind us, so that all stakeholders can focus on moving forward.”
During the Nov. 12 meeting, a majority of speakers during public comment supported Lathan continuing in the superintendent role fully. Many were campus administrators who detailed how she has proven her ability to improve student performance, reduce the number of low-rated schools and overcome issues beyond her control.
The morning after the vote, Lathan issued a brief statement indicating that she remains consistent and professional.
“I respect the decision of the HISD Board of Education to resume the search for a superintendent. Just as my focus has been for the past five years in HISD, my goal remains the same: to continue to achieve academic excellence in the district and support each and every student, parent, and staff member to the best of our team’s abilities.”
Lathan, a former superintendent of Peoria Public Schools in Illinois and an interim deputy superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District in California, holds a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina A&T State University, a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina and a doctorate from Southern Illinois University.