Is the Focus on Getting Someone Better or Someone Not Black?
When it comes to things involving doing what’s best to educate children, one would hope that race, gender or other physical attributes would not be the motivating factor used to determine who would be best to lead the effort in doing so.
That seems to not be the case at the Houston Independent School District (HISD) when it comes to the people who have been chosen to provide governance and foresight.
This past Thursday, September 20th, the HISD Board of Trustees voted 6 to 3 to use the executive search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, to help identify their next permanent superintendent. Currently, HISD is being led by Dr. Grenita Lathan, who was named interim superintendent back in March. Dr. Lathan was named after former HISD Superintendent Richard Carranza abruptly and unexpectedly bolted from the district to take a job as chancellor of the New York City Public School system.
Taxpayers should be familiar with the executive search firm that is being used to conduct the new national search, in that they were the same firm that was used to help select Carranza. According to the majority of HISD trustees who voted to move forward with the new search, they decided to exercise a warranty provision that was issued by Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates when they hired Carranza. The warranty provision obligated the firm to conduct a new superintendent search with allegedly no cost to the district if Carranza left less than two years after he was hired. Carranza left after only being at HISD for a year and a half.
Interestingly, although the HISD trustees who voted to move forward with the national search touted their reasoning as being there would be no cost to the district, according to the details of the agreement, the national search will still leave taxpayers on the hook for certain expenses. According to the contract, HISD will still be responsible for expenses of up to $75,000 for the total cost of this decision. It has not been specified what those expenses could be, but it is a hefty expense to move forward with the decision to search for someone outside the district, when the current interim superintendent has filled in for a previous superintendent who unexpectedly left during one of the most challenging times in the district’s history.
Dr. Lathan took over a challenged district that was faced with a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall and significant operational and administrative cuts across the district. Despite her herculean efforts to present a balanced budget, maintain employee morale and most importantly, provide a quality education for all students throughout HISD, the current climate on the HISD Board of Trustees has not seemingly been favorable to this Black woman.
Back in June, the Forward Times wrote an eye-opening article entitled “Shutdown at HISD: Over 28,000 Employees At Risk | Are Black Women In Leadership The Real Target?” where questions swirled around whether the decision for the majority of trustees to vote against the budget presented to them by Dr. Lathan superseded politics and were racially-motivated.
As has been highlighted before, it is no secret that the current interim superintendent is a Black woman, and so are the three of the nine trustees who voted against the national superintendent search – HISD Board President, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Wanda Adams (District IX) and Jolanda Jones (District IV and First Vice President).
Dr. Lathan has experienced unprecedented treatment for someone who has experienced success in a seemingly unwinnable situation.
Dr. Lathan not only found herself having to present a balanced budget to the HISD board, which included slashing about $83 million in spending, resulting in hundreds of layoffs, and only using $19 million from the rainy-day fund to deal with the shortfall, she also had to deal with the fact that the budget did not pass for reasons that made no sense. Three non-Black trustees, who had just voted to approve a $2.1 billion budget which included using approximately $108 million from the district’s rainy-day fund under Carranza the year before, rejected a $2 billion proposed budget where they were only slated to use approximately $19 million dollars from the same rainy-day fund they drew from a year before. Dr. Lathan has soldiered on, in spite of the questionable tactics of the majority of HISD trustees and the roadblocks placed in her way.
Let’s take a look at what Dr. Lathan has been able to accomplish and implement as interim superintendent in her six months on the job, in order to better understand the possible reasoning for the majority of HISD trustees to move forward with a national search, versus choosing to retain someone who is already managing the district.
Here is a list of her accomplishments, successes and things implemented since March 2018:
- During the past three years at HISD, Dr. Lathan has decreased the number of improvement required campuses to the lowest number since 2012. Over the last three years, HISD dropped the number of improvement required (IR) schools from 58 to 12.
- Texas Education Agency released state accountability ratings for all school districts. 91% of HISD’s campuses “Met Standard” in 2017-18 (251 out of 275 rated campuses).
- In 2018, HISD was not rated because of Hurricane Harvey, but would have received a “B” in the new accountability system.
- To improve special education services to students, Dr. Lathan added 53 Dyslexia specialists for the 2018-19 school year.
- Achieve 180 campuses showed more growth than the district in most areas and HISD showed more growth than the state in grades 3-8 Reading and Math, and in Algebra and English I.
- As a result of the balanced budget, no police officers lost their jobs. No cuts were made to Transportation. HISD employees will not see an increase in their health care premiums in 2018-19 because HISD increased its employer contribution.
- For 2018-19, 36 out of 38 new principals for 2018-19 were internal candidates, highlighting her belief in building capacity from within and prioritizing leadership development to sustain internal systems for leadership pipelines.
- Created the School Resource Allocation Advisory Committee (RAAC) to allow community members, teachers and principals to propose changes to HISD’s current funding model for schools.
- Created an advisory board of key community leaders from all walks of life. Her advisory board meets every two months.
- Added eight full-day Pre-K classrooms at Woodson K-8. The expansion is so popular that the school has a waiting list.
- Supported and implemented summer lit camp for elementary and middle schools to re-brand summer school to celebrate literacy growth.
- This school year, for the first time ever, 13 new or renovated school buildings are opening, as a result of the 2012 Bond Program.
- Led her team to implement district wide programs and services to close the achievement gap and provide additional supports to students. Those new initiatives include:
- IB Pre-Authorization for 8 Schools: The International Baccalaureate curriculum is nationally regarded in preparing students for college. The 8 schools are: Yates High School, Foster Elementary, Cullen Middle, Henry Middle, Sam Houston High, Woodson K-8, Patterson Elementary and Mading Elementary.
- Project Explore: Project Explore is a middle school program modeled after the nationally renowned EMERGE program that was founded in HISD. Students on 10 high-need middle school campuses will receive college and career exploration support, after-school workshops, local and out-of-state college visits, intense one-on-one advising, summer programming and cultural outings.
- Launch HISD: Launch HISD is a comprehensive college and career readiness and advising program. The program will serve students at every middle and high school campus in the district, expanding advising and college and career exploration for larger groups of students.
- Ascending to Men: Ascending to Men will provide additional supports to African American and Hispanic male students. The new initiative will include mentoring with professionals of color, college and career exploration, academic and social emotional support, and leadership development.
- Parent Universities: Parent University supports parents and families in the education of their children, providing an introduction to district programs, community resources, and parent-engagement strategies. At the end of the year, parent participants will receive recognition for their successful completion of the program.
- Securing Funding for Psychiatric Specialists: HISD is utilizing the help of the philanthropic community to provide resources for psychiatric services for students.
- Expanding EMERGE: HISD is expanding EMERGE this year to serve more students and to also support the unique needs of college-bound student athletes.
- Three Free Meals for All Students: With the help of state and federal partners, HISD is providing three meals at no charge to students this school year (breakfast, lunch and dinner). All HISD students are eligible. It is not based on socio-economic status.
Dr. Lathan, 48, has a tremendous academic pedigree and extensive working knowledge of HISD.
Dr. Lathan officially joined HISD in 2015 and is a 26-year veteran educator. She served as HISD’s Chief Academic Officer from the 2016-2017 school year to her being named interim superintendent. Prior to that, she served as the chief school officer in the HISD Office of School Support for the district’s north area, and she served as the chief school officer over elementary transformation schools during the 2015-2016 school year in which she led more than 20 schools out of an “improvement required” state rating to a “met standard” rating. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business education from North Carolina A&T State University, a master’s degree in business education from the University of North Carolina, and a doctoral degree from Southern Illinois University.
Trustees Skillern-Jones and Adams are extremely disappointed in the decision to move forward with a national search, and don’t believe it is the right decision at this critical time at HISD.
“I don’t agree that HISD needs a search right now, so I did not vote for one,” said Skillern-Jones. “We are in a precarious situation with IR schools, financial burdens, governance issues and a tough upcoming legislative session. Our financial situation makes it necessary to utilize a free search service that previously brought a candidate to us for 18 months before they chose to leave. In addition, I don’t know that the quality of a free search would yield the same level of service as a paid one. I would be leery of a candidate willing to come to a district where their board could be taken over within a matter of months, and along with that, their job. It seems counterproductive to derail the path our interim has established by reducing IR schools from 27 to 4 in 3 years. Our students deserve a permanent, proven leader for, at the very least, a year, to get us through the legislative session, this IR year and budget planning. With all the reasons to grant this contract, the only reason offered not to has been transparency. Nothing could be more transparent than solidifying the choice that was already made. There within lies the problem.”
Adams believes the decision to do the search is personal and not in the best interest of HISD.
“I currently serve on a three Member Search Committee for HISD and was a part of the Carranza search,” said Adams. “I feel strongly that we will not get a good group of candidates. Dr. Lathan has served HISD for 3+ years. She has led this district in closing the achievement and academic gaps. When she got to HISD, we had 50+ IR campuses. She moved the IR needle from over 50 to 22 to 4. She has created programs that have been successful on all educational levels. During our interim interviews, Dr. Lathan stood out because of her academic success. I made an amendment to give her a one year contract so we can go into this legislative session with a leader. We have met standard under her leadership. We were faced with a state takeover for ten schools and she was able to, with the hard work of our teachers, get six schools, including Worthing, out of IR. Today, my district, District IX, does not have any documented IR campuses. She has put in the work. She has proven her ability to lead and she has the experience. There is no way I could be in support of a national search, considering those facts.
In spite of those sentiments, the decision has been made and a search has begun.
However, at a time when HISD needs to be stabilized as a district, the majority of trustees have opted to disrupt an upward trajectory with a national search. National candidates will likely have a significant learning curve as it relates to the local governance rules, legislative climate, academic regulations and financial constraints. As evidenced by the last superintendent, Carranza, it takes months to “listen and learn” and months to form a plan – these are months that HISD honestly does not have.
The Forward Times will continue to follow the details concerning HISD and their search for a permanent superintendent and keeps its readers abreast of the happenings.