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Election 2015

New Superintendent Not on Ballot, But Driving School Board Campaigns

The elections could bring new decision-makers to the hiring process and have already influenced the timeline for the search process.

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Three candidates for District II in Northeast Houston prepare to answer a question: challenger Darlene Smith, current board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones and another challenger Youlette Jayne McCullough.
Laura Isensee
Three candidates are running to represent District II in Northeast Houston on the Houston school board. Challenger Darlene Smith, current board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones and another challenger Youlette Jayne McCullough.

There are four Houston school board seats up for election this fall. But another position that’s not even on the ballot is dominating the campaign: the next superintendent for the Houston Independent School District.

That’s because it’s a looming task for the next board. The trustees have to hire someone to take over the state’s largest school district when the current leader Terry Grier retires in March.

So, at a recent candidate forum in Kashmere Gardens, moderator Anne Sung posed a critical question.

“What important qualities would you look for in the next HISD superintendent?” she asked.

The candidates for Trustee District II, which includes Fifth Ward, North Forest and Oak Forest, had strong opinions.

“Someone who will listen to the community,” said Darlene Smith.

“Number one, I want to look at your record, where are you coming from,” said Youlette McCullough.

“One who does not believe in managing top down, but believes in good ideas coming from grassroots up,” said Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is the incumbent and current school board president.

That debate was organized by local unions and advocacy groups. Like other groups invested in education in Houston, they’re closely vetting candidates on their hiring preference.

“We want a superintendent who is open to the community’s concerns, a superintendent who is willing to reassess and reevaluate policy or programs that might be failing,” said Daniel Santos, a teacher and executive board member with the Houston Federation of Teachers.

At another recent debate, the question about the next superintendent came up multiple times: Would candidates support a leader with a business background? Would they rehire another Terry Grier? And what would be the top quality they’d want in the next superintendent?

“They certainly said that they would not rehire Terry Grier,” said Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of the advocacy group Children at Risk. He moderated that other debate.

He said that it’s easy for candidates to slip back and criticize the current leader and his record.

“But the important thing is to figure out what this district needs and who’s going to be the best person to lead it, and that becomes probably the preeminent thing in the campaign is making sure we have the right leader to take us into the future,” Sanborn said. He added that he’s concerned candidates are equating reform with Grier, when not everything is working in HISD.

Candidates are quick to describe what that future leader looks like. Here are thoughts from contenders for the open seat in District IV, which includes Debakey, Sterling and Yates high schools.

“I would like someone who is collaborative,” said Jolanda Jones, an attorney and former Houston city councilmember.

“I don’t think anybody should be evaluating teachers if they don’t know what it feels like and they haven’t experienced teaching,” said Davetta Daniels, a retired teacher.

“Someone who is a problem-solver, who recognizes there may not be one right answer, but we have to figure this out,” said Ann McCoy, a research director at All Kids Alliance at the University of Houston.

“You have to be transparent, you have to be innovative and you have to be conscientious about the people that you hire,” said Larry McKinzie, a community activist and teacher.

The question is also on the mind of Houston voters as they consider candidates. They have their own thoughts about the qualities and values of the next HISD chief.

For Melvin Guider, a retired principal, that top quality is fairness. 

“It’s been my belief that if you have some schools that are doing excellent jobs, then why isn’t that information given to those schools that are not performing as well?” Guider asked

For Jacqueline Hawthorne Cody, it’s stability. She has seen a lot of principals come and go at her grandchildren’s schools. She’s worried about that turnover.

“I would like to see more stability and more working together toward one common goal,” she said.

And 16-year-old Sloane Soler wants a new superintendent who’ll separate their ego from making decisions.

“If they had implemented something and it’s not working, for them to take it out rather than out of pride keep it going,” said Soler, who’s a sophomore at Lamar High School.

Already the elections have influenced the timeline for the search process.

HISD trustees decided to lay the ground work for the search, but not to go too far. That way the new school board can hit the ground running in January to find a new superintendent.

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