Education News

From Secret Meetings To Free Meals: 10 Reasons Why TEA Is Recommending A State Takeover Of HISD

Here are 10 reasons why investigators recommended the state take over the Houston school district, though they signaled that the findings don’t address all the allegations raised and they could investigate HISD even more.

HISD Trustees Sergio Lira, Diana Dávila and Elizabeth Santos speak at a community meeting where local leaders and parents gave their input on the superintendent search. Last fall, the three trustees voted to abruptly fire the current interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan.
HISD Trustees Sergio Lira, Diana Dávila and Elizabeth Santos speak at a community meeting where local leaders and parents gave their input on the superintendent search. Last fall, the three trustees voted to abruptly fire the current interim superintendent, Grenita Lathan.

Secret meetings, misleading investigators and pressuring vendors are just some of the violations flagged in the Texas Education Agency’s initial investigation into the Houston school board.

In the 34-page report sent to the board, the head of the agency’s special investigations unit, Jason Hewitt, detailed those and other reasons why he believes the Texas Education Commission should replace all nine elected board members and install outside managers.

Hewitt also recommended downgrading the district’s accreditation and appointing a conservator, citing the board’s “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the Superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are following.”

Here are 10 reasons why investigators came to that conclusion, though they signaled that the findings don’t address all the allegations raised and they could investigate HISD even more. The Houston school board had an Aug. 15 deadline to respond to the preliminary findings.

  1. Secret meetings: Based on emails, interviews and text messages, investigators found that five school board members — Sergio Lira, Anne Sung, Elizabeth Santos, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and board president Diana Dávila all “secretly met” with Dr. Abelardo Saavedra at a local restaurant, in a meeting that was not publicly posted, as required by state law. “The trustees violate the open meetings act when they deliberate public business outside of a properly posted public meeting through multiple communications each involving fewer than a quorum,” the report said. Three days later, the five trustees voted in a public meeting to fire the interim superintendent and hire Saavedra instead.
  2. Handing over a contract: Investigators highlighted the fact that Flynn Vilaseca “admitted” she gave Saavedra a copy of former superintendent Richard  Carranza’s contract. When the board voted to hire Saavedra later, they offered the same salary and benefits that were in Carranza’s contract. “There would be no reason to present a copy of the former superintendent’s contract if the board members were not considering him for the position of interim superintendent,” the report reads.
  3. Failing to cooperate: According to the report, Dávila, Flynn Vilaseca and Lira didn’t fully cooperate with the investigation. Flynn Vilaseca allegedly didn’t explain why she handed over the contract to Saavedra. Lira allegedly falsely claimed he met with Saavedra alone, despite all four other trustees confirming he was at the restaurant meeting. And Dávila, according to the report, failed to turn over text messages, which are public records and were requested in the investigation. “Some of the board members made deceptive statements to the (investigators), either by making inconsistent statements and through omission,” Hewitt wrote.
  4. “Out of protocol”: The report details multiple examples of what investigators determined was board members exceeding their authority. In one instance, Dávila toured the construction of the High School for Law and Justice, without notifying the principal, and on the spot ordered changes to the new mock courtroom on campus. The changed work ultimately cost $20,000 and an administrator told investigators, “it was a trustee said it and it was done. I know what you’re looking for, yes, it’s out of protocol, that’s the simple answer.”
  5. Using district property without permission: Investigators cited Santos for holding a campaign event on HISD property, called “Field Good Day.” While Santos indicated she would cover the cost, she never did, according to the report. Investigators also said Santos would misuse her role as trustee at the district’s headquarters by getting food and not paying for it. “She tells people, ‘I am a trustee and board services covers that,’” the report found, adding that board services didn’t cover the meals because it’s not in board policy.
  6. Trustee overreach: Investigators reviewed emails from trustees from the last three years and found that “individual trustee overreach is common,” with nearly all board members continually trying to monitor, direct, influence or interfere with the district administration, including personnel, operations and contracting. Some examples involve asking for updates on construction, locks on doors at certain schools and parent grievances. Other examples: pressuring administrators on personnel issues. “Former superintendents indicated that the HISD Board of Trustees made it impossible for them to do their job as CEO of the district due to the constant trustee involvement causing them to leave the district,” Hewitt wrote.
  7. Getting involved in personnel issues: In 2017, then-board president Wanda Adams forwarded an email from a “friend of a coworker at her job” to high level administrators, including the former Chief of Human Resources. She included a list of positions her friend applied to and asked them to look at their resume and “consider for possible telephone conversation.” The same year, Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones asked administrators to “please investigate” a former employee’s status, who had been told she was ineligible for rehire due to performance issues.
  8. Trying to influence contracts: In 2016, Dávila and her husband, Abel Dávila, met an HISD administrator and two others at a local restaurant, Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen. The administrator told investigators the Dávilas wanted to change a custodial contract from one company, MetroClean, to another company they preferred — Accel Building Management, or ABM. When told ABM didn’t have a good reputation with the district, Dávila apparently said, “It will happen if we want it to happen.”
  9. Pressuring vendors: Later, the owner of MetroClean told the HISD administrator that the owner of ABM approached him and tried to force him to sign a consulting agreement, which would have made monthly payments of 2% of gross sales back to ABM, increasing to 3% if MetroClean got more contracts. According to investigators, this happened while the custodial company was in the middle of the district’s procurement process. MetroClean’s owner, Jose Perez, said that he felt pressured when ABM’s owner said that “Diana Dávila’s husband sent me here to have you sign this agreement” and that he felt threatened when he was told: “If you don’t sign the agreement, HISD will not approve your contract.”
  10. Changing job orders: TEA’s investigators reviewed a previous audit that found at least 14 “job order contracts” were split into multiple job orders to avoid a $500,000 limit, which would require a board vote. Those included construction contracts with Kellogg Brown & Root, Jamail & Smith Construction and P2MG. Added together, some of the related job orders totaled over $1 million.

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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