Education News

Houston School Board Resumes National Search For Superintendent, Passing On Interim Leader

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has led HISD’s 280 schools since the spring of 2018, weathering natural disasters, a potential state takeover and the pandemic during that time.

Houston Independent School District Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan at the opening of the 2019-2020 school year.

The Houston Independent School District will restart its search for a permanent superintendent, declining to offer the job to interim superintendent Grenita Lathan at a Thursday night meeting.

The search had been on hold for more than a year. And while Lathan, the current leader, was invited to apply, a majority of the HISD Board of Education declined to name her the sole finalist for the role she’s held on an interim basis since March 2018.

Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca — one of the votes against appointing Lathan — noted that inequities continue to persist in HISD, citing access to special education services as one example.

“We owe it to our students, our community, our constituents and the taxpayers to do our due diligence," she said. "We must hold ourselves to high standards and do what is right by our students, which is to move forward with a transparent search."

The timing of the search is complicated, however, and some trustees and community members took issue with it.

There’s the global coronavirus pandemic, which has tallied more than 1 million cases in Texas. And there’s pending litigation over the Texas Education Agency’s takeover the state’s largest school district.

That didn’t deter the majority of the board from moving forward with a search.

“As mi abuela used to say, the only thing certain in life is death," Flynn Vilaseca said. "Uncertainty is omnipresent. Let’s not hold out any longer in our quest to permanency through a national search and inviting Dr. Lathan to apply."

The vote against Lathan is the second major one against her leadership. In the fall of 2018, a group of HISD trustees tried to oust her and bring back a former superintendent, a move that triggered a state investigation into board’s governance and violation of open meetings rules.

Elementary school age boy wears a mask and logs onto his online class on a laptop.

HISD resumed face-to-face instruction for families who don’t opt out in October.

Lathan has served as interim superintendent since former leader Richard Carranza abruptly resigned to lead New York City schools in March of 2018.

During her tenure, Lathan’s led the district’s recovery from Harvey, turned around long-struggling schools and now is navigating the pandemic — all parts of her record that her supporters on the school board, at schools and in the community were quick to note during public comments Thursday night.

“This is not just owed, but earned,” said Samyra Rogers, prinicipal of Pleasantville Elementary. “From the start of her appointment as interim, not only has she faced multiple disasters and predicaments, she’s faced them gracefully, always putting forth a positive and professional countenance.”

“There is not another leader that can rally the support, determination and drive of school leaders to push forward with the arduous work that is ahead of us,” Rogers continued, urging consistency and focus.

“This is not a time for beginning an unnecessary search and diverting attention from the very real and precarious situation campuses are in on a daily basis, navigating this virus.”

But pleas for stability during turbulent times lost out to calls for a complete and transparent search process — especially since the move to name Lathan as the sole finalist Thursday caught many by surprise.

“The selection process to appoint a superintendent should be conducted in a way that allows eligible candidates to demonstrate their qualifications,” said Christopher Williams, a teacher in HISD. “If Dr. Lathan is shown to be the most qualified applicant, she should be offered the position, but the process should be respected.”

HISD board votes on whether to name Lathan as the sole finalist for permanent superintendent at its Nov. 12, 2020 meeting.

The twin votes against Lathan and in support of a national search fell largely along racial lines, with the three Black trustees on the board supporting Lathan.

Board Member Kathy Blueford-Daniels said Lathan, who would have been the first Black woman to lead HISD as superintendent, earned the position over more than two years.

“Let’s do the right thing. Not because she’s Black,” Blueford-Daniels said. "But because she’s qualified. She’s still carrying the ball. Nobody said anything different from March until right now, or as questions arose about consideration to remove the interim (title). So let’s just do the right thing, and actually credit a person or give them due respect for still carrying the water, still being the captain of the ship in this COVID crisis.”

Outgoing Board Member Wanda Adams, who’s resigning to take her seat as a new Justice of the Peace in Harris County, said the negativity around HISD is due to the board’s behavior, not Lathan’s leadership.

“Everything that y’all said you’re looking for, Dr. Lathan has done it," Adams said. "I don’t know what else that you’re looking for."

The previous search for a permament superintendent was put on hold in 2019, thanks to the state’s conservator, who’s overseeing HISD because of chronic low-performance at some campuses.

HISD Board President Sue Deigaard said she hopes the new search will be “data driven,” looking at metrics like kindergarten readiness. But it’s not clear what the timeline, or cost, will be.

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