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Lathan wrongly expelled

October 12, 2018

States taking over local school boards have a poor record of success. Either the schools stay mired in mediocrity or make minimal progress. Despite that prognosis, the utter failure of the Houston Independent School District trustees to set aside political interests to choose a new superintendent has added fire to the notion that only a state takeover will save the city’s schoolchildren from the adults who are supposed to be their role models.

Houston has been without a superintendent since Richard Carranza jumped ship in March to head New York City’s public school system. Chief academic officer Grenita Lathan was elevated to serve as interim superintendent, but from the beginning politics swirling around the position made it too murky to predict her future. The picture cleared up Thursday night when Lathan was unexpectedly demoted in something of a coup that exposed the ugly underbelly of identity politics.

The trustees decided in September to contract an agency to conduct a national search for a new superintendent. They were expected to vote Thursday night on extending Lathan’s interim contract for a year while the search was ongoing. Instead, trustee Diana Davila abruptly made a motion to replace Lathan as interim superintendent with Abelardo Saavedra, who served as superintendent between 2005 and 2009. The motion passed 5-4.

Trustee Wanda Adams said the hiring of Saavedra, a Latino, was all about racial politics. “This is disrespectful,” Adams said. “I did not know about this at all. Some of my other colleagues did not know about it. Some knew about it — (Sergio) Lira knew about it, Holly (Flynn Vilaseca) knew about it and (Elizabeth) Santos knew about it. It goes back to my original statement about racism on this board.”

Saavedra announced in June that he planned to retire as superintendent of the South San Antonio ISD in 2019. His sudden resignation from that job last week certainly suggests an orchestration of events in which some HISD trustees may have played a role. Adams said the personnel matter involving Lathan should have been discussed in a closed session before bringing it up for a vote before the public.

The handling of Lathan’s demotion was an undeserved slap in the face of someone who had done a credible job of keeping Houston schools afloat after Carranza abandoned them for the bright lights of New York City. Lathan’s hard work paid off this summer when six chronically deficient schools — Worthing High School, Woodson PK-8, and Blackshear, Dogan, Mading and Wesley Elementary Schools — met standards to avoid a Texas Education Agency takeover.

The bigger slap in the face, however, was to the schoolchildren and parents who are tired of waiting for the HISD trustees to commit to a superintendent who has the knowledge, experience, energy and attitude needed to improve every Houston public school. It’s clear some trustees didn’t think Lathan was that person. Others question how Saavedra got into the picture. He was a competent leader in Houston, politically adept, mild-mannered and relatively well-liked. But his sudden role adds flux to an organization that needs stability.

None of the drama interfere with the task at hand. If the trustees can’t get their collective act together, they should be expelled. A state takeover isn’t a great option, but that’s the direction HISD’s trustees are driving their bus.

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