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Has Houston ISD hit rock bottom? [Opinion]

October 18, 2018 GMT

Sometimes people have to hit bottom before they can start to turn their lives around. Yet, just when it looked like the Houston Independent School District trustees had finally sprawled out on the floor and were ready to get back up, they somehow found a way to stumble into the basement.

We’re speaking, of course, about the dizzying administrative flip-flop in which the board hit interim Superintendent Grenitha Lathan with a surprise demotion, announced former Superintendent Abelardo Saavdra as her successor, and then reversed course and reinstated Lathan. We can only hope there is no further subterranean cavern for the nine-member board to ignobly spelunk.

Students, parents, teachers and voters all deserve to know how the board ended up making such a brazenly inappropriate decision. What specifically needs to be investigated is whether five trustees devised this scheme outside the legal mandates of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

So far, instead of personal accountability we have disclaimers. Trustee Diana Davila issued her non-confession via Twitter: “I’ve participated in this dysfunction.”

The trustees took a good first step to recovery on Monday by issuing a public apology for their outrageous behavior

The apology was necessary but insufficient.

Voters deserve to know the details of the bizarre decision-making in which five trustees attempted to bypass public debate and board buy-in.

True accountability means that each participant in this plot owns up to her poor judgment in a forthright way, and not hide behind vague passive language.

True accountability also means real consequences.

The public needs to know who among the nine trustees was the ringleader of this ill-fated coup. Fingers point to Davila, who both voted for Saavedra as interim and issued the apology for the group. Because the proceedings were largely secret, we can’t be sure about her role. But whoever orchestrated this rash and possibly illegal scheme should step down from the board immediately. A functional board must have trustworthy members capable of collaborating with other trustees.

It’s hard to imagine how the leader of this attempted revolt could ever repair her relationship with her fellow trustees.

Accountability requires more than any individual trustee stepping up to accept personal responsibility. Of the five trustees who voted for his appointment, only Davila, Sergio Lira and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca told Chronicle reporters Zach Despart and Jacob Carpenter that they met with Saavedra beforehand. The other two “yes” voters, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The Texas Open Meetings Act is designed to prevent secret meetings to conduct business that should occur in public. The conversations with Saavedra before the board meeting to appoint him are just the kind of skulduggery that this law is aimed at rooting out.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg needs to act urgently to investigate whether the trustees’ acted illegally. The responsibility for our children’s education lies in the hands of this nine-member board and the public deserves to know who, if anyone, should be called upon to resign.

Consider this whole escapade further evidence that the board must be restructured to create a mix of district and at-large members.

The longer the HISD board remains stuck in the depths of scandal, the harder it will be for the institution to earn back its respectability and public trust. The only way up is through full accountability. Half-measures won’t do.