Houston ISD School Board Should Make New Superintendent Contract Public

Our school board is meeting today and again tomorrow in an accelerated effort to hire a new superintendent.

There are many things we cannot know about a new superintendent.

Our school board trustees have spent countless hours surveying their constituents to understand what kind of superintendent they should hire. Our trustees will spend a great deal of time interviewing candidates to determine which person will most likely fit that desired profile. But no matter how many public input sessions are held, no matter how many reference calls are made and no matter how many interviews are attended, no trustee and no voter can know for sure how a new person will perform when they become superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, a one-of-a-kind organization that is the largest school district in the State of Texas.

There is much we cannot predict about an incoming superintendent.

But no matter who is ultimately selected, there is one thing trustees can absolutely guarantee when they hire a new superintendent: 

They can guarantee how that person will be paid.

  • What will that person’s base salary be? Dr. Terry Grier’s base salary was $300,000. (see Grier’s 2009 contract)
  • What fringe benefits will that person be given?  Dr. Terry Grier received among other items: $1,200/month for a car$400/month for a phone30 days a year of vacation (which could be traded in for more pay), 5 personal days and 30 sick days a year (which could be traded in for more pay)
  • What bonuses will she or he be paid and on what criteria will he or she be judged? Dr. Terry Grier received received up to $80,000 more each yearbased on his performance judged by trustees rating him on a scale of 1 to 3 for which a rating of 2 or 3 would be high enough to receive the bonuses.

We can expect that the high pay levels associated with HISD superintendents and the goals and objectives tied to that pay will be directly related to the priorities, activities and decisions the new superintendent will set. No one is against high pay for high qualifications and high responsibilities, but we need a contract that will align the next head of the largest school district in Texas with the values of openness, respect, community and children-first. Anchoring a large part of the superintendent’s compensation to shallow goals and showering the superintendent with perks that drive up the cost of firing her or him is not what this district needs, and it is not the standard we should set for the State of Texas.

The day the school board votes to approve and the board president signs the new superintendent’s contract, all of these things will be known. This makes the superintendent’s contract more important and more predictive than any “leader profile” or past experiences at other school districts.

Traditionally, this contract is private until after it is signed.

But the public deserves more transparency. I have written before about the potential conflict of interest between the lawyers advising trustees on superintendent contracts and how those same lawyers can benefit from millions of dollars in business controlled by that same superintendent. The students, the parents, the teachers, the career educators, the taxpayers and all the stakeholders in our public education system deserve more transparency on what might be the most important decision this board makes for years to come.

If there is any legal right or tradition that offers privacy to a candidate on a contract such as this, that prospective superintendent should waive that right. Doing so would be a sign of openness and trust and a great first step at leading Houston ISD into a new season of transparency and community-based decision making.

I hope the Houston ISD School Board will make the next superintendent’s contract, once negotiated, available to the public for a minimum of two weeks and that it schedules a special session of the Board of Education to hear citizen testimony before trustees take a final vote of approval on this most important decision.

I have started a petition that dozens have already signed, and I hope the Houston ISD Board of Education will show leadership and new direction by listening.