The Other Story of Five Houston ISD Trustees That Conspired to Secretly Hire a Superintendent

Listen to this…

"The more you listen to the five Houston School Board members who bypassed an open selection process to fill the superintendent’s post, the more you realize they fell into a common trap.

Yes, like far too many in positions of power, they convinced themselves that they’re different—that oversight and review, an open process, is only necessary for the bad guys. 

They convinced themselves they’re good people out to do only good so skipping the usual steps wouldn’t hurt anyone. “

And this…

“There has to be a recognition that what the trustees did ... [is] combining to do significant damage. A fight that has nothing to do with educating children is distracting from that task. And it is creating an unnecessary and harmful schism between the black and Hispanic communities."

These two quotes about the Houston ISD School Board were written in January and April of…

…wait for it…


But it's 2019 and these quotes seem eerily applicable to our current school board. 

After reading the salacious details of the Texas Education Agency’s special investigative report (the 2019 one), I can understand someone coming to the conclusion that a state takeover is the only acceptable response. 

But after spending the last three years screaming that the state was coming for HISD no matter what it did about “student achievement,” the district is now actually on the brink of state takeover, and it’s distressing to watch as the board’s own inept and ego-driven actions are used as the state’s public relations cover story to get swaths of Houston to accept the state’s accountability takeover as 1) fait accompli and, sadly, 2) a good thing.

Yet, as I watch, I’m also left feeling that this public response of shock and outrage—particularly from the leaders of the institutions in our city like the Houston Chronicle and Greater Houston Partnership—toward this school board is mostly because we (white people) have selective amnesia about the history of this school board, or worse, are ignorant of it.

The above quotes, written thirty years ago in the Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle, were about the controversial hiring process of Dr. Rod Paige as superintendent. The similarities between the circumstances leading up to the hiring of Dr. Paige then and the attempt to hire Dr. Abelardo Saavedra last October are breathtaking; however, the fallout from each is shaping up to be very different.  And we must ask ourselves the important question: Why?

First, some context. 

In January 1994, the school board was structured the same as it is today, with nine trustees elected from single-member districts. The difference was that white trustees were unequivocally in power, with four seats. There were two Latin(x) trustees and three Black trustees including Dr. Paige. The board had just elected Ron Franklin, one of the white trustees, as president. They had been working hard to implement their new, disruptive philosophy of running the school district like a business and had many more milestones to achieve before they felt they were successful. Frank Petruzielo, the superintendent that they had hired three years prior as the champion of these policies, had recently announced his departure, and they wanted someone who would be committed to what we now call education reform. 

Even the outgoing Frank Petruzielo was not chosen without controversy. In his book Fighting to Save our Urban Schools...and Winning!, former Trustee Don McAdams discusses how, in 1991, the four white trustees negotiated secretly with the two Latin(x) trustees to hire Petruzielo and completely shut out the three Black trustees in the process. It was a much different process than would be used in 1994, but nevertheless, the Black community was completely shut out. 

Fast forward to 1994. On January 20th, after meeting in closed session for two hours, the school board voted 5-3 to ask Dr. Rod Paige to resign his board seat and take the job of superintendent, which would also make him the first Black superintendent in the history of Houston ISD, with no real notice to the public and certainly no public discussion. 

The Houston Chronicle’s education reporter characterized the action as a “surprise move” (Surprise move on superintendent/Trustee Paige asked to take the job) By the time the decision was made public, the decision had already been made. The Latin(x) community was certainly caught off guard, and two of the three votes against the move were cast by the Latin(x) board members. In an opposite move from 1991, the white trustees collaborated with the Black board members to hire Dr. Paige. 

The reaction was swift and intense. By January 24th, four days after the vote, leaders of the Latin(x) community had rallied over 200 people to show up to a meeting at a local restaurant where they participated in “highly charged discussion” with five trustees, complete with “intermittent hisses and boos” from the audience (Hispanics seek new superintendent search). The group began to organize; the Chronicle described how “committees were formed, checks were written, and volunteer lists were made.” 

Six days after the vote, Dr. Guadalupe San Miguel composed a blistering editorial published in the Chronicle:

“Notwithstanding the impeccable credentials of Dr. Rod Paige, the person tapped to replace the departing Petruzielo, the board members took this action at the expense of justice and democracy. This board made one of the most important policy decisions of the year in a seemingly secretive manner and away from the eyes of the public.

There was no public scrutiny or input on such an important public decision.

This is an act of exclusion that is unjust and discriminatory on its face. It should vigorously be fought by all those who believe in fairness and justice. We should not expect such virtues from the major teacher, education and business groups since they, for the most part, support this closed process and hope to benefit from it in the near future." (An act of exclusion)

And the trustees who orchestrated the vote began to voice very similar defenses to the ones we hear today from our trustees: 

“Trustee Cathy Mincberg said that before the meeting she had discussed the idea individually with trustees Arthur Gaines, Don McAdams and Ron Franklin. But a quorum of board members never met to consider the matter, she said.

"We talk about things amongst each other, one on one, maybe one on two, all the time, constantly," Mincberg said. "Conversations are not violations of open meetings." (Trustees: Power to hire Paige revealed at meeting)

It would later be revealed that a group of four trustees (Paige, McAdams, Franklin and Mincberg) met to discuss Dr. Paige’s potential employment as superintendent at a hotel 10 days before the surprise vote was taken (Another look at Paige controversy).

The Latin(x) community turned first to the federal government and met with the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education. His response had to be disappointing to the community leaders: The Houston Chronicle quoted him as saying  "It's very much a local matter," and he declined to intervene. (Trustees: Power to hire Paige revealed at meeting

The Latin(x) community also began researching the feasibility of a lawsuit. Their concerns were violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, violations of a state law that prohibits school board trustees from seeking employment from the district in which they are elected, and Dr. Paige’s lack of an appropriate superintendent credential. 

By this time, many leaders in the Black community had also publicly rallied around Dr. Paige. The Reverend J.J. Roberson, president of the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Vicinity spoke several times to the press. He told reporters that "it's our time now" to have a superintendent (Blacks split over furor concerning Paige). Later, Reverend Bill Lawson would go on to call the opposition to Dr. Paige "like a lynching because it does look like there is some kind of concerted attempt to get him out at all costs" (Holmes sees no wrongdoing by HISD panel/DA at issue with accusations by state over hiring of Paige).

On February 4th, despite the continued protests from the Latin(x) community, the school board formalized its offer of employment to Dr. Paige, and he began working as superintendent. A few days later, the Hispanic Education Committee filed a formal complaint with the Texas Education Agency alleging school board members had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and other state laws, which triggered a special investigation by the agency. They also filed a lawsuit which was ultimately heard in Federal District court. 

About six weeks later, the Texas Education Agency issued a report detailing their findings, including the conclusion that Dr. Paige violated state law when he accepted the job of Houston superintendent before resigning from the school board and that school board trustees may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by discussing Dr. Paige's appointment over the phone and in private meetings before they voted to hire him. The commissioner also recommended that the board immediately develop an "open and appropriate" search process to select a superintendent, beginning July 1, 1995 and assigned a TEA official to oversee the implementation of these recommendations. Furthermore, the commissioner also turned over the findings of the report to the Harris County District Attorney for prosecution (State charges HISD's chief violated law/Paige accepted job before resigning board, TEA says).

According to the Chronicle, school board president Ron Franklin “reacted angrily” to the findings:

"Mr. Meno, who is an appointed official in Austin, wants to dictate the process and tell us who this board can and cannot hire as superintendent of schools in the nation's fifth-largest school district," Franklin said. "I think that's wrong." (State charges HISD's chief violated law/Paige accepted job before resigning board, TEA says)

And he quipped to the Houston Post:

“This is supposedly a commissioner of education who presents he’s about local control yet wants to send the Austin bureaucracy to Houston to tell us not only how to select a superintendent should be selected but who it should be. Unlike Mr. Meno we...have to respond to our constituency.” (HISD President, Hispanic foe react)

While the results of the investigation seemed to be a turning point, they actually turned out to be inconsequential. A day after receiving the investigative report from the TEA, Harris County District Attorney John B. Holmes announced he would decline to take any action against trustees. He was “not convinced of wrongdoing, since TEA investigators admitted that the trustees met privately without a quorum” (Holmes sees no wrongdoing by HISD panel/DA at issue with accusations by state over hiring of Paige). 

Within a week, the TEA had also backed out of any further involvement in HISD, despite wording in the conclusion of their report that said otherwise, under apparent pressure from Governor Ann Richards’ office (State won’t intervene in Paige dispute/Richards apparently urges TEA to quit HISD pressure).

After these defeats, the only recourse that remained for the Hispanic Education Committee was their lawsuit. In December 1994, Judge Lynn Hughes ordered the case dismissed without a trial. 

“The informal discussions among members of the board of trustees reveal no systematic attempt to circumvent the public's interest in voicing opinions about a new superintendent, nor do they reveal a conspiracy to appoint Paige without properly obtaining approval by the entire board in public.” (Hispanic Educ Comm v. Houston Ind Sch Dist. Hispanic Educ. Com. v. Houston Ind. Sch. Dist., 886 F. Supp. 606 (S.D. Tex. 1995))

I wonder if Judge Hughes ever read Don McAdams’ book, Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools...and Winning! Lessons from Houston, published in 2000, in which former Trustee McAdams spends time describing his thoughts on a traditional, open search process:

“We would have to appoint an interim superintendent, select a search firm, and then wait up to six months for the politically correct short list of finalists. Then the ethnic politics, which would have been going on from day one, would break into the open.” (p 105)

McAdams goes on to describe how he spoke with fellow Trustees Paige, Mincberg, Franklin, and Gaines individually about nominating Dr. Paige before the January meeting (p 106). He describes how he was concerned about whether “it would look like the board was trying to put one of its own in the superintendent’s chair so it could directly manage the district” and cites concerns about the response of the Hispanic activists (p 106). He stated “a huge public controversy was almost certain if word got out that several trustees wanted to elect Paige superintendent. The less said, the better” (p 107).

Systematic attempt to circumvent the public’s interest: yes or no?

Back to Judge Hughes’ opinion: 

“There are no manageable standards by which to judge informal discussions among trustees. Limiting board members' ability to discuss school district issues with one another outside of formal meetings would seriously impede the board's ability to function. It is for exactly this reason that notice requirements apply only to meetings involving at least a quorum of members. Texas law mandates simultaneous public access to actions taken when a quorum is present. With fewer than a quorum present, nothing can be formally decided; without a formal decision, no act is taken. Without action, there is no illegality.”

The case was dismissed in December 1994. The Hispanic Education Committee decided to appeal. That appeal failed in 1995, and there was no further recourse.

Trustees McAdams, Mincberg, Galloway, Franklin and Gaines, faced no political consequences for their actions; in fact, Trustees McAdams, Galloway and Gaines were all re-elected to the school board, while Mincberg and Franklin went on to resign their seats on their own terms. 

Dr. Paige continued as superintendent and went on to change education politics not only at the local level, but at the state and national level as well. Named as President George W. Bush’s education secretary, Paige was the architect and first enforcer of No Child Left Behind and the modern high-stakes testing era. 

What would have happened if the court had sided with the Hispanic Education Committee? How would Houston and the country be different today? 

I want to be clear. I do not condone our current school board’s behavior. I think it has been a disgrace and an offense to us--the citizens, voters, parents and students. 

As someone who advocates for transparency and wants parents to understand more about how decisions are made in this district, reading the report of this year’s TEA investigation were shocking. 

On a personal note, as someone who gave her heart and soul to ensure Trustee Elizabeth Santos won the seat representing District I, I was horrified to read how she apparently conspired with fellow trustees to hide deliberations about replacing Dr. Grenita Lathan. A central tenet of Trustee Santos’ campaign was transparency, and she broke her promise to her voters. 

I do not condone this board’s behavior and find it offensive on several levels. 

I feel strongly that these concerns about Texas Open Meetings Act violations should be investigated beyond the TEA and litigated or prosecuted by any authorities with jurisdiction. HISD’s board has violated open meetings laws and HISD’s administration has challenged open records rules forever, and the lawyers that represent them count on never being challenged by anyone with the means to hold either of them accountable.

However, one must ask the question: if a white-led board can do it and get away with it, why are we so angry (to the point of demanding our own voter disenfranchisement via state takeover) when it’s a board led by Latin(x) women which does the same thing? 

Are they not playing by the very rulebook they were given by the white men that came before them?

As for me, I believe it wasn’t okay in 1994 and it still isn’t okay today, but we have to go beyond what these board members did and think about our own participation in a broken system.

For years, white people kept control of this school board even when they were no longer the majority by swinging their support between the Black and Latin(x) communities. In 2016 that dynamic began shifting, and in 2018 it changed for good when white people were no longer in control. Now, the white-dominated Texas legislature seems intent on clawing back that power.

History shows us that white people have used their power and influence to maintain control of HISD in the decades after desegregation and that this disproportionate influence continues today as the state stands ready to replace our entire elected board.

No matter how you judge this board’s recent behaviorjustified or notwe all must decide whether we’re comfortable being a part of a hostile takeover of our local school board fueled by white supremacy.

During the Paige hiring controversy, the education reporter at the Houston Post noted:

 “The TEA’s far-reaching authority includes the ability to withhold state funds; grant and rescind teaching and administrative certificates; grant and rescind accredited status; and waive state board of education policies.”

It seems almost quaint to call those powers “far-reaching” as the legislature has expanded the powers of the Texas Education Agency Commissioner exponentially in the last few sessions and has granted him the power to take over entire elected school boards--something that was clearly unthinkable back then. 

As this piece is littered with quotes from 1994, it seems appropriate to close with one also. This, from former Houston Chronicle columnist Lori Rodriguez’s editorial on April 2, 1994:

“This may be a mess, but it is our mess, and especially when the state is pushing for more local control of education, TEA should stay out of our business. It is not as if it managed its own business all that well.”

I couldn’t agree more, Lori.  I couldn’t agree more.


Substantial digital, court record and library special collection research for this post was contributed by Karina Quesada-León.