HISD could pick new superintendent this week

When Houston ISD trustees meet in closed session on Thursday, they will have a major — and unexpected — item on their agenda: whether to appoint Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan as the district’s permanent leader.

It was a surprising addition to the board’s agenda, one that caught several trustees off-guard this week. Board members had given no public indication they immediately wanted to name a permanent replacement for Richard Carranza, who left to become chancellor of New York City public schools in March. Some trustees were not expecting any movement on a superintendent search until August, when HISD learns whether it will receive major state sanctions due to chronically underperforming campuses.

As a result, it was not immediately clear Tuesday whether trustees seriously are considering the immediate promotion of Lathan, or if they are planning preliminary backroom discussions about retaining her. HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who sets the meeting agenda, declined to comment on the item Tuesday, other than to note trustees must disclose topics for consideration before meetings.

In interviews Tuesday, four trustees said they did not know why Lathan’s permanent appointment was on the agenda.

The lack of clarity sets the stage for a closely-watched board meeting this week, as HISD continues to navigate the fallout from Carranza’s departure and the looming possibility of losing local control over its school board.

By placing the item on Thursday’s agenda, trustees could discuss Lathan’s appointment behind closed doors, return to open session and vote to retain her permanently. The agenda item reads as follows: “Consider and approve appointment of Interim Superintendent of Schools as Superintendent of Schools, and proposed contract terms.” State law generally requires school boards to name a lone finalist for superintendent, then wait 21 days before voting to finalize the selection.

Several trustees, however, expressed reservations Tuesday about moving so swiftly. They noted HISD has been criticized for a lack of transparency in recent months, particularly after a raucous school board meeting in April ended with the room cleared and two people arrested.

“In order to rebuild public trust and transparency, we do need to involve the public,” HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said. “Our constituents and employees deserve that.”

Following Carranza’s abrupt departure from HISD, trustees chose Lathan, the district’s chief academic officer, to fill the superintendent position indefinitely. Since her appointment, Lathan has engendered vocal support from many HISD principals and a couple trustees, while also drawing criticism for recommending HISD surrender control over 10 low-performing schools to a charter school network with several academic and financial red flags. The move would have delayed state sanctions — either a state takeover of HISD’s locally elected school board or the forced closure of long-struggling campuses — for at least a year.

Trustees have not established a process for identifying a permanent superintendent or shown significant urgency for finding Carranza’s replacement during the past three months. Under typical circumstances, trustees likely would have started a national search.

However, the threat of state sanctions — namely, the possible board takeover — has significantly complicated HISD’s plans.

The district likely will know in August whether four chronically underperforming campuses will meet state standards this year, staving off potential penalties. If any one of the four falls short, the Texas Education Agency could replace HISD’s school board with nine new trustees, who could choose their own superintendent. That uncertainty makes it unlikely an outside candidate would agree to become HISD’s permanent superintendent before August.

HISD Trustee Sergio Lira, who called the agenda item about Lathan “kind of surprising,” said he expected a superintendent search to gain steam later in the summer.

“That was my feeling and understanding, that we were just going to wait until August, once everything settles with the TEA,” Lira said.

Trustee Sue Deigaard said she did not know why the Lathan item was placed on Thursday’s agenda, but she is willing to hear out trustees who advocate for retaining Lathan permanently.

“I’m not going to make a decision on whether or not I think this is a good idea until I really understand better the intention behind this and the interests of my colleagues,” Deigaard said.

Trustee Anne Sung echoed calls for more public discussion before moving to appoint Lathan.

“Unless I’m given a very strong reason otherwise, I think part of our responsibility is to do a national search,” Sung said.