New details in the state’s special investigation into HISD

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The full preliminary report by state investigators into the Houston school board is now publicly available, after attorneys for the Houston Independent School District included it in a federal court filing, as they try to stop the state from taking any action against the district.

Based on the findings, investigators recommend the state’s Education Commissioner, Mike Morath, downgrade HISD’s accreditation; appoint a conservator and install a board of managers to replace the nine elected board members “due to the HISD Board of Trustees’ demonstrated inability to appropriately govern, inability to operate within the scope of their authority, circumventing the authority of the Superintendent, and inability to ensure proper contract procurement laws are following.”

In the 34-page report, the head of the Texas Education Agency’s special investigations unit, Jason Hewitt, details multiple alleged violations.

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Those include breaking the state’s Open Meetings Act when school board members organized unposted meetings to conduct business in secret. This eventually led to five members — Diana Dávila, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, Sergio Lira, Elizabeth Santos and Anne Sung — abruptly firing the interim superintendent and briefly hiring a former HISD chief.

Hewitt also found that board members exceeded their governance authority, when some of them acted individually on behalf of others, for example with email messages or violating the board’s own policies on governance. 

The investigation also found that some board members, including President Dávila, lied to investigators and allegedly broke procurement rules when the district was selecting vendors. In one instance, Hewitt said that Dávila and her husband met with a district administrator at a seafood restaurant, where the couple pressured them to cancel a custodial contract and award it to their preferred vendor instead.

The Houston school board has until Aug. 15 to submit its official response to the TEA, though state investigators noted in their preliminary report that their findings don’t address all allegations raised and they could be in the process of investigating other issues in HISD.

-Houston Public Media