The racial makeup of the Houston Independent School District’s board took a dramatic shift as the four Hispanic trustees took hold of the top officer positions.
Trustee Diana Dávila recently became the president of the much-maligned governance team. She replaces Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who is Black. Skillern-Jones and the board’s other Black trustees – Wanda Adams and Jolanda Jones – have each explicitly or implicity accused the Hispanic trustees of racially-motivated actions surrounding the district superintendent position. None of the three were nominated to take officer posts after holding top positions each of the past two years. Skillern-Jones and Jones served as president and first vice president, respectively, in 2018. Adams held the presidency in 2017.
Dávila will take responsibility for setting the leadership tone in HISD following months of governance strife that has often cut across ethnic and racial lines. Elected officers do not have more voting power than other trustees, but the board president presides over board meetings and drives the agenda. Dávila said her priorities will include ensuring the district’s longest-struggling schools get resources needed to meet state academic standards, fighting for more education funding and restructuring board meetings to foster greater engagement and transparency.
“I’m looking to be bringing back some of those things we used to do before, making sure that we respect each other as colleagues on the board and respect the administration,” said Dávila, who served as board president in 2006.
Board members voted 7-2 to appoint Dávila as president, with trustees Adams and Jones opposed. Trustees Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca (first vice president), Elizabeth Santos (second vice president), Sergio Lira (secretary) and Sue Deigaard (assistant secretary) rounded out the leadership roles. All except Deigaard worked in HISD as teachers before joining the board.
“We know what it’s like to be on the front lines serving students in HISD,” Flynn Vilaseca said. “I know we all carry that in our hearts, and it’s important we stay student-centered.”
The demographic split comes amid months of tension between the board’s Black and Hispanic trustees, who have disagreed over whether to permanently retain Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan. The board’s four Hispanic members and Trustee Anne Sung have opposed keeping Lathan permanently and secretly maneuvered to oust her in October 2018. They reversed course two days later after their chosen replacement, former HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, backed out.
Adams, Jones and Skillern-Jones all wanted to keep Lathan, who is Black, arguing that she has been instrumental in reducing the district’s number of schools failing to meet state academic standards. The trio criticized the board’s Hispanic trustees for leaving them in the dark about their effort to boot Lathan from her temporary post, with each suggesting the Hispanic board members unfairly prefer a Hispanic superintendent.
Adams said the effort to replace Lathan with Saavedra left her distrustful of Dávila’s leadership. Dávila said she made the first contact with Saavedra, and she voiced the motion to install him as superintendent.
“In light of what has happened on this board, I just think it sends the wrong message,” Adams said.
Lathan, who joined HISD in 2015 as Chief Schools Officer over elementary transformation, has not committed to whether she will seek the position permanently. She became interim superintendent in March 2018 following the departure of Richard Carranza.