in Houston, Texas
Houston ISD school board candidates sound off on testing, choice and teacher evaluations
Wednesday, Sep 28, 2011, 09:46AM CST
By Mike Cronin

Candidates for Houston school board seats offered opinions on issues including teacher accountability, student standardized testing and school choice last night during a forum at Lamar High School.

Emcee Bob Sanborn even tried to coax the board hopefuls to reveal whether they’d vote to keep Terry Grier as the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.

But Manuel Rodriguez, incumbent trustee of HISD District III, quashed that discussion immediately – at least for current board members.

“That’s an unfair question for a sitting board member,” Rodriguez said. “It wouldn’t be ethical to disclose that,” particularly when the board still must conduct a formal review of the superintendent’s performance.

Undeterred, Sanborn then asked the candidates for a show of hands for who liked the district’s direction under Grier.

Of the six on the panel, only Rodriguez and incumbent board President Paula Harris raised theirs. Though Dorothy Olmos, who arrived later and is challenging incumbent Juliet Stipeche in HISD District VIII, expressed strong support for Grier during another forum last week.

“There are some challenges with Dr. Grier, but overall as a whole I have to look at data,” Harris said, adding that the board’s job-performance evaluation of the two-year superintendent will be transparent.

“There have been turnover issues, personality issues, sure,” said Harris, who represents HISD District IV. “But we’re going to have a closed session and evaluation, and make some tough decisions on Dr. Grier.”

The election is Nov. 8. Early voting starts Oct. 24.

Ramiro Fonseca, who is challenging Rodriguez for the HISD District III seat, said the board’s evaluation should be similar to those evaluations the district uses for teachers and principals.

“We have to evaluate the superintendent based on the data and outcomes,” Fonseca said. “He would be held accountable just like teachers and principals.”

Stipeche drew applause later in the evening when she described how school board members should be evaluated by their constituents on the jobs they’re doing.

“Is this person asking different questions? Is this person wrestling with decisions? Is this person involved in the community and on school campuses? Can this person look at a budget?” Stipeche asked. “And can this person stand up to the superintendent and speak out?”

A panel of local K-12 education experts and audience members asked the candidates questions during the two-hour forum.

But several, such as Sanborn, who is president and CEO of the Houston nonprofit organization Children at Risk, lamented the poor turnout: Perhaps a maximum of HISD 150 residents showed up.

Davetta Daniels, Harris’ challenger for the District IV seat, has declared she would be a champion for teachers. She opposes the current form of the planned introduction of teacher evaluations based on how their students perform.

“What I’m hearing from teachers is that it’s not explained well; they don’t know what’s expected from them; those from the (HISD) central office aren’t competent enough to explain it – yet they’re supposed to perform,” Daniels said. “The superintendent gets all kinds of chances. But the teachers get no chances.”

Daniels was the only candidate to say she would vote to fire Grier during a forum last week.

Harris reminded the audience that teachers would not be evaluated under the new system this year.

“Because it’s new and it’s being developed,” Harris said. “So, we have a year with a bye so teachers, faculty and all of us can better understand how it works.”

Mary Beckner, a mother of two HISD students who lives in Harris’ district, praised Daniels for pointing out that she would be another educator on the board – Trustee Larry Marshall is the other.

“That really resonated with me, and I think it will with the voting community, too,” said Beckner, a local attorney.

Beckner also cheered Daniels for “bringing up integrity on her own.” During her opening remarks, Daniels said, “I want to be the trustee that puts the ‘trust’ back into trustee.”

Texas Watchdog has reported on ethically questionable actions taken by HISD board members and district officials – and the actions board members and HISD officials have taken to rectify those actions.

One attendee, Mary Nesbitt, who is president of the grassroots group Parent Visionaries, criticized the forum for the absence of any conversation about ethics.

“I was disappointed by the lack of discussion about the elephant in the room - cronyism, preferential treatment for vendors, noncompetitive bids, highly questionable ethics practices which  benefits friends with little or no expertise or transparency,” said Nesbitt, who said she represents the 700 Parent Visionaries members as well as interested parents in the greater Houston area who choose to educate their children outside Houston ISD.

Nesbitt chose to enroll her two daughters in a private school this year due to objections to HISD’s leadership and direction.

“Parent Visionaries would like to see the board of trustees adopt Schlumberger's ethics policy for all trustees,” Nesbitt said. “After all, Schlumberger is known for living by the highest ethical standards, and given that the board president works at Schlumberger, this should be an easy and immediate solution to help restore confidence. “

Harris is director of community affairs for Schlumberger, the oilfield services company.

Rhonda Skillern Jones, who is slated to become the trustee representing HISD District II, drew loud and sustained applause for response to a question on how students should most efficiently spend their time.

“We have to examine how much time kids are spending on standardized tests – and testing just for the sake of testing. The first thing we have to do is eliminate that,” said Skillern Jones, who is running unopposed for the seat that Trustee Carol Mims Galloway is vacating.

In a show of hands, all candidates demonstrated they support HISD’s current policy of allowing parents and students to choose their schools, regardless of their district address.

Daniels, a former teacher and principal, said school choice encourages healthy competition.

Harris said school choice is what HISD has been built on, and all involved should continue to look for ways to forge partnerships that enable parents to understand the choices they have for their children.

“We have to work with (charter schools) to make sure all schools have no negative connotations based on history,” Harris said. “That way parents will be well-informed on their choices.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated at 12:15 p.m. to describe Nesbitt's role in Parent Visionaries.

Contact Mike Cronin at or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of polling place sign by flickr user Steve Rhodes, used via a Creative Commons license.

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