in Houston, Texas
Houston ISD trustees sit out controversial votes rather than vote against colleagues
Tuesday, Feb 21, 2012, 08:22AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Man who wasn't there

Many Houston school-system residents have expressed frustration that three board members abstained from the vote earlier this month that extended Superintendent Terry Grier’s contract through June 1, 2014.

But abstentions, or simply avoiding one’s seat during a Houston Independent School District board vote, are a tactic commonly used by HISD trustees.

Rather than be on record as opposing an issue, board members sometimes register an abstention during a vote or ensure they leave no record of their position by being absent when a vote takes place.

Yet parents, former HISD trustees and national experts say board members should abstain only when a valid reason exists, such as a conflict of interest or a lack of information to make an informed decision.

“We elected board members to represent us,” said Nellie Naidoo, 41, a mother of two HISD children who lives in Trustee Harvin Moore’s district and a member of the group Parent Visionaries. Moore voted for Grier’s extension.

“They knew what they were getting into when they took the position,” Naidoo said. “There should be no wavering. It’s either yes or no. We’re looking upon them to make the right decision for us.”

Board President Mike Lunceford said at the board meeting earlier this month that he couldn’t support Grier’s extension because it would continue beyond his own term, which ends next year. Lunceford chose to abstain rather than vote against the superintendent’s extension.

“My goal this year is not to have the board degrade into brash public arguments but to resolve our conflicting viewpoints in a positive way,” Lunceford said. “My opinion is it is up to the individual trustee to vote the way they want. But, again, once the vote is taken, the issue is over. Now, over time positions can change and then, at that point, there needs to be a reevaluation of those issues.”

But Gene Maeroff, who is the author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy
and founder of the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York, said the most important role of a school board is to select the superintendent.

“Nothing ranks above that,” said Maeroff, who also is the school board president of Edison Township public schools in New Jersey. “If a board member abstains from that vote, that is very, very questionable behavior. That person has an obligation to put on record where he or she stands.”

Moore said that he felt there are several valid reasons for a board member to abstain, one being that’s it’s too soon to vote on a particular issue.

That was essentially the reason given by some of my colleagues, and I respect that,” Moore said. “We all feel that both the superintendent and the board must improve on some very important areas. Some of us believed that commitment is enough to vote, while others felt they wanted to wait longer. Abstentions are not no votes, and they shouldn’t be construed that way in this instance either.”

Trustee Anna Eastman, the only board member to vote against the contract extension, said it is the responsibility of elected officials to explain the reasoning behind their votes.

“Our votes may convey a variety of different messages and its incumbent upon us to communicate what those votes mean,” Eastman said.

Donald McAdams, chairman and founder of Houston’s nonprofit Center for Reform School Systems, agreed.

“We urge trustees not to abstain,” said McAdams, who was an HISD trustee from 1990 to 2002. “And if they do, to be very clear why they’re abstaining. We say the same thing when a board member votes no. When you’re at the table, explain why you’re voting no. But then after that, say nothing else.”

That’s because school boards must move on after votes, no matter how contentious the disagreement leading up to it, McAdams said.

The primary reason is that unlike other elected bodies, a school board is legally considered one thing, a singularity, “a body corporate,” said McAdams, 70, who raised two children who attended HISD schools.

That means a school board functions as all three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. It leads and makes decisions. It sets and votes on policies. And it hears appeals.

Even if the decision is a 5-4 vote, that decision is final and individual trustees should abide by it, McAdams said.

“Otherwise, you’re undermining the board if you’re campaigning against (a decision) after it was taken,” McAdams said. “When you’re on the school board, you’re responsible for the functioning of that organization. It has to flourish and thrive. You’re a trustee. You represent the owners, namely, the voters.”

By contrast, a member of Congress who is on the losing side of a vote must continue politicking to be reelected in the next election. And other public entities also have many types of representatives, be they presidents, senators or judges.

“But on the school board, you are the only representative,” McAdams said.

Also, McAdams added, continuing opposition to a decided vote impedes the superintendent from doing his or her job, specifically because the superintendent answers only to the board.

Aside from a conflict of interest, only a lack of information on the issue at hand is a legitimate reason to abstain, said Maeroff, McAdams and some HISD board members who voted for Grier’s contract extension.

“Rhonda (Skillern-Jones) was within her rights to abstain because she did not have sufficient information to make an informed vote,” said Trustee Manuel Rodriguez.

Skillern-Jones and Juliet Stipeche are the other board members who abstained from last week’s vote. The meeting was Skillern-Jones’ first. She was elected to her inaugural term on the board in November.

Skillern-Jones publicly stated that she could not cast an informed vote on Grier’s contract extension because HISD staff did not provide her with data she had requested on the superintendent’s performance.

Stipeche said that, “an abstention is a way to demonstrate that a trustee is not fully on board with the action, but is not prepared to vote no. But the trustee is still willing to work with his or her board colleagues on other issues in the future.”

Rodriguez continued that “abstentions should not be used, in my humble opinion, if you’re not in agreement with the action. If you’re opposed to it, then vote no.”

But Rodriguez employed the tactic of not being seated during a vote, despite being present at the board meeting, at least three times last year.

He left his seat during a vote on a standardized-bell schedule for HISD at the June 9 board meeting. Former Trustee Carol Mims-Galloway did the same thing during that meeting. Galloway retired at the end of her term last year. Skillern-Jones was elected to replace her.

And during the May 12 board meeting, Rodriguez left his seat twice. Once, during the vote to consolidate Stevenson elementary school into Memorial and Love elementary schools. And once, during the vote to consolidate Grimes, Rhoads and Carter elementary schools into Carter Woodson PK-8 school.

Of those absences, Rodriguez said, “They were not intentional.” He or another board member might have gotten a phone call he or she had to take, or they might have needed to go to the restroom. “I don’t see that as something done purposefully,” Rodriguez said.

Grier became the Houston Independent School District superintendent on Sept. 11, 2009, after leading the San Diego public schools. He succeeded Abelardo Saavedra.

He is the highest-paid HISD employee, earning a $300,000 annual salary. HISD is the seventh-largest school district in the nation. It has a roughly $1.6 billion budget and educates about 203,000 students.

Grier earned an extra $69,000 last month due to performance bonuses built into his contract.

This story was last updated shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday to add that Naidoo is a member of the group Parent Visionaries. 

***

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

Photo: (The lower half of) the poster for the 2001 Coen Brothers film The Man Who Wasn't There, including the lower half of the face of star Billy Bob Thornton. 

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