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‘We Stole 5 Years from Kids’: A Houston Board Member on Looming State Takeover

Sue Deigaard ran for school board to transform one of the nation’s largest districts. She hopes Texas education officials can finish the job

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Even for a school system that had been racked by dysfunction for a decade, the Houston Independent School District Board of Trustees meeting of April 24, 2018, was a spectacle. The clock was running out on a timeline, set by a state law, requiring district leaders to choose from a menu of strategies to fix a handful of schools that had long failed their communities. If the board did not pick one, the Texas commissioner of education would take over. 

There was an eleventh-hour proposal on that night’s agenda, but no vote took place. Instead, the meeting dissolved into a fracas, as trustees screamed at one another, members of the audience screamed at the board and police wrestled people out of the room. The board adjourned without addressing the looming deadline.

It was the fourth month in office for newly elected trustee Sue Deigaard, a longtime education advocate and the parent of two Houston ISD graduates. Now, almost exactly five years later, as the state appoints a board of managers to take over the sprawling school system, her feelings are … complicated.

The law in question — which Deigaard, like most Texans, refers to by its legislative file number, House Bill 1842 — was the brainchild of a Houston-area lawmaker frustrated by years of district inattention to the impoverished schools in his portion of the city. In 2015, a bipartisan majority voted to require the state to step in and take over when a district has had one or more “F” schools for five years. 

Lawmakers later amended the law to let districts stave off state intervention by closing the schools or giving control of them to a nonprofit partner such as a university, city government or charter school network. 

Because they can provoke vociferous opposition, school closures are among the most difficult decisions an elected board can make. And the prospect of charter school partnerships was anathema to the district’s teachers union. As Deigaard notes in this 74 Interview, the result was that small but impassioned groups of people shouted down every proposal for a local solution.

A few months after the Houston board adjourned without taking any action to head off sanctions, Texas officials announced they were investigating complaints that board members — not including Deigaard — had engaged in irregularities involving contracts and that a majority had violated state law by meeting in secret to work out a plan to replace interim Superintendent Grenita Latham. The results of the investigation also justified a state takeover, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath said.

In 2019, the board sued the agency, claiming it had no authority to install a board of managers. In January 2023, the state Supreme Court lifted an injunction that had stopped Morath from moving forward. Dominated by new members, the Houston board voted to stop pursuing the lawsuit. Many of those who had opposed the changes were quick to claim that the ensuing takeover, which is slated to take place June 1, was a politicized move against a blue-city district by a Republican governor bent on privatization.

Deigaard will stay on after Morath appoints the nine-member board of managers, though she will be stripped of her official powers. State officials have said current board members will be asked to serve as advisers to the appointees. The state will eventually return control to elected board members.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Set the stage for us. You ran for a seat on a school board that had been embroiled in one high-profile controversy after another for years. You must have both a titanium spine and a vision for transformation in Houston ISD.

I wanted to try to take the politics out of it. I wanted to transform what our public education system looks like. We have a system that was created in the middle of the 20th century, in a very different time societally, economically. That system was not designed to be effective and equitable for all kids. It was intentionally designed not to. And all we keep doing is trying to tinker around the edges — in a time where our society and our economy are incredibly different. 

It’s not like I entered the lion’s den having never visited before. I had been going to board meetings. I knew who the players were. I knew we were coming through this tumultuous time. I knew we were still transitioning to a new superintendent. 

Of the nine board members, three of us were new that January. Six weeks after we were sworn in, new superintendent Richard Carranza announced he was leaving to go to New York. In June, we rejected a proposed budget in the hopes that the [district] administration would bring us back something better. They didn’t. We ended up voting to adopt the exact same proposal. We were going to have our own district form of government shutdown, because we wouldn’t be able to pay the bills. 

At that point, it was just chaos. 

House Bill 1842 was looming. Houston ISD leaders knew, starting in the spring of 2015, that we were at risk of sanctions in the fall of 2018. In 2017, the legislature had passed a policy giving districts two options to avoid those sanctions: improve the campus in question or close it. By 2018, we had a third option, and that was to find a partner. 

A lot of districts around the state, like San Antonio, saw the writing on the wall and took action. Dr. Grenita Lathan, our chief academic officer at the time, had a very well thought-out plan how to address our chronically underperforming campuses — not just the ones that were going to trigger sanctions, but the ones that were on the runway coming up to the trigger point. 

There were community meetings to help impacted schools understand what the recommendations were going to be, but they basically got shut down by a small, vocal community of people who didn’t like whatever the recommendation was for a given school. They didn’t want their school consolidated. They didn’t want to close it, didn’t want to partner. So none of it ever happened.

We were eventually presented with a potential partner for the schools that were going to trigger sanctions later that year. We never voted on it. The meeting got out of control. People were arrested. We made The New York Times. And we did nothing. We were the only district in the state, to my knowledge, that did nothing. 

I remember talking, when we first triggered the law in 2019, to somebody who had testified in favor of House Bill 1842 in 2015. He said, “Well, we never imagined that this would happen in HISD.” I said, “Because you thought they’d give us a path out?” And he said, “No, because I thought you guys would do what you needed to do to avoid it.”

We had the opportunity, and we didn’t. We interfered with the leaders that we entrusted to bring us good recommendations. We shut it down.

Do you think the things Lathan proposed would have made a difference?

If the board had supported Grenita despite the noise, and if there were real and meaningful community engagement. Grenita and her team could have worked with these communities: “Hey, we’re going to do a closure, or a restart. What do you want school to look like? What are your hopes and dreams for your children?” I think if the board had stood behind her on that, our story today would be very, very different. Student achievement would have increased. And I don’t think we would be in a position where we’d have a board of managers coming in. 

When the board decided not to endorse the plan that the interim superintendent brought forward, was there an alternate plan? 

You’re presuming nine people, plus at that point in time a superintendent, were all having constructive conversations together about a plan? I don’t think you should make that presumption. 

I was actually called the day [after the fractious April 2018 meeting] by somebody else who asked whether, if they come back next week with a partnership with another organization, would I support it? I said, I’m not going to vote for that. There needs to be a bigger, more comprehensive student-centered plan here.

This is about improving the learning outcomes for students in a way that is equitable. My objective wasn’t to save the board.

Between 2018 and now, were there more efforts to come up with an improvement plan, or was the idea to just wait for the suit to work its way through the courts?

We’ve had a lot of inconsistency in administrative leadership. We had a longstanding superintendent, Terry Grier, who left two years before I got on the board. We had an interim for a few months. We had Richard Carranza. We had Grenita as interim superintendent for 3½ years after that. We have all the battles between different factions of the board, including the five members who abruptly fired [Lathan] and appointed somebody else one day, triggering a special accreditation investigation with the state. We came finally to the other side of that and hired Millard House, who’s now been here for a year and a half. At this point, me and Elizabeth Santos are the senior board members, and we’ve only been here for five years. 

So you don’t have a lot of continuity. Which in one way was good, because in 2020, when we had four new board members and I was board chair, I’m like, we’re going to double down on governance and build a foundation and figure out where we’re trying to go so that when we hire somebody to take us there, we’ve got a plan. 

We have board members who wanted to see large-scale, systemic changes in our incredibly large, diverse and complex system. Who can see the opportunities that exist, can see where inequities exist. Your board and your superintendent don’t have to agree on everything, right? I actually think you have to have diversity of thought. But you have to have everybody centered around a core set of beliefs and values on where you’re trying to go. And we have that on paper. But I don’t feel that we’ve ever as a board been partners in that work, and certainly not our superintendent.

We just got stuck. We’re grounded in this governance model, but we weren’t seeing things come from the administration that were really challenging the status quo of what an education system can and should look like for children — and almost a quarter of a way through the 21st century. 

There’s some irony there. You had an interim superintendent who had put deep thought into systemic change and a board that wouldn’t sign off. And then you ended up with a board that wanted change but an administration that wouldn’t advance a plan. When the Texas Supreme Court decided to lift the injunction, the board had the option of continuing with the suit, as unlikely as victory seemed. But you voted not to do that. 

I’m going to say this for me, because I don’t want to speak for my colleagues on this. There’s a saying: When the elephants fight, the grass suffers. We have been in an adversarial relationship with our state agency in some ways since before I was on the board, before we even triggered 1842.

I think there was a realization that we were unlikely to win. We could either move forward in a collaborative, student-centered way or we could continue to fight. For me personally, I made a commitment to always put students first. I don’t believe that the outcome would change if we persist in this legal battle. It prolongs a period of instability for our kids.

What matters most is, how do we make sure kids are learning and growing with the least amount of disruption we possibly could have? I’ve always believed that with all of what our district has gone through in the past five years, there has to be something better for kids on the other side of it all. And how do we get to that better other side as quickly and harmlessly as we possibly can? If it’s even possible.

If the appointed board of managers and new superintendent are going to succeed, they’re going to need community support. And at the moment, there’s still a lot of shrieking.

Our public school system belongs to the public. We want the kids who have been left behind for far too long to no longer be left behind. That is a shared value between our current district governance team of 10, our board and superintendent, and our state [education] agency and therefore, presumably, whoever they will appoint. That’s a shared value.

The divergence is going to be how that is achieved. On a Saturday afternoon, not at rush hour, it takes an hour to drive from one side of Houston ISD to the other. When you go from east to west, you’re going from oil and gas plants, the shipping channel with tankers coming in and out and all of that, to the west side. That’s also oil and gas — but in shining office buildings. 

If this group can come in, understand the diversity of need and build true partnership and collaboration with communities in their pursuit of systemic changes, I think they’ll be successful. If they come in thinking they have all the answers and they’re just going to put all these things in place, nothing’s going to really be different for kids. 

It’s all about making decisions with families. That’s where the magic can happen. And we haven’t done that.

What happens to you now? You’re still an elected board member, but you don’t have any power as of June 1. Do you have ceremonial duties? 

I don’t know. I think so. Keep in mind our state agency has overseen the transition to a board of managers in other districts before. But we’re the biggest. This is not something that one new superintendent and nine appointed board members are going to be able to do on their own as quickly as they’re going to need to ramp up. They’re going to need help being introduced to the community as something other than, you know, agents of a conspiracy. 

When you have an elected board, you have people — especially if they’re viable to win — who have relationships and roots in a community. And who build more through the campaign process, through the different civic clubs they visit with, the doors they knock on and all of that. As you build these relationships, you build an understanding of the fabric of the community. 

The board of managers, they’re going from 0 to 100 while skipping that process. I think there could be value in taking a second tier of candidates [for the board of managers who do not get appointed] and creating some kind of community council that helps support that appointed board.

I do believe in democratically elected governance of public systems and public dollars. But I also know that at least in our state, long before HB 1842 came into existence, there was a process supported by both Republicans and Democrats. As a school board, you have independence from other governmental entities. But if, in cases of financial impropriety, legal malfeasance and student performance, if you’re not serving kids well, if you are engaging in behaviors that create a risk to children, then there’s going to be intervention. To make sure that kids are learning and growing and that the dollars that you were trusted with are actually being spent on the children’s learning and growth.

I don’t know that there’s an easier right thing in that equation. It’s an imperfect democracy. We’ve known that since it started over 200 years ago. It’s all about how you just keep striving for something better within those values. 

Don’t let me push you off a cliff here, but I want to know how this feels. 

Back up before we get to that, because you’re going to lose me after that. We’re so big. We’re not a suburban district with a bunch of giant one-size-fits-all schools. We know one-size-fits-all doesn’t work for all kids and it doesn’t work for all families. 

We also know that money matters, but money not spent effectively doesn’t change outcomes. The unfortunate thing about the [COVID recovery] dollars is we’re probably going to learn that in a really harsh way in the coming years. How we chose to spend it actually either made a difference for kids or didn’t. 

But we’re stuck in this conversation where it’s just about more money. We need to evolve to new school design. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for traditional models for students for whom that works, but in a district like ours, with the number of buildings and students we have, there is absolutely room to try things out and to scale what we know works. That was always my vision. 

One of the most poignant stories from my early days of being on the board — I have all these kids’ faces in my head from visiting schools — was this little second-grader eagerly raising his hand in class. But he didn’t even have a teacher of record, he had a long-term sub. Is he going to be okay? 

I was visiting our disciplinary alternative education program, and I asked the school leader, “What’s your biggest challenge?” He said, “The kids are here for a certain number of days, so the first challenge we have is some kids start to self-sabotage so they don’t have to go back to their home school. The other challenge is kids that get back to their home school and self-sabotage so they can come back.”

That’s kids telling us what they need, and we’re not listening. The families who have left our system for charter schools, private schools, to homeschool, they’ve done it because we’re not giving them something they want and need for their kids. And until we start talking to families in a real way, we’re not going to be able to build a holistic system that meets the needs of all kids, and we’re going to keep leaving kids behind. 

So how do I feel? Angry that I couldn’t achieve that. Disappointed that I couldn’t achieve that. We stole five years from kids. Five years where we could have given all our focus to the needs of students without the distraction of a lawsuit and all the impediments that instability has brought to our system. We should all be angry about that.

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