Incumbent candidates usually have the advantage over upstart challengers, at least in most election cycles.
In the case of the Houston ISD Board of Education, which is locked in a lawsuit with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and faces the possibility of a state takeover, being an existing trustee is not necessarily a selling point.
Two years after Houston voters elected four new trustees to the nine-member board, Elizabeth Santos is among the five board members trying to hold on to her seat. She is up for re-election this November in District I, which serves schools in the Heights, Garden Oaks and Northside areas, and faces challengers Janette Garza Lindner and Matias Kopinsky.
Santos, a former HISD teacher who was elected as a trustee in 2017, acknowledged the board has made missteps and been misguided at times during that span and took personal responsibility for her role in infighting that occurred in the public’s view and tarnished the reputation of the board. But Santos also said she and her fellow trustees have “gotten our act together” while learning from their experiences and pushing the district forward, such as unanimously voting to hire highly touted administrator Millard House II as superintendent earlier this year.
“The personality of the board has changed,” Santos said. “We still have those tense situations, but we’re able to come out of the other side still wanting the same thing – what’s best for students. We’re a team now.”
Another incumbent on the board, District VII trustee Anne Sung, also is up for re-election in a race with an impact on the area. Sinclair Elementary in the Timbergrove neighborhood is part of District VII, where the challengers are Dwight Jefferson, Bridget Wade and Mac Walker.
Early voting is scheduled for Oct. 18-29, and Election Day is Nov. 2.
The two candidates opposing Santos in District I, Garza Lindner and Kopinsky, both cited dysfunction and poor governance by the board as reasons they decided to run for a seat on the board and attempt to improve conditions within the state’s largest school district. Morath announced in November 2019 that he intended to replace the HISD trustees with a state-appointed board of managers, citing what he called the board’s “failure of governance” and the prolonged failing academic performance of Wheatley High School.
That also came on the heels of a Texas Education Agency (TEA) investigation into an alleged open meetings violation by five members of the board, including Santos and Sung, who in 2018 initially voted to replace interim superintendent Grenita Lathan with former HISD superintendent Abe Saavedra, who withdrew from consideration a few days later and prompted the board to reinstate Lathan. Santos said the walking quorum allegation is a “false narrative put forth by the state.”
“There’s numerous things like that that have made me feel embarrassed about the district and the path it’s going toward,” said Kopinsky, a Lindale Park resident who is a product of HISD and works as an engineer for Chevron. “Growing up in Houston, I’m very proud of this city. I want HISD to be in the news for its achievements.”
That was a sentiment echoed by Garza Lindner, a Norhill resident and parent of two Travis Elementary students who like Kopinsky is a first-time political candidate. She said she also was motivated to run after seeing disparities in student outcomes among schools in the same geographic area, citing Travis and nearby Browning Elementary, which has not performed as well, as an example.
Garza Lindner works as a management consultant for Veritas Total Solutions, an energy consulting firm, and she said she is the most qualified candidate in District I because of her experience with board governance and managing a multi-million dollar budget. She said a significant problem with the HISD board is that it passed a budget the last two years in which money was left on the table and ended up going into the fund balance.
“That means resources are locked up, because of mismanagement, that could be going to services for our kids and giving teacher raises,” Garza Lindner said. “If our board doesn’t operate in a way that our budget is managed very carefully, spending what we’re intending to spend … then we’re not doing our basic work.”
Garza Lindner, Kopinsky and Santos agreed that HISD needs to better compensate its teachers, who have more attractive options in the Houston region, because they said recruiting and retaining talented and committed educators would ultimately lead to better outcomes for students.
Santos said she has advocated for better compensation and benefits for HISD teachers, with the district having implemented pay increases for teachers and support staff in recent years. She said she also has helped ensure that all HISD campuses have wraparound specialists, who assist students with non-academic issues, and that all schools in District I have librarians as well as dance, theatre and other fine arts programs.
"I was asked to run again, primarily by our students that I built relationships with district-wide," she said. "In this arena, the experience that we bring back as board members is crucial."
Kopinsky, whose mother and grandmother were educators, said the recent teacher raises were overdue and not enough and that HISD also needs a better benefits package for its teachers and more stability in its principal ranks. The 25-year-old graduate of Bellaire High School said the board needs the energy and fresh perspective that a younger person like him can provide.
"I have no ulterior motives and I'm not backed by special interest groups," he said. "I’m doing this to give back to the community and do what’s best for the kids."
Garza Lindner said HISD teachers should be better compensated and that the district needs to lessen the workload on its teachers to create a more enjoyable work environment. And like Santos, Garza Lindner said she is a big supporter of the arts.
Garza Lindner criticized Santos, saying she did not accomplish enough during her first term, and said Kopinsky is too inexperienced to effectively serve on the board.
The three District I candidates are in unison in their support of House, who was an award-winning administer in Tennessee before being hired by HISD. One of his first initiatives was the implementation of a mask mandate at all campuses and buildings across the district, in defiance of an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that said public schools in the state were not allowed to require masks despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the fact children under age 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Much like that issue, the dispute between the HISD board and the state remains ongoing. Santos said she’s hopeful that Morath will reconsider his plan to replace the trustees with a board of managers, but she said it appears that removing the existing board members is still the objective.
Kopinsky said he does not think Morath should take such an action, instead saying the makeup of the HISD board should be decided by Houston voters.
As an HISD parent, Garza Lindner said she would welcome a state takeover if some of the existing board members are re-elected. But she said she’s hopeful that voters will continue to elect new trustees and prompt Morath to eventually “back off.”
“I think it’s time for voters to finish the job and put people in these seats who can be professional, who can be effective quickly and start working for our kids,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”