The Humble ISD board of trustees called a special June 20 board meeting to discuss filling of the Position 6 seat vacated by Heath Rushing earlier this year. Rushing resigned April 11 (with an effective date of May 9), two full months after he left his role at Memorial Hermann Northeast on February 6 to take on the CEO position at Memorial Hermann Cypress and Katy hospitals.
The board has also had two full months (April 11 to June 20) to address the vacated Position 6. As outgoing Board president, Keith Lapeze said he did not intentionally delay the discussion, but instead made the decision to delay the discussion until new board members were elected. Incumbents and Martina Dixon, newly elected to Position 5, were sworn in on June 13, yet the Rushing resignation was not on the agenda, despite requests by community members to add it. The board professed needing time to understand the different options. Note that The Tribune ran several articles citing official Secretary of State elections office personnel and Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) legal officials regarding exact options and dates.
The board has three options in this situation: elect, appoint, or leave vacant.
Position 6 can only be left vacant for six months because more than a year remains on the term (the term expires in May 2019). It has already been vacant for two months, awaiting the board to address the situation.
A discussion then ensued regarding whether to elect or appoint, with Conrad stating the seat needed to be filled sooner rather than later, and pushing for it to be filled by August.
Sitton presented historical information dating back to 1952, showing how board replacements have been handled in the 19 times it has occurred within that timeframe. Five times, the positions were left vacant because the terms had less than one year remaining. The board appointed replacements in the other 14 instances. Sitton stated that 11 of the 14 appointees then ran for election. “Seeing that we’ve never had a special election outside of a regular election would set a precedent,” Lapeze said.
The election option was discussed. Filling the seat in this manner requires a special election which, in Texas, can only be held on the uniform election dates of November 2017 or May 2018. The board immediately jumped to discussion of a May 2018 election, and Fagen provided cost projections for May 2018, despite November 2017 also being an option. When Lapeze posed a question about the November option, Conrad asked Humble ISD legal counsel Rob Ross regarding the deadline date for posting notice of a special election. Boards are required to post notice 30 days before the filing deadline for a November special election. When Ross responded that June 22 was the posting deadline, Conrad seemed shocked, saying “The day after tomorrow?” Lapeze said, “I thought we had more time to discuss it and put it on the ballot. I guess it was fortuitous that we had the discussion tonight.” November as an option was then quickly ruled out due to lack of preparation time. Per the Texas Open Meetings Act, the board can discuss the vacancy in closed session, but the vote regarding how to fill the vacancy must be in an open session.
The majority of board members also expressed concerns about holding an election due to the estimated $50K cost of conducting it. Lapeze said the election would occur anyway in less than two years (23 months actually), and posed the “why hold it now” question: “I was initially thinking about an election, but an appointment makes sense because of the cost. That money could pay for another teacher.” Lapeze and Morrison both also said that the district needed to preserve funds because Humble ISD did not receive any additional funding from the Texas legislature. Conrad also said that an election would be very draining to the administration. Notably, $10.5M is allocated in the newly approved budget for administrative costs.
Interestingly, the board approved a $447M total budget the same night; $50K amounts to 0.0001 of that overall budget, a negligible amount. They also reported a budget surplus of nearly $4M.
Cunningham initially stated he would rather see an election, but said he might consider an appointment under certain conditions: “I want someone who is ready to work, not just someone who is going to be sitting there as a placeholder. We need someone to work for our kids.”
Most of the board leaned toward appointment. Conrad, the new Board President, stated that the election process can be very intimidating, and that the appointment process was a way to attract people to the position without going through the candidate process. Morrison was also keen on recruitment, citing examples from her sessions at TASB leadership; Morrison agreed with Conrad that there are likely many highly devoted candidates in the community who don’t necessarily relish the election process. Dixon asked Conrad about guidelines the board was required to follow, and Conrad stated there is lots of leeway. She had looked to TASB leadership and at how other ISD boards had handled filling a board seat. Conrad stated that it largely depended on a particular district’s tradition. Some had community input, some allowed each trustee to submit a nominee, interview and application process that is open. Some brought in for interviews with finalists. Sitton wanted clarification from Conrad about how the appointment process would take place, specifying that a process, criteria, and a timeline would be needed. The board discussed a possible application process, resume submittals, and an interview process. The board is looking at an August/September timeframe for appointment. Lapeze suggested that the person could be appointed earlier if the interview process was abandoned and only applications were used. Cunningham stated that he didn’t believe that interviews needed to be conducted publicly, so conducting them privately would save time.
So how did the board members vote?
Lapeze stated that he preferred to leave the seat vacant, but since the law did not allow that, he was in favor of appointment and voted as such. Sitton, Conrad and Morrison voted for appointment, as did Cunningham.
In the end, new board member Martina Dixon was the only member who strongly spoke out about election without wavering. Dixon ran for Rushing’s seat in 2014 and ultimately lost that race. “I’m glad that Heath Rushing was elected and not appointed because it made the entire process fair. It is important to let the community make that decision. There are two years left on the term,” Dixon said.
According to Barbara Williams, communications representative for the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), an appointee must be a US citizen, age 18 or older, and must not be mentally incapacitated or a felon. The appointee must also be a resident of Texas and the district.