This article is being co-published with RealClearInvestigations.
The Texas Education Agency has disciplined 45 school superintendents since 2012 for transgressions ranging from embezzlement to sexual misconduct, in many cases under a code of silence that insulates school boards and other officials from negative publicity and voter recrimination.
The silence is often reinforced by formal nondisclosure agreements, contract stipulations and other roadblocks to scrutiny that make superintendents seem a protected class, critics say. Superintendents are among the highest paid and best-credentialed public officials in the state, typically commanding annual salaries in the low to mid six figures.
“The public deserves better transparency on something like this,” said state Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Republican from the Houston area who was contacted by parents after a superintendent in his district abruptly stepped down, with the school board refusing to discuss it. “I’m not sure why schools are allowed to keep the reason for these sudden changes quiet.”
One obstacle to bringing such cases to light is the general unavailability of Texas school disciplinary records. They can be accessed only through a time-consuming public records process that often does not yield the desired documents. The process is so burdensome it discourages parents and local media outlets from even trying. RealClearInvestigations spent months tracking down records that shed the first public light on some instances of wrongdoing. Among the examples turned up in this search were the following:
- In one previously undisclosed case, Howell Wright Jr., superintendent of the Huntsville Independent School District, suddenly retired last August just before opening day, ostensibly for health problems. But what wasn’t disclosed was an investigation that found him to have “engaged in improper contact with one or more Huffman ISD high school students in the 83/84 time frame,” according to state records. Wright, an educator since 1978, has since surrendered his state superintendent’s license, while the district is contesting RealClearInvestigations’ open records request for additional documents.
- In another unreported case, Joseph Leyva, a licensed superintendent working as a teacher in Lubbock ISD, was arrested for falsely stating on a police report that a student had assaulted him in November 2013, after surveillance video showed him slamming the student into a wall. Leyva served in a pre-trial diversion program and had his license suspended for two years, leaving him eligible to return to education in November.
- Ronald Thomas “Tommy” Chalaire Jr., superintendent of Chisum district in North Texas, was reprimanded last year for failing to report a subordinate’s unspecified potential transgression, which, according to the statute cited, might have involved either abuse of a child or a sexual or otherwise illicit relationship between the staffer and a student. The light sanction suggests the offense was not grave, although because reporting laws are so loose, the public will never know unless someone chooses to search his license on the state’s educator license website. They’ll also have to search for “Ronald” even though he is known as “Tommy.”
- In the 1,100-student City View school district in North Texas, Superintendent Steve Harris was allowed to resign quietly in August, eight months into his fourth contract extension, after state investigators with subpoenas found major though unspecified irregularities in statements of Harris’ district-issued credit card. In a rare twist, Harris’ successor, Tony Bushong, addressed the case in public, saying it involved such flagrant and unauthorized use of the card that “this district is in a financial crisis because of him.”
Bushong added: “Just because he is a superintendent, he is under this umbrella of protection. I cannot believe this is how it goes down when superintendents abuse the privilege of working for the public.”
Leyva, Harris and Wright could not be reached for comment. Chalaire did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Texas has 1,025 superintendents and the vast majority serve with unblemished records. But laws and practices are in place to protect the few who are disciplined, including processes creating attorney-client privilege. Much of the time, school boards will refer alleged wrongful behavior by a superintendent to the school district’s attorney, creating an attorney-client privilege that makes it difficult for investigators to obtain important evidence.
“We were told by our district’s lawyer not to talk about it because we can be sued individually or as a group,” said one school board member in a district where a superintendent was found to have misused the district’s credit card. The first place the school board went after finding dubious charges on the card was the district’s lawyer. He advised the members to keep it all quiet.
The 45 disciplined or dismissed superintendents include 16 who voluntarily relinquished their superintendent’s licenses and two whose licenses were revoked. Six more had their licenses suspended for periods of between one and three years, and 21 have received reprimands, which allow them to continue in their jobs.
Superintendents are both helped and hindered by hush agreements, which provide them cover but also invite speculation. For example, one superintendent lost his license under a provision of the state code regarding moral conduct, but his case did not involve sexual impropriety; rather, an erroneous purchase of $600 worth of online goods.
In another, a superintendent’s license was suspended after he delegated a requirement to report teacher misconduct to the state, and the assignee failed to carry out the task. Because of the laws regarding reporting, the specifics of the violations are never revealed, placing such officials alongside truly serious offenders.
The most common infraction is the failure to report inappropriate contact or relations between teachers and students – a factor in six of the sanctions. Four cases involved failure to report signs of abuse of a child outside the school. The sanctions fly under the public radar, tucked into the minutes and agendas of meetings of the Texas Education Agency’s State Board of Educator Certification.
A list is published quarterly by the TEA, noting the name, the sanction and the date it was handed down. But determining the person’s title requires further research and learning the reason for the penalty involves a public information request, and typically bureaucratic resistance. Superintendents are hired by school boards, which are composed of elected individuals not subject to regulation by the Texas Education Agency.
Some of the resistance to transparency can be traced to the efforts of groups representing the officials, like the Texas Association of School Administrators, or TASA, a lobbying powerhouse well-funded by corporations such as Apple, Chevron, Dell, Google, and Hewlett Packard that vie for public education contracts.
TASA did not respond to several email and phone requests for an interview.
Last year, after several failed measures in previous sessions, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 7, a measure creating stronger penalties for upper-level administrators who fail to report sexual misconduct by teachers.
The biggest change is that superintendents and principals are required to report any evidence, substantiated or not, of such incidents. The new requirements make it “open season” on educators, said Tiger Hanner, an Austin lawyer who represents educators in trouble.
“‘Any evidence’ is a pretty broad term,” asserted Hanner, who said he has been retained at various points by more than two dozen state educator associations. “It is really indefinable.”
The new law creates the risk of too much reporting, potentially ensnaring people with no substantiation.
“In some respects, educators are now more vulnerable than they were in the past,” said David Thompson, the leadership professor who is part of a project to track improper teacher-student relationships statewide.
Perhaps it’s time to look at the large picture of how educators and the public interact, said Katie Warren, a Harris County prosecutor who for three years headed her division’s unit on sex crimes. At one time, she filed over two dozen cases a year on teachers.
“We don’t know how often this happens, but I sure hope they are all getting reported,” Warren said. “Now would be the time to address it, though. #MeToo has been helpful in getting people to report. Now is the moment.”
Editor’s note: This story was amended on Jan. 28, 2019, to clarify that the Texas Education Agency does not have the authority to dismiss or force the retirement of school district superintendents.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].