Springfield Public Schools Names New Superintendent; Questions Arise About Work History

The Springfield Public Schools Board of Education has announced the selection of an administrator from Houston, Texas as the new district superintendent.

Dr. Grenita Lathan will take over the position on July 1, replacing the retiring Dr. John Jungmann. The board received 40 applications for the position, interviewed seven people, and Dr. Lathan was one of two finalists considered by the board. Dr. Lathan became interim Superintendent after joining the HIST district in 2015 as chief school officer over elementary transformation schools, during which time she led more than 20 schools out of an “improvement required” state rating to a “met standard” rating.

“Dr. Lathan’s 30-year career in education demonstrates a proven track record of enhancing public education with an unwavering commitment to all students and educators,” Dr. Alina Lehnert, president of the SPS Board of Education, said in a statement. “The nationwide search generated a high level of interest from many strong candidates, and the Board used the feedback from more than 6,000 SPS constituents to evaluate each applicant. We are in unanimous agreement that Dr. Lathan is the most qualified to lead our district. We look forward to welcoming her to SPS and providing our full support.”

However, various news reports related to Dr. Lathan’s background raise questions about her leadership.

According to Houston Public Media, Lathan has been serving as the interim Superintendent for the Houston Independent School District (HISD) since March 2018 when the previous Superintendent left to head New York City’s schools. The HISD School Board declined to offer the position on a permanent basis to Lathan in November 2020, voting instead for a national search for candidates. Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca is mentioned by HPM as citing issues with special education services as a problem, which the Texas Education Agency called a “historical failure” in a 2020 report. (The TEA appointed two conservators to oversee special education services in the district, according to Houston Public Media.) Vilaseca also and stated a transparent search was needed for the district, but Dr. Lathan would be invited to apply in that search.

This was the second time that Dr. Lathan’s leadership has been called into question by the HISD board, who voted to remove her in the fall of 2018, only to return her to the position after black members of the Board and black community leaders objected to the process. A state investigation of the process for violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act resulted from that incident. The Texas Education Agency found violations did take place, including board members meeting privately to discuss removing Lathan.

In addition to the issues in Houston, there are also questions about Lathan’s time as superintendent in Peoria, Illinois.

Lathan resigned in 2015 as superintendent of the district one day before new school board members were scheduled to consider terminating her contract or placing her on administrative leave, according to the Peoria Journal-Star.

Among the issues that took place during Lathan’s leadership was a cheating scandal at Charter Oak Primary School, where several staff members admitted directing a special education student to erase answers on a state standardized test and also erasing answers themselves. While the state investigation was inconclusive and found no test tampering, according to a Peoria Journal-Star report, the handling of the incident and suspension of the school’s principal “crystallized opposition to then-superintendent Grenita Lathan.”

A group called Change150 was formed to vote out members of the school board who were supporters of Lathan. The group consisted of Charter Oak parents, teachers union leaders, the NAACP, and retired District 150 administrators. School board members due to be sworn in the day after Lathan’s resignation were supported by the Change150 group.

A March 13, 2012 report from the Peoria Journal Star states that members of the community also had issues with Lathan before the Charter Oak incident. The article says that the presidents of “both the NAACP and the Peoria Federation of Teachers” spoke at a meeting of community members saying Lathan created a “culture of fear and intimidation” that was “demoralizing teachers and principals.”

“I really believe the fear factor at District 150 is at an all-time high,” teachers’ union President Bob Darling is quoted as telling the Journal Star. “A majority of teachers feel very intimidated by central administration.”

Springfield Public Schools Chief Communications Officer Stephen Hall told KWTO that the board was aware of all the situations as was the search firm that the school used to find candidates. Hall said that there are always two sides to every story and that the articles did not contain all of the context that the board was told about the incidents. He then referred KWTO back to Dr. Lehnert’s statement, so that even knowing what KWTO discovered, the Board still felt Dr. Lathan was the best choice for the position.

KWTO has reached out to Dr. Lathan for comment but have not received a response by press time.

Lathan is scheduled to make $300,000 during the 2021-2022 school year.

“I am honored to join Springfield Public Schools and work with the incredible SPS team to build upon the success of Missouri’s largest school district,” Dr. Lathan said in a press statement. “During my career, I have focused on improving academic outcomes for all students and I believe great things are ahead for SPS. I will be visiting Springfield this Spring to introduce myself and meet the wonderful people who call this special place home. I look forward to being an active part of this community.”

The district released this video:

Dr. Lathan is scheduled to take part in virtual meetings after spring break, and the district plans in-person events at a later date.

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