Surrounded by supporters Melinda Garrett, (center) is applauded as she was announced as the HISD interim CFO at the Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center during an HISD board meeting Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009, in Houston. ( Johnny Hanson / Chronicle )
As chief financial officer of Houston ISD for 11 years, Melinda Garrett helped pilot the state’s largest school district through one of its most tumultuous times, an era marked by budget cuts, bond votes, teacher layoffs and administrative upheaval.
Through it all, Garrett earned accolades from all corners. Her deep knowledge of the school finances, no-nonsense attitude and well-timed warmth ensured HISD’s money was well managed and students had a stable learning environment.
“The respect for her was universal,” said Rosalind Young, the district’s chief of staff from 2001 to 2007. “She could see the humor in things, and she made people comfortable, but you always knew she meant business.”
Garrett, whose 30-year career with Houston ISD began as a kindergarten teacher and ended with a decade-long run as CFO under three superintendents, died Saturday after a two-day hospitalization, her sister Martha VanDenBossche said. She was 65.
The cause of death was not immediately known, VanDenBossche said.
A visitation is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, with funeral services at 11 a.m. Saturday. Both will be held at Earthman Bellaire Funeral Home.
Garrett helmed the district’s finances through the turbulent 2000s, when cutbacks in state funding and the national economic downturn put public school spending under the knife. She ushered principals and administrators through the early days of decentralization, which gave school leaders more authority over how to spend money at their individual campuses. And she was influential in getting massive school bonds passed in 2002, 2007 and 2012, which financed $3.5 billion worth of construction and capital projects across the district.
For her work, the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of 68 large urban districts, honored Garrett in 2010 with the Bill Wise Award, given annually to one school-finance administrator. The next year, Garrett’s department earned the council’s Award for Excellence in Financial Management, an honor bestowed on five districts since its inception in 2008.
Former HISD superintendent Kaye Stripling, who in 2001 promoted Garrett from controller to CFO, said her former colleague knew Texas school finance inside-and-out.
“I think she knew the culture of the district,” Stripling said. “Melinda understood that in order for people to be successful, they had to work together as a team, and she was definitely a team player.”
Garrett graduated from Bellaire High School in 1970, earned a degree from Texas Woman’s University and returned to teach kindergarten in HISD in 1976. She left two years later to get a master’s degree in accounting, spent several years in the private sector, then again came back to HISD as controller. She held the position for 15 years before her promotion to CFO.
As administrations changed, Garrett remained. When Stripling retired in 2004, Garrett stayed to work under Abelardo Saavedra. When Saavedra left in 2009, Garrett served as interim superintendent for two weeks during the transition to Terry Grier. When Garrett retired, Grier said “no single person has contributed more” to HISD’s reputation for managing taxpayer money with an eye on what’s best for children.
Stripling said she believes Garrett’s two years as a teacher helped her understand the impact of daily financial decisions.
“She realized how important it was for us to do our job, so the teachers could impact the students and give them a good education,” Stripling said.
Garrett devoted much of her free time to her five nieces and nephews, and later to their 11 children. Her house on Lake Livingston became a frequent gathering point for friends and family.
“She was such a workaholic, but from the day she left HISD, she was just enjoying going on vacations and being with family,” VanDenBossche said. “She was just generous beyond means.”
Garrett is survived by her husband, Richard. A visitation is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, with funeral services at 11 a.m. Saturday. Both will be held at Earthman Bellaire Funeral Home.