in Houston, Texas
HISD weighs bans on gifts, communication with vendors prior to contract awards
Tuesday, Sep 14, 2010, 04:48PM CST
By Lynn Walsh

Houston Independent School District employees would be barred from accepting any gift of more than token value from current or prospective HISD vendors under a proposed change to the district’s conflict-of-interest policy.

It trustees approve the change, all employees would be required to sign a conflict-of-interest statement twice a year saying they had not violated the policy, a requirement that is currently only imposed on high-level administrators.

The ethics proposal would prohibit employees from accepting “any gift, favor, service, entertainment or anything of more than token value.”

It's one of two proposed changes to HISD board of education policy relating to accountability and ethics that trustees are set to vote on Thursday at the September HISD board meeting.

Trustees are also considering prohibiting employees who work closely with district contracting from communicating with bidders beginning at the time the district requests proposals.

This “code of silence” would ban any communication “regarding a request for proposal (RFP), bid or other competitive solicitation” between any company or individual seeking an award from Houston ISD and certain individuals in the district.

According to HISD, the individuals prohibited from communicating with potential bidders include any "board member, the superintendent of schools, and any senior staff member, principal, department head, director, manager, or other district representative who has influence in the evaluation or selection process.”
“This policy shows the public that we are being completely transparent,” HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett said. “We (HISD) are not going off in some back room and signing contracts.”

In May, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier called the district’s contracting process into question.

"I have seen a procurement department made up of independent folks rate bids from a variety of different companies across the district to do a lot of different work," Grier said. "And then I've seen staff -- just for whatever reason -- pull names off of a list and put other names back on a list, (with) no rhyme or reason except, quite frankly, influence where influence has no business coming from." View his entire comments in the video below.

Grier said the goal of the two policies is to inform vendors trying to do business with HISD that the Houston district operates differently than some other districts.

“In school districts across the country, vendors will come into a district and offer sport jerseys to district employees in exchange for computer contracts. Don’t think it doesn’t happen because it does,” Grier said. “HISD will not allow for this type of behavior, so we are banning all gifts.”

The proposed new conflict-of-interest policy defines “items of token value,” which are permitted, as “coffee mugs, key chains, caps, and the like.”

When teachers and other employees register for conferences and receive a bag with pens and other supplies, they are allowed to take such items, Grier said.

The proposed conflict-of-interest policy does not consider plaques or other commemorative items gifts, but any meals from a single person or vendor that exceed $100 in value in a single calendar year are prohibited. Any meals over $50 but less than $100 in one calendar year can be accepted, but would need to be disclosed on the biannual statements.

In 2008, HISD employees and the district were at the center of a federal investigation following allegations of employees accepting gifts, meals and entertainment from vendors associated with a federal technology program, E-Rate. Three former technology employees allegedly accepted meals, birthday parties and cash from E-Rate vendors that were doing business with HISD at the time.

All three former HISD employees signed conflict-of-interest statements with HISD that said they did not receive any gifts or meals over $100 while they were allegedly accepting the gifts and meals from vendors. The three former employees also did not report receiving any meals between $50 and $100 in value.

If an employee is not sure whether accepting an item from a vendor is allowed, the proposed policy requires the employee to request written clarification from a committee that would make recommendations to the superintendent and the board of trustees. HISD has not outlined how the committee would be selected.

The individuals subject to the “code of silence” would be notified when the quiet period is to begin for each contract process. The period of no communication would continue until HISD trustees have approved the bid or awarded the contract.

According to HISD, if a vendor broke the rules by contacting a board member or employee during the quiet period, that company would be banned from doing business with HISD for at least two years.

Because the proposals would change board policy, HISD trustees will have to vote and approve the proposed new policies twice before they would go into effect.

Contact Lynn Walsh at at 713-228-2850 or Follow news about the Houston Independent School District on Twitter, #HISD.

Photo of a present by flickr user, used via a Creative Commons license.

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