in Houston, Texas
HISD: Vendors can still give computers to schools as gifts despite gift-giving ban enacted in the wake of scandal
Monday, Nov 15, 2010, 03:44PM CST
By Lynn Walsh
computers

School districts across the country are still able to accept technology gifts from computer companies despite gift-giving bans enacted in the wake of scandals in the Houston and Dallas school systems, documents show.

Just last week the federal government reached a $16.25 million settlement with Hewlett-Packard for violating the bidding process in the Houston and Dallas independent school districts as part of the federal computers-in-schools program E-Rate.

As part of the settlement HP signed an agreement that limits what kind of gifts and marketing materials employees of the computer giant can give to school districts -- but it does not ban them from giving.

According to the agreement:
“HP and its employees may continue to provide gifts of equipment to section 501(c)(3) organizations and accredited educational institutions under HP’s Global Contributions Policy...HP may continue its various HP in Education grants initiatives pursuant to its
Global Social Innovation Policy...”
Would HP be able to donate a computer to HISD? The district’s E-Rate compliance officer, Richard Patton, said that is a difficult question to answer.

“My gut reaction is no,” he said. “But you can’t take one situation and apply it to all situations. Each has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I would shy away from a computer donation from HP because they are an E-Rate vendor.”

HP wasn’t the only vendor involved in the federal investigation into HISD’s E-Rate program. The school district wound up paying an $850,000 settlement, agreeing to hire someone solely to monitor ethics in the E-Rate purchasing system, and agreeing to a more strict gift-giving policy for employees and school district trustees.

In exchange for being able to donate, HP must provide documentation to the Federal Communications Commission of gifts worth $10,000 or more if the school district participates in E-Rate, according to the agreement. The gifts can also not be “made in a manner that would be, or create the appearance of being, a bribe, a kickback or other corrupt practice.”

According to the memorandum report in the HISD investigation, HP offered HISD employees $1,000 tickets to technology forums, a free computer and printer and possibly a trip to Las Vegas for a conference.

Because of HISD’s history with HP and other E-Rate technology vendors, Patton said he has asked that all donations, including scholarships and grants, from technology companies go through his office, “even if it directly benefits our educational mission and has nothing on the surface to do with E-Rate.”

HP is not the only technology company that is allowed to give gifts to school districts.

According to a presentation at a recent conference Patton attended on behalf of HISD:
“Gift rules are not intended to discourage companies from making charitable contributions to schools, as long as those contributions are NOT directly or indirectly related to an E-Rate related procurement.
Now that it is clear HISD is able to accept technology gifts, Patton said his office “will allow the District to steer clear of improprieties and the appearance of such. We will do what is right.”

Do you think HP and other technology vendors should be allowed to make donations to school districts if they are E-Rate vendors? Texas Watchdog wants to hear what you think. Contact Lynn Walsh at Lynn@TexasWatchdog.org or on Twitter @LWalsh.

Photo of 'Our computers' by flickr user aranarth, used via a Creative Commons license.

 

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