in Houston, Texas
Five years after scandal prompted funding freeze, E-Rate money returns to Houston ISD
Tuesday, Dec 07, 2010, 04:46PM CST
By Lynn Walsh
computers

For the first time since news broke of employees accepting gifts, meals and cash from vendors, the Houston public school system is once again receiving money from the federal computers-in-schools program at the center of the controversy.

The Houston Independent School District is set to receive $1.3 million from the E-Rate program for basic technology maintenance at more than 200 of the district's roughly 300 schools.

“This is just the tip of iceberg,” said Richard Patton, the HISD official tasked with making sure vendors and school system employees keep on E-Rate's straight and narrow. “It’s a really good sign.”

The school system, the nation's seventh-largest, applied for almost $70 million in E-Rate funding earlier this year. E-Rate is brings cut-rate telecommunications services to public schools, nonprofit private schools and libraries.

HISD employees were accused of accepting meals, sporting tickets and cash from E-Rate vendors -- a violation of the tenets of the federally funded program.

Those cozy relationships with E-Rate vendors cost HISD $105 million in federal funding. HISD was required to hire Patton, pay an $850,000 settlement and agree to strengthen its district ethics and disclosure policies. It also saw its E-Rate funding frozen in 2006, a freeze that has apparently now thawed.

The money can cover maintenance of power suppliers, servers and switches, Patton said. “We were approved at the 90 percent level, which means the district pays 10 percent of the cost" and the federal program picks up the rest, he said.

The contractor approved to receive all of the money from the projects is Netsync Network Solutions, a Houston-based IT company.

Netsync is the same company HISD trustees recently hired to upgrade the district's computer system. HISD has given more than $17.9 million to Netsync this year, according to the school system's online check registry.

The computer upgrade and increased security is expected to cost the district up to $15 million and was triggered by a hacker accessing personal information of HISD employees and students in October. HISD did not put the Netsync security contract up for competitive bids due to time constraints and vulnerability of the current system, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said.

Have questions or comments on HISD’s E-Rate program? Texas Watchdog wants to hear from you. Contact Lynn Walsh, Lynn@Texaswatchdog.org, 713-228-2850 or on Twitter @LWalsh.

Computers in a classroom photo by flickr user Extra Ketchup, used under a Creative Commons license.

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