The Houston school system has paid the wife of the school board president's campaign treasurer $75,000 in no-bid work over the last two years as a consultant, arranging classes and after-school programs on subjects including CPR, English as a second language, jazz dance and parenting.
Demetra C. Jones, the wife of prominent Houston lawyer Franklin D.R. "Frank" Jones Jr., and her businesses have been paid $78,110 by the Houston Independent School District since 2009, records released by the school system show.
Frank Jones is the campaign treasurer for Paula Harris, who was elected to the HISD trustees in 2007 and who became the trustees' president in January. Frank Jones has also done legal work for the Houston schools, including serving as lead negotiator for the school district when it hired current Superintendent Terry Grier away from the San Diego, Calif., schools two years ago.
Demetra Jones is the former longtime head of human resources and risk management for Harris County Precinct One, working under County Commissioner El Franco Lee for two decades. She previously served as office manager in City Hall for state Sen. Rodney Ellis when he was a Houston city councilman some 20 years ago, and was public affairs manager for Ellis’ Houston investment bank, Apex Securities, according to two resumes available online.
She has a master's degree in education from the University of Houston, and she has taught in the past at both U of H and Lone Star College, her resumes said.
None of the work done by Demetra Jones and her firms was subjected to competitive bidding, and none of it was ever subjected to a vote by the HISD trustees. Individual school principals and HISD department heads made the decision to hire Jones’ firms, a district spokesman said.
Trustees’ votes aren’t required for individual consultant agreements worth less than $25,000 each or less than $100,000 in the aggregate, HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said in an e-mail. A formal “request-for-proposal” process is not required for hiring educational consultants.
Records show the work done by Jones' companies was billed in dozens of separate expenses of usually several hundred dollars or a couple thousand dollars at a time. “The services were requested in accordance with current procedures,” Spencer said.
The school district put the amount paid to the Jones' businesses at $74,700.
Demetra Jones did not return phone messages left for her by Texas Watchdog. Frank Jones did not return phone messages or an e-mail for comment.
“HISD needs to have an arm's-length policy between their board and their contractors or vendors,” said Andy Wilson with Public Citizen of Texas. “It may be that (Jones) was the most qualified person to run these programs -- but when she's awarded a no-bid contract and has financial and political ties to the chair, the public is going to catch a whiff of that and be outraged.
“This could be innocent, but there's no way to be certain.
“Between this and other recent issues, HISD needs to take a good, hard look at rewriting their ethics rules. Especially in our schools, and especially in this budget crisis where dollars are so precious, we need to insure our school money is going to the most qualified, lowest cost people, not the politically or financially connected ones.”
The revelation of Jones' work for HISD makes her the second close friend of Harris found to have been paid thousands of dollars by the school system for no-bid work. Texas Watchdog has previously reported that HISD paid companies connected to Pearland businesswoman Nicole C. West for services including private investigations work to find truant teens, dry cleaning drapes and tutoring elementary school students. Harris also voted four times to approve a total of $28 million in HISD contracts that included work for one of West's firms.
Meanwhile, both Texas Watchdog and the Houston Chronicle have recently reported that HISD trustee Larry Marshall traveled to Costa Rica last year on an all-expenses-paid trip funded by the Costa Rican government and arranged by state Rep. Borris Miles, an insurance agent who also services some of HISD’s flood insurance.
Harris declined to comment to a reporter who approached her after last Thursday's school board meeting. She also did not return phone messages for comment or respond to a list of e-mailed questions from Texas Watchdog. But in public comments she made during the Thursday meeting -- a couple of hours after Texas Watchdog supplied HISD with an extensive list of questions for this story -- Harris defended what she said were her many friendships with HISD vendors and others working in and for HISD.
"That presentation we saw (during the meeting) is dedicated to the 12,000 teachers, all of the principals, all of our partners, all of our vendors, all of the folks that provide a great service and provide great added value to the Houston Independent School District. And I’m not ashamed ever to say that I’m friends with some of ‘em. ... Sometimes it's hard to be my friend. They're gonna do a story every week about my friends, I've got so many friends in this district, so many places I sit on (in) this district. But that’s fine. Just know,” she said, echoing something Jesus told his disciples in the book of Matthew, “if you don’t deny me, I won’t deny you."
ABOUT THE CLASSES
The class offerings Demetra Jones has arranged for HISD are varied.
Among the classes she and her company Training & Leadership Consulting, also sometimes called Training Leadership & Consulting or TL Consulting, arranged for HISD, records show:
- $2,100 to put on CPR and rescue breathing classes this fall for second- and third-graders in the health science magnet program at Whidby Elementary;
- A total of $10,000 to lead GED and English-as-a-second-language classes for parents at Ortiz Middle. Records are unclear as to whether the payment was for 200 total hours or instruction or for 220 hours of each subject.
- $2,250 to put on jazz dance classes at Scarborough High this past spring;
- and $2,600 for 13 Saturday ESL classes for parents at Lewis Elementary.
TL Consulting is "... deeply involved in learning about the educational state-of-the-art, investigating research and designing instructional materials," reads a testimonial attributed to Ortiz Middle on the company's website, along with this one from Lewis Elementary: "Training Leadership & Consulting have exceptional certified instructors ... making a difference in our schools."
Meanwhile, records show another of Jones' firms, the FDR Group, was paid $5,040 for preparing Sterling High students for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests last October, and another $3,900 to put on parenting classes last September. HISD's online check register shows checks for those amounts -- but written on different dates -- made out directly to Demetra C. Jones last fall, with Jones having the same HISD vendor number as the FDR Group.
The school district can’t just make teachers work in after-school programs without paying them more for it, Spencer said: “In many instances, vendors who provide after-school programs do so at a lower cost rate than teachers.”
The school district said it has no consulting agreements for the new all-girls' academy that is slated to launch this fall. But TL Consulting has had on its website recently a downloadable PDF application for after-school programs at the all-girls' school, with offerings as varied as robotics, lacrosse and "Wacky Writing."
"Young Women's College Preparatory Academy After School Program provided by Training and Leadership Consulting Inc.," the application reads. "For questions regarding all offerings, please contract Demetra Jones, TLC Inc.," it says, and lists TL Consulting's phone number and e-mail address.
The PDF was available on TL Consulting’s website as recently as early yesterday afternoon -- but it appeared to have been removed from the website later in the day.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Frank Jones has been Harris' campaign treasurer since at least 2008, online campaign finance records show. Harris also confirmed Frank Jones was her campaign treasurer in a recent interview with Texas Watchdog for a previous story.
Demetra Jones was also the contact person for a $250-a-head campaign fundraiser for Harris that was held one evening last week at the posh Tony's restaurant on Richmond Avenue. Invitations for the event, one of which was obtained by the West University Examiner, asked people to mail checks to Demetra Jones at the same 315 W. Alabama St. address as the office building where Paula Harris and her husband, Dwayne, base multiple businesses they run. The Harrises own the building, according to property records.
When it first sought certification as a minority business from the Houston city government in 2009, TL Consulting reported that one of its largest previous jobs was $300 in training it put on for DPM Investments, Paula and Dwayne Harris' investment firm, though the company submitted $600 worth of invoices from DPM to back up its application.
"Demetra’s experience includes planning, developing and implementing human resource strategies; preparing new hire recruitment policies; structuring development training programs; and developing educational, health and safety seminars," Demetra Jones' online bio says. "Mrs. Jones’ services have been acquired by local governmental offices, school districts and private business entities."
TL Consulting's address is listed in much of the HISD paperwork as a residence on MacGregor Way, south of the Texas Southern University campus -- the same address where both Frank and Demetra Jones are registered to vote. However, one document Jones filed this month with HISD lists the company's address as 315 W. Alabama St., the Harrises' office building.
Harris County records show Training and Leadership Consulting is a registered assumed name, commonly known as "doing business as," with Demetra Jones as the owner. (Though the firm calls itself "Training and Leadership Consulting Inc." on its Web site, and uses the "Inc." on HISD paperwork, the Texas Secretary of State's office had no record last week of a corporation by that name, or a TL Consulting, tied to a Demetra Jones. Demetra Jones also signed off on HISD paperwork as recently as this year indicating the firm is a sole proprietorship or individual, not a partnership or corporation, and city of Houston records show the company is a sole proprietorship.)
Frank Jones is listed as the registered agent of the FDR Group, a limited liability company, in business records from the Texas Secretary of State's office.
A current co-chairman of the Houston Library Board, Frank Jones is a prominent attorney specializing in public finance and government issues. His official biography from his law firm, Greenberg Traurig, lists among his major accomplishments as playing a major role in the creation of the Reliant Park complex, Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center.
Frank Jones is also HISD's appointee to the authority in charge of redeveloping Houston's Old Spanish Trail/Alameda Road neighborhood. He was appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court to the board of the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority.
APPROVING THE WORK
In three cases, records indicate the classes put on by Jones and her firms began even though there wasn't enough money in the proper budget fund to pay for them -- but school principals moved money around and made it happen.
- TL Consulting was to put on GED and ESL training at Ortiz Middle School between Sept. 27, 2010, and May 21 this year. But budget officers wrote as late as Nov. 19 that there were "not enough funds" to pay for it, records show. Two weeks later, the funds had been made available.
- FDR Group was hired to put on TAKS preparation classes Oct. 4-18 for the juniors and seniors at Sterling High School. But as late as Nov. 10 -- which would have been after the classes had ended -- HISD's legal office complained to the high school that there weren't enough funds in the budget, records show. That day, money was moved around to pay for it.
- TL Consulting was hired to put on $20,000 worth of after-school enrichment programs at Alcott Elementary between Sept. 7, 2010, and July 8, 2011. But as late as Sept. 13, HISD's legal office said there were "no funds in (the) budget" for it, records show.
At the same time, five sets of classes appear to have begun before two of HISD's top administrators, the district controller and general counsel, signed off on the contracts for them. In two cases, records show the two administrators signed off on the contracts after the classes were already supposed to be over:
- The TAKS prep classes at Sterling High were slated to end Oct. 18. But HISD General Counsel Elneita Hutchins-Taylor didn't sign the contract for the classes with FDR Group until Nov. 11, and HISD Controller Kenneth Huewitt didn't sign until six days after that, records show.
- For a second set of GED and ESL classes at Ortiz Middle, slated to run Sept. 27-Dec. 17, HISD's top lawyer didn't approve the contract until Jan. 3, and the controller approved it four days after that.
In most of the cases, Jones and her firms were hired not at the request of HISD's central office but at the request of individual school principals and the manager of HISD's after-school programs, records show.
Sterling High Principal Leviticus Williams wanted Jones' companies hired to prepare juniors and seniors for the TAKS test last fall, and wanted Jones' firms hired to put on parent enrichment classes at the school this spring, records show. Williams did not return an e-mail message or multiple phone messages left at his school office.
Also not returning an e-mail or phone message was Jonnelle Hollins, the after-school chief. Her name appears on documents as requesting to hire Jones and her firms for eight after-school and GED/ESL programs, including those at Oates, Alcott and Blackshear elementaries and Worthing and Scarborough high schools.
“Evaluating the qualifications of (an educational) consultant is the responsibility of the school/department” hiring them, Spencer said. To hire an educational consultant, the school is required to submit to HISD’s Finance Department the consulting contract and a W-9 tax form, he said.
HISD, which has nearly 300 schools, has long had a culture of empowered principals. HISD principals, for instance, largely set their own schools' budgets, based on the funds they’re allocated by the central office.
FRANK JONES’ LEGAL WORK FOR HISD
While the school system was hiring his wife to arrange after-school programs, HISD also hired Frank Jones to take the lead on cutting the deal to bring Grier to Houston from California two years ago.
The firm was to be paid a flat $20,000 for its services in negotiating with Grier, along with any travel or out-of-pocket expenses incurred, according to HISD’s agreement with the firm.
HISD relied on Frank Jones even though his firm, Greenberg Traurig, does not appear on the list of law firms that the district trustees approved for legal services in June 2009 for school year 2009-10. But the vote on that annual list also allows the school system to hire additional lawyers on an as-needed basis without additional approval from the trustees, Spencer said.
Greenberg Traurig was picked for the job by the school board’s Superintendent Search Committee, Spencer said. HISD signed a contract with Jones and Greenberg Traurig in August 2009, and the district inked its contract with Grier the following month.
However, Greenberg Traurig's name does appear on the list of law firms for school year 2011-12 that district trustees voted to approve last Thursday night. Harris abstained from the vote but did not offer an explanation of why she abstained.
Greenberg Traurig is one of five law firms that had to recently pay back money to Harris County for "unsubstantiated travel and entertainment expenses incurred during trips to sell county bonds," the Houston Chronicle reported. An internal audit showed outgoing county Financial Services Director Edwin Harrison went on out-of-town trips, including travel to Costa Rica, with attorneys doing bond work for the county. The firm paid back about $128,000, and could lose another $175,000 in billing the county is challenging.
"Our hope is that we've repaid the money back and we're done with it," Frank Jones told the Chron. "Certainly, we felt we had a legitimate issue, but if the county decides that it doesn't warrant payment, we're done. They've been a great client to the firm, and we just want to put it behind us."
Texas Watchdog Editor Trent Seibert contributed to this story. Contact Lynn Walsh at email@example.com or 713-228-2850. Contact Jennifer Peebles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-656-1681.
Photo: A jazz dance troupe by flickr user ldhendrix. Jazz dance was one of the after-school classes put on by TL Consulting at HISD schools. Photo used under a Creative Commons license.
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Wednesday, 06/29/2011 - 09:33AM
Your next story should be about how much public tax money Leo Linbeck (who funds this blog according to your website) has made off his best friends at KIPP doing their construction across this country. How can they give friends BILLIONS in public dollars and with no public input, no public vote and no public representation.
Wednesday, 06/29/2011 - 11:42AM
** Your next story should be about how much public tax money Leo Linbeck (who funds this blog according to your website) **
Leo Linbeck funds Texas Watchdog? First I've heard of that. Do you have a link for that?
Linbeck has apparently been a financial backer of Paula Harris, so it doesn't seem that he has much influence over editorial content here.
** Leo Linbeck (who funds this blog according to your website) has made off his best friends at KIPP doing their construction across this country. How can they give friends BILLIONS in public dollars and with no public input, no public vote and no public representation. **
Linbeck is known as a booster of charter schools. If you have evidence of wrongdoing, though, perhaps you should share more details with the journalists.
Wednesday, 06/29/2011 - 07:27PM
In my experience, most adult ESL courses have poor turnout from what I've heard around the district. The parents are usually too tired from working two or more jobs. Just curious what the actual results were from these adult ESL and GED classes??? Thinking they weren't so great based on what I've observed in the past.
Friday, 07/22/2011 - 10:07PM
All the they have to do is apply the same rules that us realtors have to abide by and enforce them to the letter. We have to pay for our courses, pass the courses and then apply for a state license and pay for that also. Once we pass our state exam we have to be finger printed and pass an FBI background check. then we have to sign on with a broker and split our earnings whenever we make a sale. We also pay for our MLS (Multiple Listing Service), Office space, Insurance, Our Vehicle, Gasoline, Advertising, Business Cards and we have to abide by our Code of Ethics or lose our license.
I would be safe to say that non of our elected official or government workers would qualify to be a realtor.
Friday, 07/22/2011 - 10:17PM
Is there anyone in charge of over site or is everyone employed by our government on the honor system?. Politics is now the biggest scam ever pulled on the American Tax Payers. If civil law were to be applied to these folks there would be all kinds of vacancies in our government.