in Houston, Texas

Houston ISD officials' defense of contracts for friends 'idiotic,' 'questionable': Critics

Tuesday, Aug 23, 2011, 08:14AM CST
By Mike Cronin
bus

Answering questions about no-bid contracts and business deals awarded to school board members’ friends, Houston Independent School District officials have replied that no laws or rules were violated.

That explanation troubles those such as Gene Maeroff.

“It's idiotic. People know right from wrong,” said Maeroff, author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy and founder of the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York. He’s also board president of Edison Township public schools, the fifth-largest school district in New Jersey, with about 14,000 students.  

Nothing in the HISD code of ethics bars board members from voting on contracts if he or she is a friend of the respective vendor. State law does not require competitive bidding on work that falls under the category of “professional services” like legal or consulting services.

Those omissions allowed HISD board President Paula Harris to vote to approve four contracts that included work for  Westco, a Houston-based company owned by Harris' friend, Nicole West. Harris and West are close enough that they traveled to Italy together in April. Westco has also done more than $100,000 in smaller projects for HISD that did not require the school board’s approval, and has been paid about $1.7 million by the district in total. 
 
Those omissions also paved the way for HISD to give $75,000 in no-bid consulting work to another Harris friend, Demetra Jones, whose husband is Harris’ campaign treasurer. Harris has since said she would abstain from voting on district business with Westco.  She also abstained from an Aug. 11 vote to contract with more than 80 organizations to put on after-school enrichment programs, one of which was Jones' firm, Training & Leadership Consulting.

HISD board members were also ready earlier this summer to give up to $640,000 in a no-bid contract to Alken Health Resourcesdespite not knowing exactly what services the company would provide the district. The Houston-based Alken is run by Dr. Kenneth D. Wells, whom Trustee Larry Marshall introduced to Superintendent Terry Grier and Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett. The school system has since said it thinks the contract will cost considerably less than $640,000.

Marshall and Wells traveled to Costa Rica in November on the same flight to explore “medical tourism” in that country. Medical tourism is the practice of paying for medical procedures abroad at lower costs than exist in the United States.

“No-bid contracts are usually very, very suspicious in local-governance,” said Heinrich Mintrop, an assistant professor who specializes in leadership at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Education. “That raises a red flag for me. The combination of a no-bid contract and a very poor job description with no clear deliverable – that seems not a clean, ethical way of doing things.”

The district requires a board vote only when individual consultant agreements are $25,000 or more or $100,000 or more in the aggregate, HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said in an e-mail earlier this summer. Hiring educational consultants does not require a formal request-for-proposal process.

HISD is the seventh-largest school district in the country, commanding a $1.6 billion annual budget to educate roughly 203,000 students. About 1.1 million Houston-area residents live within the district.

One of those residents, Travis McGee, 37, said the entire board should be investigated.

“Now we're seeing what's happening with our tax dollars. One thing's for sure, the schools are not getting it,” said McGee, president of the Sunnyside Gardens and Bayou Estates Civic Club. A barber and neighborhood activist, he lives in Harris’ school board district.

“I think it's a huge conflict of interest,” McGee said of the votes by Harris and Marshall on the contracts with Westco and Alken.

“Perception is powerful,” said Maeroff, the New Jersey school-board president. “A school board member operating properly would not vote one way or another on a contract that would financially benefit a friend.”

Maeroff said he doesn't even pass along resumes to his district's human resources department. He tells them to go to HR directly.

Houston City Council rules don't preclude council members from voting on contracts to vendors who are friends of council members, said David M. Feldman, the Houston city attorney.

“Although if it was a close relationship, prudence (appearance) might caution against it,” Feldman said in an e-mail. Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Houston Mayor Annise Parker, added that city council members receive ethics training.

Officials at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., refused to answer what, if any, ethics guidance they provide to their board members. Linda Embrey, the association spokeswoman, referred questions to Texas state and local board officials.

The association's website lists “integrity and ethics” among its core values. It describes them as, “The foundation of all relationships. Necessary to engender trust and accomplish NSBA’s mission and vision.”

Mintrop said though the association might not be able to enforce its principles, it still seems to be of the tradition of other established organizations such as the National Education Association “that come with (the) obligation of furthering standards of professional conduct.”

The NSBA is “still called to contribute to the common good,” Mintrop said.

Texas state Sen. Mario Gallegos, a Houston Democrat and frequent critic of HISD’s leadership, called the lack of ethics regarding the board's contract awards a shame.

“It might be legal, but it's questionable.”
 
Editor's note: This story was last updated at noon Tuesday to clarify that state law does not require competitive bids on professional services.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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