The Houston public schools earlier this year hired a company headed by a local football star – one who had a brief career in the NFL – to cut grass and do grounds maintenance at dozens of schools even though the firm was far from the lowest bidder on the job, records show.
Southwest Wholesale Nursery, with offices in the city’s Central Southwest neighborhood, is owned and operated by Anthony L. Hutchison and his wife, Deborah. Hutchison is the former Texas Tech standout from Converse, outside San Antonio, who played two seasons with the Chicago Bears and a third with the Buffalo Bills, leaving the NFL in 1986. He was the Bears’ 10th-round draft pick in 1983.
Documents from the school system, released to Texas Watchdog under a public records request, don’t address why the school district opted not to give the contracts to lowest bidder, Houston Grotech Services, or any of the other firms that bid lower than Southwest Wholesale.
A message left on Monday afternoon with Gary Hogg, the district senior buyer who communicated with Southwest Wholesale’s owners, was not immediately returned.
Reached on Monday afternoon, Deborah Hutchison referred questions to her husband, Anthony L. Hutchison.
Grotech was awarded the contract for grounds maintenance for HISD’s North Region even though it was the next-to-lowest bidder on that project. Grotech bid $329,056 for that job. Silversand Services, the low bidder, bid $289,544.
Todd Minnis, Grotech's owner, said HISD officials told him that they wanted to split up the North Region and South Region work between two companies.
Otherwise, “they thought we might be overcapacity. We got the North Region and (Southwest Wholesale Nursery) got the south,” Minnis said. “I've got no argument with it, really. It has some merit to it.”
Minnis said he enjoyed working with HISD, calling district officials “very professional.”
A message left with Jimmy Collins, president of Silversand Services, was not immediately returned.
HISD has asked a national education nonprofit organization, the Council of the Great City Schools, to perform an outside review of the district’s procurement practices. A similar review will be performed by an external audit firm, Superintendent Terry Grier said earlier this month.
Robert Moore, the district's inspector general, began searching for an external auditor last week, said HISD spokesman Jason Spencer.
Even though he’s been out of pro football for 26 years, Hutchison’s NFL experience is the first thing listed on the resume he submitted to HISD.
His company has been paid more than $138,000 by HISD over the past two years, according to the school district’s online check register.
Prior to getting the South Region contract, records show Southwest Wholesale was already mulching, weeding and landscaping at schools for HISD, such as installing 84 plants of ornamental Aztec grass and 12 agapanthus, a perennial sometimes called the Lily of the Nile, along with putting down cedar mulch and weed barrier fabric, at DeBakey High School for the Health Professions in 2009.
Records show HISD officials allowed Hutchison to revise his bid on both the North Region and South Region grounds maintenance contracts about two months after the bids for the project were supposed to have been opened. At one point, his bid was much higher than the final agreed-on number.
HISD records show bids on the project – including grounds maintenance for both the North Region and South Region, as well as additional irrigation and landscaping services – from 19 firms opened on Jan. 26.
But on the morning of Feb. 10, Hogg e-mailed and faxed Hutchison, saying, “I still need your lump sum price” on the North Region and South Region projects. A document that appears to be a fax sent back to Hutchison a few minutes later contains handwritten quotes of $680,167.53 for the South Region work and $817,838 for the North Region.
On March 25, Hogg sent an e-mail to himself saying Hutchison “is submitting final offer for the north and south regions as follows,” quoting the South Region price at $435,451 and the North Region price at $662,000. The documents do not show a reason for the change.
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Photo by flickr user sacks08, used via a Creative Commons license.
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