A Houston schools trustee says the president of the school board suggested the trustee had used her influence to help a campaign donor get more painting work from the school system.
Juliet Stipeche, a first-term board member from the Houston schools’ District VIII, vigorously denies the allegation, which she said was made last month by board President Paula Harris -- who herself has been revealed in recent months to have ties to school district contractors.
The painting company in question, Milam & Co., has done more than $20 million in painting for the Houston Independent School District. However, it is now sharing Houston schools’ painting jobs with three other firms, including Westco Ventures, a firm owned and run by one of Harris’ close friends.
“I was brought into a room and talked to like a child” by Harris and school Superintendent Terry Grier, said Stipeche, an attorney and partner at the Houston law firm Nagorny & Stipeche.
“I’m very disappointed in the way this was handled,” she added.
Stipeche and two other school board members also took issue with Grier having given Harris and school board member Manuel Rodriguez a heads-up that Stipeche had asked about the painting contract.
Harris did not respond to voicemails left on her work and cell phones or an e-mail sent to her work and HISD accounts.
Grier said he was surprised by Stipeche's characterization of the Aug. 25 discussion.
“I don't ever want there to be the appearance that I'm trying to call someone on the carpet,” Grier said.
Stipeche says Harris summoned her to the gathering to discuss “employment issues.”
Stipeche said Grier and Harris then criticized her for asking HISD Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobadilla why Milam & Co. had not received the amount of work from it had expected as part of HISD’s $800 million, bond-financed school construction program.
They told Stipeche it was inappropriate for her to e-mail HISD staff about contracts – even contracts that Stipeche understood already existed.
“I was asking about an existing contract, not trying to manipulate the system for a company to get a new contract,” Stipeche said.
Stipeche said she first brought the issue to Bobadilla during the spring after Milam & Co. owner David Milam, one of her campaign donors, asked Stipeche why the district was not providing the expected projects.
Milam donated $2,000 to Stipeche's current campaign, she said. Milam made that donation on June 21, according to Stipeche's campaign finance reports.
“As we discussed, the company was contracted in 2008 or 2009 to paint schools related to the bond renovations,” Stipeche wrote in an e-mail to Bobadilla on Aug. 23. “There was a whole laundry list of schools that the company was contracted to paint. However, the work has been slow coming or not at all, and they don’t understand what’s happening. I also don’t understand how someone can be fairly awarded a contract to paint buildings in the bond project but somehow get lost in the shuffle.”
Bobadilla did not return a phone call or an e-mail requesting comment.
In response to Texas Watchdog’s questions, school system officials yesterday said HISD has paid Milam & Co. about $23 million since 1997, or roughly two-thirds of the $33 million the school district has spent on painting in that time frame.
“For many years, they were the sole approved paint vendor for the district,” HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said.
Stipeche said no one in the HISD administration or on the board told her that e-mailing questions to Bobadilla directly was inappropriate until the issue with her Aug. 23 e-mail arose.
In fact, she said, since being elected last year, HISD department heads had repeatedly invited her to contact them anytime she had a question.
That type of communication would violate an HISD policy that district staff implemented in 2002 and updated last year. That regulation states that board members must communicate with HISD employees through the school system’s Board Services Office, rather than contact them directly.
But Stipeche, who was elected to the school board last November, said she wasn't aware of that regulation until after she sent her e-mail to Bobadilla, documenting her request for information and copying Grier.
And Texas Watchdog's review in recent weeks of thousands of pages of school officials' internal e-mails show numerous instances in which incumbent school board members have e-mailed questions and forwarded parents' concerns to top administrators working for Grier in the past two years, including questions about HISD contracts.
Case in point is Harris herself. Last November, e-mails Harris she talked with the school system's then-head of procurement about contracts involving Westco and another firm, though Harris has said she never talked with the official. As recently as March of this year, e-mails show Harris talked with another school system staffer about concerns that oak trees would be cut down on the campus of Turner Elementary School, near the Texas Southern University campus. And in August of last year, she recruited the same official to pull and send her updated statistics on school construction so that they could be included in a newsletter to her constituents.
Stipeche said that she had asked Bobadilla the same question multiple times without receiving a proper explanation – nor did she receive a reply that the appropriate approach would be to contact Board Services and not Bobadilla.
After she e-mailed him in August, he finally responded, e-mailing her back the next day that the school system was now using more than one firm to do painting.
School system records also show that Grier forwarded Stipeche’s Aug. 23 e-mail to Harris and Rodriguez, adding only the phrase “FYI.”
Grier said he wanted to make sure he handled the situation correctly, particularly because Texas Watchdog and the Houston Chronicle have reported in recent months on Houston school officials’ ties to contractors.
“With all the contract stuff going on, we wanted to be cautious,” Grier said.
Plus, Grier said, he works for the board – not the other way around.
“I sent the e-mail to the board's officers to let them read it and let them decide how they wanted to handle it,” Grier said. Harris is president of the nine-member board this year, and Rodriguez holds the title of first vice president.
Harris decided it would be best to discuss the issue privately with Stipeche and Grier, the superintendent said. “I don't think it's my place to talk to a board member who has had a conversation with one of my staff,” Grier said.
But Stipeche and two other board members, Mike Lunceford and Anna Eastman, said Grier should have forwarded the e-mail to all the board members – not only Harris and Rodriguez.
“You should send it to everyone,” said Lunceford, who is the school board’s assistant secretary this year. “There's no hierarchy on the board. We're all equal trustees. It's like (George Orwell's) 'Animal Farm' – no one's more equal than the others.”
In Orwell's 1945 work, a community of animals develop a system of seven commandments – the most important being, “All animals are equal.” But over time, those commandments become perverted until only one remains: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Eastman, the school board’s second vice president, said she experienced an e-mail incident similar to Stipeche's, but said she was not called into a meeting about it.
Grier said he'd be happy to discuss the way he handled his forwarding of Stipeche's e-mail with any board member.
The superintendent said David Thompson, the special counsel to the HISD board, advised him not to talk about anything that occurred in the Aug. 25 discussion with Stipeche for legal reasons.
Stipeche said she was frustrated that Bobadilla could not answer whether Milam had an existing bond-program contract, despite asking him for months.
“He eventually told me that he spoke with his staff but nothing was said, so he assumed there was no issue,” Stipeche said. “But that didn't answer my question. To this day, I don't know if Milam has an existing bond-program contract with HISD or not.”
Stipeche also said that Grier told her that Milam actually never had a contract for the bond program work, and instead had only an informal agreement – which raises questions about whether HISD, a $1.6 billion-a-year operation, followed proper procedure in doing millions of dollars in business with one company based on a handshake.
But Spencer cited Bobadilla's Aug. 24 e-mail to Stipeche as answering her question. Spencer pointed to Bobadilla's second sentence, which reads, “Milam and Company Painting, Inc. is one of several annual vendors that the District utilizes to provide supplemental painting services to the District.”
Just because the district approves a company as a vendor does not mean the firm will automatically to do work for the district, Spencer pointed out.
“A vendor doesn't have a contract until the district issues a purchase order,” he said.
The school board approved four painting vendors during its April 14 meeting. Among them were Milam and Westco, the company owned by Nicole West, Harris' close friend.
“Now we can go to four approved vendors, ask for estimates for their work and issue purchase orders based on an evaluation of those estimates,” Spencer said.
Gene Maeroff, K-12 education expert and board president of Edison Township public schools in New Jersey, said generally the low bid would obtain the contract in that situation.
“Especially for job such as painting buildings,” which is relatively simple, said Maeroff, founder of the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York.
Harris, Rodriguez and Stipeche are all up for re-election in November.
Stipeche said she remains confused over how her colleagues dealt with her question.
“I'm asking a question about a contract that's in existence,” she said. “If it's not in existence, then let me know. There's no reason to put this under such a cloud of suspicion and uneasiness.”
Contact Mike Cronin at email@example.com or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
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Photo of “Paint Brush & Can” by flickr user Joshboyd Studios, used via a Creative Commons license.