The Houston school district is considering toughening its ethics policies regarding how it chooses with whom to do business -- but the changes proposed to the board this week wouldn't have stopped the incidents that have grabbed headlines recently.
The school district's "code of silence" period -- during which district officials can't talk to people wanting to do business with the district -- would be extended, for instance, and it would apply to some contract renewals it did not previously cover.
But even the existing silent period didn't stop school board President Paula Harris from travelling to Italy last April with her buddy Nicole West, whose firms the school district has hired for a wide array of services. Nor did it stop Harris from communicating with district officials about why a contract involving West's firm Westco and one other company had been removed from a school board meeting agenda.
Nor would the revised policy have prevented Harris from voting four times on contracts involving work for West’s firms, though she has since said publicly that she would recuse herself from voting on matters involving West in the future.
At the same time, the changes in the policy would prevent vendors and their representatives from communicating in writing with anyone at the school district other than the procurement official handling their contract.
But the changes would not have prevented school trustee Larry Marshall from setting up a meeting for Dr. Kenneth Wells with HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett. Wells had travelled with Marshall to Costa Rica last year to study “medical tourism” there. The school board voted this summer to pay Wells up to $640,000 to serve as a health care consultant, even though school district records show Garrett and other administrators questioned how Wells would help the district.
The school board was slated to vote on the proposed changes on first reading at today’s board meeting, but board members voted to postpone the measure until October. The board wants to “go to through and improve what has been proposed,” board member Mike Lunceford told the audience, saying the additional time would allow the school district’s lawyers to weigh in.
Here's a look at some of the changes in the policy as it was presented to the school board members this afternoon.
- Lengthening the "code of silence" period: Under the current rule, put in place last year, the silent period begins when when the procurement chief sent out an e-mail to officials saying it has begun, and it ends when the school board approves the contract in question. Under the changed policy, the silent period would start 30 calendar days prior to a request-for-proposal being issued or other form of "competitive solicitation," and the silent period would end when the contract involved is executed.
- The silent period would apply not just to contracting but to other ways the district buys materials and services and to renewals on requests-for-proposals.
- Vendors and vendors' representatives could communicate in writing with the school system only with the procurement official handling their case. Under the current rules, they have been required to "file a copy" of written correspondence with their procurement person; the new rules say they would be required to "send" their written communication to the procurement project manager.
- The definition of who is a vendors' representative has been broadened to include for-profit and nonprofit organizations acting "on behalf of a group of interested individuals or members."
- Violations of the ethics policy could be investigated by an outside law firm. Currently, the policy says violations can only be investigated by the district's own inspector general.
Contact Jennifer Peebles at 281-656-1681 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @texaswatchdog or @jpeebles.
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