in Houston, Texas
Houston ISD further weakens revised ethics policy
Thursday, Dec 08, 2011, 02:34PM CST
By Mike Cronin

A draft ethics policy for the Houston school board that already had no sanctions to enforce its rules has become even weaker.

School trustees met twice in the past week to try to write a new, stronger board ethics code. But a revised ethics policy slated to be presented to trustees this afternoon instead:
  • Drops a proposed ban on trustees having direct communication "between district administration and current or potential vendors.” It would merely ban trustees from attending meetings with vendors and administrators.
  • Deletes a phrase stating board members must avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest “in the eyes of the general public.” 

Houston Independent School District staff members made both of those changes after last Thursday’s board workshop, said HISD spokesman Jason Spencer.

Four of the five board members reached by phone this morning told Texas Watchdog they were unaware that any revisions to the policy had been made. Texas Watchdog called all nine board members for comment but reached only five.

“Changes were made to reflect staff’s understanding of the board’s intent,” Spencer said. “And those changes were presented to the board on Monday. The board chose not to address the changes.”

But several of the trustees told Texas Watchdog today that they are not happy about the revisions.

Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, who attended Monday’s meeting, described as “stupid” the deletion of the phrase stating board members must avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest “in the eyes of the general public.”

“We should avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Rodriguez said. Trustee Anna Eastman, who was not at Monday’s meeting, agreed with Rodriguez.

The policy now states simply “that Board members will avoid conflicts of interest.”

Trustees are scheduled to vote on the new policy at today’s meeting, which begins at 5 p.m.

“I want as much transparency as possible when it comes to ethics,” said Trustee Greg Meyers, who attended Monday’s meeting and added that he was aware of the proposed changes. “I hope we continue to look at how we can strengthen our ethics policies even more.”

But the first change could impede that from occurring, which only prohibits trustees from attending meetings “between district administration and current or potential vendors.” For example, a board member still would be allowed to arrange meetings between district administration and current or potential vendors.

“So, board members could participate in a conference call,” said Trustee Juliet Stipeche, who was not at Monday’s meeting.

Eastman said she does not “have a problem with direct communications outside of defined quiet periods.”

That is one of the challenges of developing a solid ethics policy, said Trustee Harvin Moore, who was not at Monday’s meeting.

“It’s a difficult line to have to come up with,” Moore said. “At the same time, you don’t want to put anyone in a compromising position.”

Stipeche said during last Thursday’s meeting that she supported sanctions for those who violate the new ethics policy.

But Stipeche said that Philip Fraissinet, a partner with the Houston law firm Thompson & Horton, told her that other district policies exist for censuring trustees’ behavior. This ethics policy represents goals or standards.

Thompson & Horton lawyers serve as the HISD board’s legal counsel.

Fraissinet did not return multiple calls or e-mails requesting examples of those policies, and when they have been applied in the past.

Trustees have been developing a new board ethics policy in part due to questionable actions by board President Paula Harris and Trustee Larry Marshall.

For example, Harris voted multiple times on district contracts with businesses run by a close friend.

She also asked the district’s former procurement director to arrange a meeting with two vendors, records show.  

In another instance, Trustee Larry Marshall, HISD District IX, introduced Superintendent Terry Grier and Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett to Dr. Kenneth Wells to explore hiring Wells as an independent contractor.

HISD officials were about to award a $640,000 no-bid contract to Wells, despite not knowing precisely what Wells was going to do for the district.

Due in part to questions about the deal raised by Texas Watchdog, HISD officials have put the negotiations on hold.
UPDATE, 10 p.m. Thursday: This story was corrected to reflect that Trustee Greg Meyers said he was aware of the changes to the draft ethics policy. 3 p.m. Thursday: This story was corrected to reflect that Trustee Harvin Moore was not at Monday's meeting, but Trustee Greg Meyers was. Texas Watchdog regrets the errors. 

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

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Dave DeBlasio
Thursday, 12/08/2011 - 03:15PM

Is any member of this school board going to stand up and vote no for a weak, ineffective ethics policy, or are they going to do what they are good at: Covering for one another? Stipeche needs to vote no and use her lawyering skills to ferret out the truth. Stipeche and Eastman see the ethics issues clearly. They need to vote no even if a weakened ethics policy passes. As a taxpaying citizen, the nonsense from this school board has become over the top. When a district employee by the name of Dallas Dance dresses down an elected official by the name of Julie Stipeche over her right to know the names of the candidates for principal at one of her schools, there should be hell to pay. Grier's lust for power and the weakness of the board is turning HISD into a disreputable institution. Apparently, this board has bought into Don McAdams' crap about always getting along. Folks, it's time to fight for what you believe in. Getting along is just a smokescreen for taking the lazy way out and doing nothing.

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