in Houston, Texas
Houston schools trustees OK hiring firm to assess buildings, trustees courted by Grier to support bond vote
Friday, Mar 09, 2012, 11:33AM CST
By Mike Cronin
hard hats

Houston school board members took the first step Thursday night toward what could be asking voters to approve a new bond in November.

Such a bond referendum, if approved, would raise taxes for Houston Independent School District residents, board President Mike Lunceford told Texas Watchdog last week. But it also would provide a sum likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars to address badly needed school-building repairs, renovations and new high-school construction, many district officials have said.

HISD board members unanimously approved, 8-0, hiring Parsons Commercial Technology Group Inc., of North Carolina, to conduct an assessment of district facilities. Trustees voted to pay Parsons a maximum of $1.25 million for the work, which will begin immediately and be completed in 90 days.

“I’m glad to see this is on the agenda,” Trustee Harvin Moore said before the vote. “It has to be done. It’s time for an update to our last facilities assessment, which was several years ago.”

That assessment was completed in 2006 for a cost of $3.2 million. Magellan Consulting Inc., in Conroe, Texas, conducted that analysis and issued its findings in what is commonly referred to as “The Magellan Report.”

District officials used the findings of that report to ask HISD residents in 2007 to approve an $805 million bond. Voters passed the measure by 51 percent. But some HISD residents have said district officials did not allow their voices to be heard during the referendum process.

Superintendent Terry Grier and several board members emphasized last night that the district welcomed and wanted public input beginning now on issues anyone feels are important regarding HISD facilities.

Grier shared an anecdote during the meeting underlining that desire. While a group of students was with the superintendent yesterday, they told him that some district restrooms needed fixing.

Terry GrierTerry Grier

“That is a grand example of how to get input from the community,” Grier said.

Trustee Paula Harris added, “We've already been getting emails (on work HISD residents feel district buildings need).”

Grier has avoided answering specific questions from Texas Watchdog about why the new bond is needed and its potential price tag. The district has instead twice referred to this e-mailed statement from spokesman Jason Spencer:

“As Dr. Grier mentioned in (last week’s) State of the Schools address, HISD is in the final stages of completing the work approved by voters in the 2007 bond referendum. That work is on track to come in on time and under budget. While significant improvements were made under that program, there are still significant facilities needs among HISD’s 279 schools. Next week, the Board of Education will be asked to approve hiring an outside firm to conduct an independent assessment of HISD’s facilities. The findings of that assessment would then be presented to the Board and the community. Any decision as to whether to conduct a bond referendum would be made by the Board.”

Grier has been working to sell the board on the bond. Four trustees have said district officials have met with them within the last month about why a new bond is necessary, though they all said no potential dollar figure was discussed.

Board Vice President Anna Eastman and trustees Manuel Rodriguez, Juliet Stipeche and Rhonda Skillern-Jones said that HISD officials met individually with each of them. Rodriguez, Stipeche and Skillern-Jones said Grier himself attended their meetings.

“They explained why they wanted the bond on the table,” Skillern-Jones said. The conversation included soliciting opinions on holding a referendum this year rather than next year, she said.

“They said this bond would be more of a high school initiative as far as new buildings went,” she said. “And that it would include improvements on other schools that the 2007 bond was not able to cover.”

But Skillern-Jones reiterated what she said in an interview with Texas Watchdog last week, that the board as a whole has not discussed a new bond issue, and that Grier has not presented the issue to the board in a formal manner.

Manuel RodriguezManuel Rodriguez

Rodriguez said Grier and the district’s chief financial officer, Melinda Garrett, met with him last week. Garrett also attended Skillern-Jones’ meeting, she said.

“It’s too early to talk about money,” Rodriguez said. “We need to look at what the (Parsons) report says and look at what needs to be done.”

Rodriguez repeated what he told Texas Watchdog earlier this month: It is important to put the new bond referendum before the voters this year, as it has a greater chance of success given the turnout in a presidential election cycle.

“This is for the future of the city,” Rodriguez said. “The district is not making any money. It’s about improving the quality of our schools.”

UPDATE: This story was updated at 1 p.m. March 9 to include additional comments from HISD Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones.
***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of sign by flickr user jasoneppink, used via a Creative Commons license.

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