in Houston, Texas
Houston ISD moves to rebid contracts after audit, Texas Watchdog stories
Wednesday, Apr 11, 2012, 06:09PM CST
By Mike Cronin

Houston schools officials are recommending that contracts involving two companies that Texas Watchdog raised questions about last year be re-bid.

That recommendation comes in the wake of a four-month audit of the Houston Independent School District’s procurement practices that concluded problems existed in two contracts that included both companies.

One contract is for painting and worth up to $2 million, and the other is for grounds maintenance and worth up to $600,000.

HISD officials have requested that school board members approve the re-bid of the contracts during their Thursday-night monthly meeting due to “issues identified in the Null-Lairson audit report,” according to the meeting agenda.

School-board President Mike Lunceford said those issues included documents that went missing during the audit from a contract file for Westco Ventures LLC, a company owned by a close friend of last year’s board President Paula Harris.

Texas Watchdog reported that Harris intervened with district staff on behalf of her friend, Nicole West, after Westco did not receive a contract.

Lunceford said another issue involved a grounds-maintenance contract in which auditors concluded a “lack of documentation (existed) indicating how the nine vendors” made “the short list.”

Texas Watchdog reported that one of those companies, Southwest Wholesale Nursery, won a contract despite its bid being nearly twice as high as the lowest bidder on the project and higher than seven other firms that bid on the job. The difference between the low bid and Southwest Wholesale's bid was about $205,000. That would pay the annual salaries of about 4.5 teachers on the lowest rung of HISD's teacher pay scale.

Procurement experts in Texas and at other school districts throughout the country, such as the Miami Dade County Public Schools, reviewed documents for that award provided to Texas Watchdog by HISD. Some did not see documentation that explained why the winning companies obtained the contracts.

Christopher Gross, HISD’s procurement department general manager, did not return a phone call or an e-mail requesting comment.

Null-Lairson, a Houston accounting firm, completed its $87,500 audit and presented its findings to HISD trustees last month.

Auditors found the way the district buys goods and services was not transparent enough. They suggested a range of reforms, including disclosure when trustees receive gifts of travel or have financial ties to vendors, and more readily available information about how companies are chosen by district staff for contracts.

The audit was conducted after Trustee Anna Eastman called in August for an examination of HISD’s procurement procedures. HISD has come under heavy criticism and media attention from Texas Watchdog and others over how the district has done business in recent years.

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

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Photo of paint by flickr user basykes, used via a Creative Commons license.

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