in Houston, Texas
Houston ISD trustees vote to close 3 schools, rebid contracts (Corrected)
Friday, Apr 13, 2012, 04:13PM CST
By Mike Cronin
closed

The Houston school board approved measures to close three schools, lay off an unspecified number of teachers and urge all elementary schools to offer recess during its monthly meeting on Thursday night.

And at the same time district administrators contend teacher layoffs are necessary to save money, they are advertising hundreds of teaching position openings in the Houston Independent School District.

Trustees also voted to rebid two contracts that Texas Watchdog raised questions about last year. A four-month audit of the Houston Independent School District’s procurement practices also concluded problems existed in those two contract awards.

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

A standing room-only audience of more than 300 people crowded the room.

Many of them pleaded with board members to keep open New Aspirations Academy high school, Dominion Academy middle school and DeVry Advantage Academy high school during public remarks.

Trustees also approved a proposal to combine Kaleidoscope Charter Middle School with Jane Long Middle School in the same motion that closed the three schools.

Trustees Manuel Rodriguez, Paula Harris, Juliet Stipeche and Rhonda Skillern-Jones heard those pleas and suggested alternatives to shuttering the schools.

But all failed with the exception of one proposed by Harris, who extracted a promise from Superintendent Terry Grier to keep students currently enrolled at the soon-to-be-gone schools as a cohort.

She asked that HISD staff be “creative” and try to “keep the family together.”

“We can do that,” Grier said.

Trustee Larry Marshall was the only board member to repeatedly support the school closings proposal during the meeting. He cited the district’s mounting budget challenges.

A projected deficit of $34.7 million confronts HISD officials.

“The board cut the budget last year by $100 million,” Marshall said. “This year, we’ll probably have to cut $20 million.”

Stipeche and Trustee Anna Eastman joined board members such as Rodriguez and Harris in expressing their displeasure with the way district staff has handled the implementation of the school closures.

They said the process has moved too rapidly to allow for proper examination and that HISD staff members did not alert them of the level of opposition to the measure.

“I would hope that school closure proposals be given the time they deserve,” Eastman said.

Rodriguez also said he was surprised so many people attended the meeting to oppose the closures. In Spanish and English he told HISD residents that they had to let their board representatives know when they were upset about an issue.

“It's tough to do school closures. It's tough to get better at it,” Harris said shortly before the board voted to approve the measure, 6-3. “We’re never going to have a crowd of people saying, ‘Close our school.’”

Rodriguez, Stipeche and Skillern-Jones opposed the measure.

In another move to tackle the projected deficit, trustees also passed separate measures that will lay off an unspecified number of teachers and employees from all HISD sectors. At least 62 special education teachers will lose their jobs, the district’s human resources chief, Ann Best, said.

Eastman called the long list of district schools, programs and buildings encompassed by the proposed cuts “terrifying.”

She and other board members also asked how and why district officials can plan teacher layoffs while simultaneously recruiting new teachers for hundreds of HISD openings.

District administrators also are offering an $8,000 hiring bonus and money to cover moving expenses to teachers who accept HISD positions, according to Best and a posting on the online job site, CareerBuilder.com.

“HISD has hundreds of openings for motivated teachers who are committed to making an impact on student achievement and closing the achievement gap,” the CareerBuilder.com ad reads.

Best explained that hiring and layoffs can occur at the same time because individual principals make the employment decisions at their respective schools.

And if a teacher loses his or her job at one school, district policy dictates that HISD officials may not place that teacher at another school. The principals alone control who fills open teaching positions at their respective schools, Best told trustees.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union, told the board before they approved the layoff plan that voting for the proposal could strengthen a possible lawsuit against HISD.

“That because most teachers are well over 40,” she said, referring to legally-protected bracket of teachers. “That could be grounds for age discrimination.”

David Thompson, the HISD board counsel, said he “respectfully disagree(d)” with Fallon.

Stipeche and Skillern-Jones opposed each of the separate layoff plans.

HISD administrators recommended the board rebid two contracts in which auditors from Null-Lairson, a Houston accounting firm, and Texas Watchdog found problems.

Eastman asked district Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett the reason for that recommendation.

“Both contracts were up for renewal for another year,” Garrett said. After speaking with HISD Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobadilla, they decided to recommend the contracts be rebid to achieve more transparency in the contract awarding process.

“That way we could address inconsistencies found in the Null-Lairson audit report,” Garrett said.

Documents went missing during the audit from the painting 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.



Auditors concluded in their draft report that a “lack of documentation (existed) indicating how the nine vendors” made “the short list” in the grounds-maintenance contract.

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.

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.


Trustees approved the contract rebid item, 8-1, with Stipeche opposing the measure due to objections she had to three food contracts included in the motion.

Finally, the board passed a resolution, 9-0, that all HISD elementary schools “should” offer daily recess to students.

Editor's note: This story was corrected on June 14 to reflect that Gregory-Lincoln Education Center, an elementary school, remains open.

***
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 'closed' sign by flickr user khawkins04, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Comments
Really?
Saturday, 04/14/2012 - 10:03AM

Ann Best says the layoffs and hirings can occur at the same time because individual principals make the hiring decisions.....well who's making the firing decisions the principals or Grier? I don't see why a teacher could not be placed on another campus instead of being let go. It's all crazy! That's one of the stupidest policies! Hiring with an $8000 sign on bonus and firing at the same time. Really? I am with Gayle Fallon on this...Let the lawsuits begin! Most of the teachers are over 40. Hmmmm!

Curious
Saturday, 04/14/2012 - 10:19AM

I was at the meeting and didn't hear anyone object to closing Dominion, Gregorly Lincoln, or New Aspirations.

I'll wager....
Monday, 04/16/2012 - 06:19AM

I'll wager that those teachers laid off, if rehired, will NOT qualify for the $8000 bonus either.

RayRay
Wednesday, 04/25/2012 - 06:50AM

Brian Busby must be upset that his buddy Anthony Hutchison will loose his premium grounds maintenance contract. Its ok. Brian will throw old Tony a couple of $100K in smaller jobs.

CitizenWatch
Thursday, 05/03/2012 - 04:19PM

Man this keep on happening all over the country these days, just google it

Jeffy Blonsky
Thursday, 06/14/2012 - 02:41AM

Gregory Lincoln Elementary did NOT close. HISD merely reclassified the school so it uses one organization number, instead of two. The elementary program is still in operation, and the attendance boundary is the same: http://www.houstonisd.org/PolicyAdministration/Home/Board%20Items/Agendas/2012/041212OA_POST.pdf - The following DID close: Kaleidoscope, New Aspirations, Dominion, and DeVry

Lee Ann O'Neal
Thursday, 06/14/2012 - 04:20PM

Mr. Blonsky: Thank you for bringing the error to our attention. We have corrected the story.

Lee Ann O'Neal, Texas Watchdog

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