Houston schools trustees question whether study proposing $1.9 billion bond was ‘fair and equitable’


Still uncertain about how a consultant concluded that $1.9 billion worth of taxpayer money should be spent on building and repairing dozens of Houston public schools, several trustees say they plan to ask tough questions at two public meetings scheduled this week.

“We’ll be held responsible” if Houston Independent School District board members place a construction bond referendum on the November ballot, said Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones.

“The only way to be informed is to make sure that HISD’s facilities are inspected by qualified people who can make judgments about things like building infrastructure, air quality and depreciation and quality of work completed,” Skillern-Jones said. “A staff and community survey doesn’t say what’s needed from a technical standpoint, only a practical one.”

She and other HISD trustees say they still need answers to some fundamental questions about the methodology of a $1.25 million district facilities needs assessment conducted from March through June.

Consultants from Parsons Commercial Technology Group Inc., of North Carolina, presented their findings to the school board last month. They said they personally visited 35 of the district’s 279 schools, then used computer models and surveys of HISD school faculty and staff to come up with their recommendations.

Superintendent Terry Grier said during a board meeting last month that it would take two years for consultants to conduct in-person visits to every district school. He said, as a former principal himself, those employed within HISD’s buildings know what schools’ true needs are.

That insight is “better than a walkthrough,” Grier said last month.

Grier was on vacation Friday and could not be reached for comment.

Board President Mike Lunceford is among those who said he needs more data about the Parsons report.

“They visited 35 schools and randomly picked 20 other schools. How’d they do that? And was it fair and equitable?” Lunceford asked. “We’re the ones recommending this to voters, so I take it seriously.”

The work would include about $577 million to replace eight high schools, about $354 million to “replace inadequate facilities” at four high schools, about $259 million to replace and renovate facilities at five high schools and $27 million to build two new high schools.

“In its present incarnation, I have serious problems with it,” Trustee Juliet Stipeche said of the consultant’s proposal.

Significant omissions from the Parsons study remain, Stipeche said. They include specific plans that outline how and on what the bond money would be spent and demographic and population projections for HISD areas targeted for new schools or schools identified as needing major upgrades, she said.

The projects would require a tax increase, beginning with a 2-cent hike in 2014 that would add $29 to the tax bill for a $200,000 home, HISD estimates. By 2017, the total tax rate would have increased 6.85 cents, upping the bill by $99 per year. (Find other home values and the corresponding increases here.)

To put a bond before the voters in a November referendum, the school must take action in August, according to Texas election law.

The magnitude of putting such a decision before the public “lends itself to needing a walkthrough” of individual HISD schools, Skillern-Jones said -- not just relying on computer models and staff surveys.

“I wanted to see an objective study based on actually visiting campuses that’s worth $1.25 million,” Stipeche added.

That’s particularly true when flaws exist in the 2007 Magellan Reports data set Parsons used in its computer models, Skillern-Jones said. One example she provided was closet or janitorial space mistakenly being categorized as classroom space.

Magellan Consulting Inc., in Conroe, conducted a $3.2 million analysis of HISD’s facilities in 2006.

Work on an $805 million construction bond HISD voters passed in 2007 is behind schedule and not expected to be completed until 2014, according to district officials.

“I don’t understand the rush,” Stipeche said. “I want to support a bond. But I’m not going to support a bond just to support a bond if it’s a bad proposal. If it takes more time (to analyze what’s needed), then it takes more time.”

Stipeche’s board colleague, Harvin Moore, disagreed with the idea of holding up work needed now simply because the 2007 bond projects aren’t yet done.

“I don’t think that’s a good fiduciary responsibility for needs of children. This bond is badly needed,” said Moore, who supports the Parsons bond proposal. “Putting off urgent needs of the district is not a good idea. Why delay it if our children have needs? Unless there’s a belief that (the study) was done wrong, why delay?”

He said he has questions that he hasn’t had the opportunity to ask. “I look forward to asking those questions. I’m sure Parsons worked with the district’s facilities folks” to prepare the report.

“Everyone knows the Magellan Reports had some errors, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value,” Moore continued. They are only one part of the overall picture, he said.

Trustee Manuel Rodriguez plans to listen and learn during the 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. meeting scheduled for Tuesday, he said. During the 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday, Rodriguez plans to ask questions, he said. Both are at HISD headquarters, 4400 West 18th St..

“I’m still saying we need to go out for a bond,” Rodriguez said. “But I need to know more details, like the (Parsons) facilities report on the rankings of schools and how that compares to the Magellan Reports rankings. We need to know a lot more before we commit to any numbers.”

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

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