in Houston, Texas
houston independent school district
Houston school district approves new contracts after auditors, Texas Watchdog raised questions about original bid process
Tuesday, Jul 24, 2012, 10:19AM CST
By Mike Cronin
hissed

Satisfied with the rebid process of two problem contracts, the Houston school board has unanimously approved district agreements with Westco Ventures LLP and Southwest Wholesale Nursery.

Houston Independent School District officials decided to put those contracts up for rebid in April after Texas Watchdog and an independent audit of HISD’s procurement processes raised questions about them.

Westco is among four companies that have been awarded a $2 million painting contract. Southwest Wholesale Nursery is receiving $600,000 to do landscaping work.

A close friend of last year’s board President Paula Harris owns Westco. Texas Watchdog reported in August that Harris intervened with district staff on behalf of West after Westco did not receive a contract.

Unlike in April, Harris kept her promise during Thursday night’s board meeting of no longer voting on contracts with Westco. Harris was away from her seat during the 5-0 vote.

Auditors from Null-Lairson, a Houston accounting firm that became Whitley Penn in May, told HISD board members that documents were missing from the Westco contract file during a March presentation.

Texas Watchdog reported last week that HISD Inspector General Robert Moore issued a report earlier this month, three months after he promised it.

That report concluded that some documents remained missing and that district officials could improve their methods of tracking, filing, archiving and accessing public records. Moore found “no evidence of malicious intent” with respect to the missing documents.

Texas Watchdog reported in August that 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.

***
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 HISD board from the Houston Independent School District website.

Some procurement docs still missing, no ‘malicious intent,’ Houston schools IG finds
Thursday, Jul 19, 2012, 03:08PM CST
By Mike Cronin
magnify

Better late than never.

The inspector general of Houston’s public schools finally completed a long-awaited investigation on procurement documents that went missing during a winter audit.

Three months after Robert Moore said it would be done, the report found that Houston Independent School District officials could improve their methods of tracking, filing, archiving and accessing public records.

“This is just sloppy record-keeping in HISD,” said Trustee Juliet Stipeche, who called for the investigation in March. Stipeche, a Houston lawyer, chairs the school board’s audit committee.

“We need tremendous improvement in appropriately tracking and establishing the chain of custody for our documents,” Stipeche said. “There’s no system in place that shows when documents are checked out.”

Auditors from Null-Lairson, a Houston accounting firm that became Whitley Penn in May, told HISD board members about the missing documents during a March presentation.

Null-Lairson; MGT of America, a consulting firm based in Tallahassee, Fla.; and Mariga CPA in Houston conducted an $87,500, four-month audit of the way HISD purchases goods and services and awards contracts.

Moore’s report also found that confidentiality agreements auditors said were missing remain missing.

And, “our examination disclosed no evidence of malicious intent with respect to the matters review,” Moore’s report reads.

Stipeche said she didn’t suspect any.

“What the report yielded is a lot of negligence,” she said. “We board members are responsible for billions of dollars spent on contracts that ultimately should benefit Houston’s school children. We can’t do that with documents walking away.”

Part of the furor over the documents was due to the file from which they went missing: a contract with Westco Ventures LLC, a company owned by a close friend of last year’s board President Paula Harris.

HISD officials chose to rebid the Westco contract and another with Southwest Wholesale Nursery in April after Texas Watchdog and the Null-Lairson audit raised questions about them. Both companies are scheduled to receive new contracts for the same work, according to tonight’s board meeting agenda.

“The project file did not indicate how pricing for the handwritten compilation was scored by the evaluation committee members,” Moore’s report reads. “There were mathematical errors on five of the individual scoring sheets. Please refer to the notes on Exhibit A for an explanation of these errors.”

Upon reviewing Exhibit A, a handwritten grid of companies and scores, Stipeche said, “It is preposterous that HISD staff would consider this an adequate way to award a contract. This is unprofessional beyond measure.”

Moore and his staff told Trustee Manuel Rodriguez that they discovered “it was hit or miss” whether an individual signed for a public document,” Rodriguez said.

“Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t,” said Rodriguez, who sits on the HISD board audit committee. “Sometimes they took the whole file (of documents), sometimes only part.”

Consistency will be among the remedies for the problem, Rodriguez said.

“From now on, people are going to have to sign for the whole file, bring it back and sign out,” he said.

HISD administrators told audit committee members that they will schedule an August workshop for trustees, Rodriguez said. That workshop will address procedures and regulations regarding document custody.

Procurement department officials plan to “create and implement a checklist” for completed project files, wrote Christopher Gross, the district’s procurement chief, in his separate report on the matter.

Board President Mike Lunceford said he had not yet seen the reports and expects to receive them during tonight’s board meeting.

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

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Houston schools trustees question whether study proposing $1.9 billion bond was ‘fair and equitable’
Monday, Jul 09, 2012, 10:56AM CST
By Mike Cronin
money

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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Houston ISD investigation into missing documents 2 months overdue
Thursday, Jun 28, 2012, 04:05PM CST
By Mike Cronin
clock

Findings from an investigation into how documents went missing during an audit of the ways Houston public schools do business are more than two months late – and officials have yet to explain why.

“It’s ridiculous that we don’t have an answer to this question,” said Juliet Stipeche, the Houston Independent School District trustee who called for the investigation in March.

HISD Inspector General Robert Moore told the district board audit committee on April 19 that “we expect to make a final determination within a week” on the missing documents.

But Moore told the audit committee on May 24 that his staff still had not completed the investigation due to an illness suffered by a family member of an HISD employee.

Stipeche, who chairs the audit committee, said Moore told her on Wednesday that the report would be available at the next audit committee meeting on July 12.

Moore did not return a phone call and an e-mail requesting comment.

Juliet StipecheJuliet Stipeche

“I was willing to give (HISD staff) the benefit of the doubt due to the family crisis that occurred to the person spearheading the investigation,” said Stipeche, a Houston lawyer. “But I’m not going to wait any longer for the response. We need it now. We needed it yesterday.”

School board President Mike Lunceford, who served on the audit committee for two years before stepping down to head the trustees in January, said “it’s a valid question” to ask about the delay of the investigation.

“We haven’t seen anything,” said Lunceford, who added that he planned to send Moore an e-mail asking him about the investigation’s status. “They’ve been sitting on this a long time.”

One HISD mother said district officials needed to make finishing the investigation a priority -- particularly as they consider whether to put a $1.9 billion construction bond referendum on the November ballot.

“HISD needs to get its house in order and figure out who’s making decisions on spending dollars on contracts and tracking documents,” said Peggy Sue Gay, 52, a mother of two sons educated in HISD's gifted program and a member of the district's Gifted and Talented Parent Advisory Committee.

“If they can’t even do an internal investigation, then it might be a good idea to close these open issues before presenting their constituency a vote on a $1.9 billion bond.”

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

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Houston ISD trustees review report proposing $1.9 billion in projects; calculate potential property tax increase here
Friday, Jun 22, 2012, 10:24AM CST
By Mike Cronin
calculator

Houston public schools Superintendent Terry Grier wants taxpayers to approve spending $1.9 billion to build and repair dozens of schools in the district.

But the consulting firm that the Houston Independent School District hired to assess what work needed to be done and how much it would cost visited only 35 of HISD’s 279 schools.

Consultants from the North Carolina-based Parsons Commercial Technology Group Inc. told the school board on Thursday that they used survey responses and a computer model to determine the projects they concluded were necessary.

The work includes 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.

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.)

Board President Mike Lunceford asked the Parsons consultants during Thursday's meeting whether they actually had visited the schools they recommended be replaced, or were their efforts “just a paper chase?”

Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones also asked the consultants how they could know any school’s actual condition if they didn’t physically visit the building.

And Trustee Paula Harris asked why the consultants decided some schools should be replaced even if they recently had major renovation work done, such as upgrades to their air-conditioning and heating systems.

Parsons consultants replied that they visited “most” of the schools they suggested be rebuilt or undergo major renovations. But they did not provide the trustees or the public with a list of the schools they did visit.

Time constraints dictated that Parsons personnel rely on computer modeling and responses by individual schools’ staff members to survey questions about their building conditions, the consultants told the board.

They also said that recent renovation work might not indicate a school’s overall physical state.

In interviews after the meeting, Lunceford and Trustee Juliet Stipeche each said they planned to conduct a thorough review of the bond information that Parsons provided before deciding whether they would support the proposal.

“I just saw it for the first time,” Lunceford said of the bond data. “I want to make sure this is done right.”

Stipeche added that she needed “time to analyze the proposal. It’s complex. I have to critique the evidence and do what’s best for the community.”

Trustees hired Parsons in March for $1.25 million to conduct the HISD facilities assessment.

Grier said 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.

To put a bond before the voters in a November referendum, the school must take action in August.

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.

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

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Tough to swallow: Houston school district says it has $2.6 million in surplus food
Tuesday, Jun 19, 2012, 03:10PM CST
By Mike Cronin
chickens

About $2.6 million worth of extra food exists in Houston public schools’ inventory, and the Houston Independent School District refuses to explain why.

Administrators for the Houston Independent School District told the school board on Monday during an afternoon meeting about the surplus -- which is enough to pay the annual salaries of 58 teachers on the lowest rung of HISD's pay scale.

But HISD officials did not explain how it happened, whether the food is perishable or what will be done with it.

“We bought something that didn’t go into the books,” board President Mike Lunceford said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Where is our inventory listed? There’s nothing in the (2012-13 recommended district budget). The income statement is the only thing (HISD administrators) supply.”

Lunceford asked HISD staff members several times who paid for that $2.6 million worth of food and how those food items are being accounted for.

“My question wasn’t answered,” said Lunceford, who added that he still intended to find out.

Lunceford said he would like district officials to explain the $2.6 million: “Are we serving more food? Better food? What are we carrying over (into next school year) in our inventory?”

Brian Giles, the district’s senior administrator of food services, referred Texas Watchdog’s questions to HISD’s media relations department.

Asked to explain the surplus, HISD spokesman Jason Spencer declined.

“Rather than have our staff rehash the meeting again, perhaps you should contact board services (staff) to schedule a time to come listen to the audio recording to determine whether you might have missed something,” Spencer said in an e-mail.

HISD contracts with the Philadelphia-based company Aramark to manage its food service operations.

Ray Danilowicz, Aramark’s executive general manager for the company’s HISD account, is on vacation this week, according to his assistant.

Because of the way HISD administrators structure the food service fund, it functions like “a stand-alone business,” Lunceford said. That being the case, a balance sheet with assets -- inventory, for example -- and liabilities should be available, he said.

The district’s food services budget will hit almost $113 million next year, according to the recommended 2012-13 budget. Federal taxpayers will foot the lion’s share of the bill, $102.6 million. The district expects to bring in $9.6 million from food sales.

The school board is expected to approve a $1.524 billion operating budget for 2012-13 Thursday.

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

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Houston ISD trustees talk budget while withholding budget materials
Friday, May 18, 2012, 10:19AM CST
By Mike Cronin
budget

Houston schools trustees and administrators discussed next year’s $1.5 billion budget Thursday morning that would determine how many teachers could lose their jobs and how much of a raise teachers who remain employed might receive.

But that public conversation was all but impossible to understand for others present.

That’s because Houston Independent School District officials did not provide copies of the materials – which are public records under the Texas Public Information Act – during the meeting. The practice is legal, an open government attorney said.

But “from a citizen’s point of view that is pretty ridiculous,” said Tom Gregor, a Houston lawyer who answers questions on open government from the public through a hotline provided by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in Austin.

State law does not obligate HISD, or any government entity, to distribute public records during an open meeting.

“But providing public information so people can follow the meeting would be in the spirit of open government,” Gregor said. “Withholding that information seems to serve no other purpose than preventing the public from understanding the information.”

Texas Watchdog requested, during and after the meeting, copies of the same materials that HISD trustees and staff members possessed and referred to throughout the two-and-a-half hour budget workshop. District officials supplied them more than 90 minutes after the meeting’s close.

Board President Mike Lunceford said in an e-mail that it would “probably make it easier for everyone else to understand” if HISD administrators supplied the public with the same documents the board has during open
meetings.

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said in an e-mail that he and district Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett intended “to make sure (reporters) have what you need to follow the conversation. If it's any consolation, I didn't have the documents either.”

Spencer did not reply to an e-mail asking if members of the public would be able to obtain such materials upon request at open HISD meetings.

Garrett apologized for the unavailability of the budget documents.

Normally we have them,” Garrett said via email Thursday night. “But I was out of town (Wednesday), and apparently wires got crossed between staff members. I think you know that we always provide copies to the public.”

In an interview with Texas Watchdog following yesterday’s workshop, Garrett said the district’s projected budget deficit is $53.1 million for 2012-13. Garrett said part of the deficit has been offset by $18.4 million in one-time federal stimulus funds approved by the board in August to balance the budget.

The district received a total of $33 million under President Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Garrett said.

Trustees are considering a range of scenarios, including a 4-cent property-tax increase in 2013-14 that would put HISD in the black by about $160,000. Without that increase, HISD projects it would run a $41 million deficit that year.

“The tax increase is what would happen next budget cycle if the state does not change the funding,” Lunceford said.

HISD officials have discussed a tax hike up to 4 cents since at least last year, when trustees chose not to raise taxes.

A 4-cent tax rate increase would increase the bill for a home valued at $197,408 by about $57 per year.

District residents currently pay the lowest property taxes of all 21 Harris County school districts, HISD officials say. District officials charge residents a tax rate of $1.1567 per $100 of taxable value.

Trustees are weighing whether to give teachers with 10 or fewer years of experience a raise of 2.25 percent and those with more than 10 years a raise of 1.75 percent. HISD officials granted some teachers a raise during the 2010-11 academic year.

Garrett said a final budget proposal from HISD staff would be complete within days.

Board members are scheduled to adopt the 2012-13 budget on June 14 during their regular monthly meeting.

Whatever the board decides, next year’s budget is projected to be tens of millions of dollars lower than this year’s $1.58 billion budget.

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

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As Houston ISD considers bond vote, head of construction for district resigns over ‘inefficient’ bureaucracy
Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 04:57PM CST
By Mike Cronin
quit sign

Issa Dadoush presented a letter to his boss on Monday that excoriated the ways Houston public schools officials conducted their business operations, then resigned. Effective immediately.

“I have addressed my concerns several times with no avail,” wrote Dadoush, who had been head of the Houston Independent School District’s construction and facility services since April 1, 2010.

He wrote his supervisor, HISD Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobadilla, that the district’s “bureaucratic and gatekeeping philosophy” is “not sustainable,” “inefficient” and “exhausting.”

“Our limitations on communicating directly with all stakeholders, including Trustees and other cabinet members, have made it impossible to move this Department to the next level of performance efficiency,” Dadoush wrote. “The ‘muzzle’ that was ordered on me and other department heads has made it impossible to do our jobs effectively.”

Dadoush said this morning that he had no comment. Throughout his tenure, Dadoush had been accessible and responsive in answering questions from Texas Watchdog.

Superintendent Terry Grier said via email that he “enjoyed (his) working relationship with Issa.” Grier declined to respond to Dadoush’s critique of HISD, saying that he does not “comment on personnel issues.”

HISD board President Mike Lunceford said in an e-mail that “Mr. Dadoush was very well qualified for his position and will be missed. I am asking the Superintendent to review Mr. Dadoush’s comments carefully because in all resignation letters there is always some truth to their concerns.”

District parent Mary Hintikka was not happy to hear Dadoush had departed.

“Issa Dadoush has contributed to much needed positive change in HISD,” Hintikka wrote in a Wednesday letter to Trustee Harvin Moore and Lunceford. “I know LEED-certified architects in the community who say Mr. Dadoush was a leader in bringing green sustainable design and best practices to the City of Houston. It's my understanding he has helped to inject this much needed, overdue vision into HISD. … However, the politics, policies and practices of closed-door communication across the district is seriously problematic and impedes that vision greatly.”

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a system for measuring the sustainability of buildings used by engineers, builders and designers.

Dadoush summed up one paragraph in which he identified several structural shortcomings: “The bottom line, ‘we are spinning our wheels.’”

Grier announced Dadoush’s and Bobadilla’s hirings two years ago in the same posting on HISD’s website.

“(Dadoush’s) extensive experience will be valuable to HISD, as he will be leading the district's maintenance and operations, grounds, utility management, custodial services, and property management—all of which are important to creating a high-quality learning environment at every HISD school,” Grier said in the announcement.

Prior to accepting his position at HISD, Dadoush was director of general services for the city of Houston. He oversaw facilities management there as well.

Bobadilla held a position comparable to COO at Guilford County Schools in North Carolina. Bobadilla and Grier worked together in North Carolina.

Dadoush steps down as district leaders consider whether to put a bond referendum to the voters for new school construction and renovations. Grier floated that idea earlier this year.

“HISD is currently gearing up for the bond program work to be done over the summer at schools, and I hope this does not cause any setbacks or major problems,” Lunceford said.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that advocates educating “all urban school students to the highest academic standards,” applauded HISD in May 2010 for hiring Dadoush. Council auditors had conducted a review of the district’s construction and facility services to offer ways HISD officials could make improvements.

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

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Houston ISD plans changes to make contracting more open; trustees to vote Thursday on hiring ethics consultants
Tuesday, May 08, 2012, 06:19PM CST
By Mike Cronin
cash register

Two recent audits of the ways Houston public schools officials do business will lay the groundwork for sweeping revisions to the Houston Independent School District’s methods of buying goods and services.

For example, HISD trustees and the public will be able to view documents that district officials use when they evaluate and grade contractors who bid on jobs with the district, Melinda Garrett, HISD’s chief financial officer, told the Houston school board during a meeting on Monday. That would underscore the requirement already in the state Public Information Act to make records available promptly.

That’s just one of the approaches to improve HISD governmental transparency that Garrett and her team plan to suggest in a report to the board within a few weeks, she told Texas Watchdog after yesterday’s meeting.

“We are working on our recommendations which we will cover with the superintendent soon,” Garrett said. “We will be addressing all items in the reports.”

Other reforms the chief financial officer mentioned include archiving HISD procurement department documents and standardizing the forms HISD officials use to solicit competitive bids for projects, Garrett said.

Precedent exists for the scale of change district officials currently contemplate. A 2010 audit of the HISD capital facilities program caused board members and administrators to merge departments, hiring a pool of on-call custodians and the re-establishment of a preventive-maintenance program.

The proposals come as district leaders consider whether to put a bond referendum to the voters for new school construction and renovations. Superintendent Terry Grier floated that idea earlier this year.

Null-Lairson PC, a Houston accounting firm, conducted a four-month, $87,500 audit of district procurement practices and issued its report in March. Null-Lairson merged with a Dallas-based accounting and consulting firm, Whitley Penn LLP, earlier this month.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., completed a weeks-long audit in October. It cost $16,000.

Both audits criticized HISD’s lack of transparency.

Null-Lairson auditors said questions arose in how district officials disseminated information about bids for work with the district among the public, board members and its own staff. They also found that “defined procedures” didn’t exist that outlined when and how board members and vendors may contact one another.



Particularly disturbing was Null-Lairson’s finding that documents went missing during its audit of HISD. Trustee Juliet Stipeche immediately called for an investigation. She told Texas Watchdog in March that a document’s chain of custody is critical to ensuring no one is tampering with public information.

HISD Inspector General Robert Moore said last month that the investigation was complete and a report would be completed by the end of April. But Stipeche said she has yet to receive the report.

The council’s review stated that HISD business practices “lead to a perception of manipulation of and distrust in the procurement process.”

Board Vice President Anna Eastman called for an independent audit in August.

Both reviews came after Texas Watchdog reported on seven cases where HISD trustees were accused of unethical or improper behavior.

District trustees are scheduled to vote Thursday night on whether to pay up to $35,000 to consultants to rewrite procurement and ethics policies.

Those consultants are from Whitley Penn and two other companies that assisted Null-Lairson with its audit – the Florida-based MGT of America and Houston certified public accountant Susanne Mariga.

HISD officials told Eastman yesterday that consultants would take between 45 and 60 days researching best practices at school districts around the country before rewriting existing policies.

Stipeche, who also is a member of the board audit committee, said yesterday that the committee recommends the board approve the hiring of the three firms.

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of cash register by flickr user jm3, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Legal bills mount for taxpayers in contractor's suit against Houston ISD Trustee Larry Marshall
Tuesday, May 08, 2012, 10:00AM CST
By Mike Cronin
bills

A civil lawsuit accusing Trustee Larry Marshall of bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and racketeering filed a year-and-a-half ago has cost taxpayers of the Houston Independent School District at least $242,000 in legal fees.

HISD officials provided that dollar amount to Texas Watchdog late Friday afternoon.

Texas Watchdog had been asking since August for the public records that show how much taxpayer money the district has paid lawyers for Marshall and HISD to fight the allegations.

The Gil Ramirez Group LLC, a contractor for Houston’s public schools, sued Marshall and HISD in December 2010 for improper actions they say Marshall took during his 2009 term as school board president. Marshall has repeatedly called the suit baseless.

At nearly a quarter-million dollars, the legal bills so far could pay the salaries of five teachers, then some, at the starting rung of HISD’s pay scale, or about $45,000.

HISD is the nation’s seventh-largest school district, with about a $1.6 billion annual budget and roughly 203,000 students.

HISD officials could not provide the law firms’ bills for months because, they said, no records existed that matched the way Texas Watchdog requested the information. Texas Watchdog asked for those bills five different ways from August through March.

District officials confirmed in March that Texas Watchdog’s wording in the public records request matched existing documents. They could not explain why HISD did not release the documents to Texas Watchdog until Friday -- nine days after Texas Watchdog filed a complaint with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott arguing that HISD was in violation of the Texas Public Information Act. Texas Watchdog withdrew the complaint after receiving the information.

A government agency must “make a good faith effort to relate a request to information that it holds,” the attorney general’s office advises in a handbook on the public records law.

Pamela Kaiser, HISD’s public information officer, declined to comment for this story.

In court papers filed during the past 17 months, Gil Ramirez Jr. and his Houston-based lawyer, Chad Dunn, have accused Marshall of accepting money under the table from major HISD vendors.

Some of that money was funneled from the consulting firm of Marshall’s campaign treasurer to Marshall's own consulting firm, Ramirez and Dunn claim.

Ramirez and Dunn said in court documents filed in October that a $25,000 check Marshall received from David “Pete” Medford, who runs Fort Bend Mechanical, in 2009 was a bribe.

Marshall did not report the donation as a contribution in his campaign finance forms, which is illegal. At least $45,500 in checks from Medford to Marshall exist, according to court documents.

Michael McGann, a Houston lawyer who is representing Fort Bend Mechanical, has said any assertion that Medford bribed Marshall is “absolutely not true.”

Fort Bend Mechanical Ltd., an HVAC service and installation company that competes with The Gil Ramirez Group for HISD work, has done millions of dollars of business with the school district.

Larry MarshallLarry Marshall

Marshall's current term on the school board runs through the end of next year. He has not said whether he plans to run for re-election. Marshall is HISD’s longest-serving trustee. He has sat on the board since 1997 and would be 80 on Election Day, 2013. A trial for this suit – which HISD lawyers have requested – could begin by February, Dunn has said.

Until November, Thompson & Horton LLC, the firm that has served as the HISD board's legal counsel for two decades, had represented Marshall and HISD.

But Marshall then chose to be represented by Jarvis Hollingsworth, a lawyer with the Houston office of the firm Bracewell & Giuliani. Marshall said he made the decision to switch because the two have known each other for decades.



Bracewell & Giuliani have billed HISD at least $139,542.62, according to public records provided by HISD to Texas Watchdog under the Texas Public Information Act. The tab includes a charge of $80.09 for meals on Feb. 22 at the Post Oak Grill, where patrons can enjoy a center cut beef medallion with cognac truffle sauce or seared red spice Asian tuna.

District officials supplied the bills from the months of December 2011 through March 2012, inclusive.

Five Bracewell & Giuliani lawyers HISD paid to defend Marshall in the case charged the district a rate of $350 per hour. One lawyer charged $235 an hour. And one paralegal’s time is billed at $260 an hour.

Former Houston city attorney Arturo Michel, now of Thompson & Horton, is leading HISD’s defense in the case.

Thompson & Horton has billed HISD at least $102,791.45, according to public records. District officials supplied the bills from the months of February 2011 through April 2012, inclusive.

Michel charges HISD $175 an hour for his services, according to those bills. Another Thompson & Horton lawyer who has worked on the case, John Hopkins, has charged as high as $225 per hour.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt is scheduled to rule no later than today whether Marshall will have to appear for a deposition on May 29.

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of bills by flickr user pinprick, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

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