in Houston, Texas
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.

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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.

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Houston ISD board president says he will ask for approval to hire ethics consultant next week
Thursday, May 03, 2012, 05:05PM CST
By Mike Cronin
Mike LuncefordMike Lunceford

Houston school board President Mike Lunceford told Texas Watchdog Wednesday night in an e-mail that he plans to ask his fellow trustees to vote next week on the hiring of a consultant to help rewrite new district ethics policies.

Lunceford initially hoped to present that plan to the Houston Independent School District board at a meeting Thursday morning. But Lunceford is out of the country until Monday night.

MGT of America, a firm headquartered in Tallahassee, Fla., would earn between $25,000 to $35,000 to do that work. MGT also assisted on the recently completed $87,500 audit of HISD’s procurement procedures.

Null-Lairson, a Houston accounting firm, conducted the audit during a four-month period.

Auditors concluded that HISD should adopt a series of reforms. Those include disclosure when trustees receive gifts of travel or have financial ties to vendors and a more transparent process of how district officials choose the companies they recommend to the board for contracts.

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

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Could Houston ISD trustees' ethics rules go from maligned to model?
Wednesday, May 02, 2012, 02:45PM CST
By Mike Cronin
checkbook

Superintendent Terry Grier and board President Mike Lunceford are in favor of helping the Houston schools create what would be some of the strongest rules nationwide governing the relationships between trustees and campaign donors doing business with the district.

Both men said in March that Houston Independent School District officials would adopt the recommendations made by auditors who completed a four-month examination of the way the district buys goods and services.

Null-Lairson, the Houston accounting firm that conducted that audit, counseled HISD officials to develop policies that specified when and how potential vendors contribute to board-member campaigns, and when and how trustees vote on potential contracts with those vendors.

As it weighs that guidance, Houston’s school board has an opportunity to become a national model for trustee-vendor behavior. Trustees could plot a course away from the ethics controversies that have beset the district for more than a year: accusations of bribery, contract steering and conflicts of interest.

By approving the Null-Lairson proposals, HISD would exceed the standards set by Texas state law – and join the Los Angeles Unified School District as among the country’s few large school districts that identify:

  • Caps on vendors' campaign donations.
  • Timeframes for those donations.
  • When trustees may vote on contracts with vendors who have contributed to their campaigns.
  • Penalties for trustees and vendors who violate regulations.

The full board would have to approve any new policies, however. And several trustees said they wanted to explore potential paths before taking action.

Mike LuncefordMike Lunceford

“I have no problem with Null-Lairson’s recommendations. I support them,” Lunceford said. He said he would ask his fellow trustees on Thursday to approve hiring MGT of America, headquartered in Tallahassee, Fla., to write the new policies, at a cost of $25,000 to $35,000. MGT assisted with the audit.

“I want to see how other public entities deal with these issues, and MGT is supposed to be ‘expert’ in this area,” he said.

But Lunceford emphasized that he is “not determined that we have to have a specific policy.”

Trustee Greg Meyers joined Lunceford in that sentiment but said he’d be willing to discuss caps on campaign contributions with his colleagues.

“I’d like to find out what best practices are,” Meyers said. “I want to ensure we have policies that are transparent and reasonable.”

Trustee Juliet Stipeche said she respected Los Angeles schools’ ethics policies and added that she and her fellow HISD trustees “need to reform the current campaign contribution system.”

Those reforms should include “blackout periods after elections so that board members no longer receive contributions in perpetuity and limits on individual contributions,” Stipeche said.

Grier has said his staff would implement the auditors’ recommendations. Whatever the board’s ultimate stance, Grier said he is not concerned.

“I do not worry or speculate about whether our board will pass a particular policy,” Grier told Texas Watchdog in an e-mail last week. “Policy adoption is a board decision. If the board passes a policy, our administration makes sure it is followed.”

Trustees are already barred from voting on contracts for certain campaign donors doing business with the district through E-Rate, a federal program that offers U.S. schools and libraries telecommunications and Internet access at a discount.

“Board members shall not knowingly accept campaign contributions from E-Rate vendors/service providers, including related officers and/or key employees,” HISD’s E-Rate policy states. Trustees cannot vote on contracts for three years with any E-Rate vendor who has, in a year’s time, given more than $500 to the trustee’s campaign fund or done more than $2,000 in business with the trustee.

HISD officials adopted that policy in 2010 after the Federal Communications Commission accused district employees in 2006 of accepting gifts from E-Rate vendors.

Choosing a less stringent path than Los Angeles would put HISD in the same company as Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Clark County (Las Vegas) School District and Dallas Independent School District, America’s fourth-, fifth- and 14th-largest school districts, respectively.

That also would align HISD with school districts throughout Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Texas. Public-schools officials in Mesa, Ariz.; Miami; Las Vegas; and Dallas told Texas Watchdog that they do not have district-level guidelines that outline when board trustees may vote on contracts with vendors who have donated to their campaigns.

HISD trustees bolstered their financial ethics policies in January. They prohibited campaign donations from any vendor bidding on a contract from 30 days prior to the solicitation for services through the contract’s execution.

The same policy also bans communication between vendors and trustees during that time period.

Trustees must also disclose relationships with potential vendors, and abstain from voting on contracts involving them, when they or immediate family members have a financial interest at stake, a policy that follows state law.

But the overseers of America’s seventh-largest school district – with an annual $1.6 billion budget and 203,000 students – have sometimes been reluctant to impose tougher guidelines on themselves. They chose in December to postpone indefinitely a vote on a more rigid ethics policy, which was aimed at curbing improper trustee influence on contracts but did not directly address the question of trustees voting on contracts with their contributors.

Board members in Los Angeles may not receive or solicit campaign contributions of more than $250 from vendors involved in a potential contract with the district from the start of a competitive-bidding process to three months after its conclusion.

The country’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles currently enrolls about 664,000 students and has a roughly $6.5 billion annual budget.

Los Angeles district trustees must recuse themselves from the process and abstain from the vote if they have received donations totaling more than $250 from an interested vendor during the year prior.

Judy NadlerJudy Nadler

Those are the kinds of ethical guidelines that please Judy Nadler, senior fellow for government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California.

“It is generally problematic for school-board members to be in any kind of relationship with vendors,” said Nadler, who also is a former Santa Clara mayor. “There are inherent conflicts.”

Even dollar and time thresholds, such as those set by the Los Angeles school district, don’t matter “because the public perception is that the trustee voted on a contract because he or she knew someone who contributed to his or her campaign or had some other type of relationship (with the vendor).”

Like Dallas public schools, HISD adheres to Texas law, which does not place caps on donations and is silent on trustees voting on contracts for vendors who contribute to campaigns.

That troubles but doesn’t surprise Nadler.

“My experience, over and over, is that school districts, in particular, are not as well scrutinized as city council members,” she said. “So it’s dangerous territory when trustees engage in these kinds of (vendor) relationships.”

Some trustees may not support any new policies regarding HISD contracts, vendors and trustee behavior. Vendors funded nearly half of incumbent trustees’ campaigns over a three-year period, Texas Watchdog found last fall.

Larry Marshall, who is the longest-serving board member with 14 years, has stated many times during public meetings since the fall that existing policies governing relationships among board members and vendors are strong enough.

He successfully led the charge to put an ethics proposal for trustees on hold in December, with the support of five other board members. The proposal had already been watered down at the urging of Marshall and Trustee Paula Harris.

Marshall did not return two calls requesting comment for this story.

Marshall also has pointed out repeatedly during public meetings that HISD trustees shouldn’t have to terminate their friendships with vendors and that ethical problems do not exist for the HISD board – at least during his tenure as a trustee.

This despite Marshall being a defendant in an ongoing civil lawsuit filed in December 2010 that accuses him of taking bribes to award a contract to one company rather than another. Marshall has said the suit is baseless.

Last year Marshall set the stage for a local doctor, Kenneth Wells, to land a no-bid consulting deal with HISD for $640,000. Due in part to questions about the deal raised by Texas Watchdog, HISD officials have put contract negotiations on hold.

The Null-Lairson audit itself came about due, in part, to heavy criticism and media attention from Texas Watchdog and others over how the district has done business in recent years.

Often school-board members don’t see their relationships with vendors as wrong, “which is worse,” Nadler said.

“If you don’t see losing your independence and perspective as bad, then what do you see as bad?”

***
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 checkbook by flickr user RikkisRefugeOther, 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.

Houston ISD seeks outside help in rewriting ethics policies
Thursday, Apr 19, 2012, 05:30PM CST
By Mike Cronin
HISD

Houston schools officials are working with an accounting firm to rewrite district ethics policies, Robert Moore, the Houston Independent School District inspector general, told a board committee today.

HISD board President Mike Lunceford said policy changes will occur “anywhere ethics is concerned” due to findings by the firm in a recently completed audit of the way the district buys goods and services.

That leaves open the possibility of reforming the ethics policies that apply to trustees, though the board has not shown the political will to do so. Trustee Larry Marshall -- whose own ethics are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit -- successfully persuaded his colleagues to indefinitely table a stronger board ethics policy in December.

Auditors from Null-Lairson, the Houston accounting firm that conducted the $87,500 review, concluded last month that HISD procurement processes lack transparency.

Null-Lairson’s recommendations included:

  • Simplifying HISD trustees’ conflict-of-interest policies.
  • Routinely disclosing trustees’ involvement as board members of other organizations.
  • Seeking an independent opinion whether a purchase is in the district’s best interest for contracts where a possible trustee conflict of interest exists.

The auditors’ work on HISD ethics policies will cost an additional $25,000 to $35,000, which the school board must approve, Lunceford said.

Moore also told Trustee Juliet Stipeche that the investigation she requested into documents that went missing during the audit would be completed soon.

“We expect to make a final determination within a week,” Moore said.

HISD administrators proposed a draft budget during a board meeting earlier this morning to address a projected $43.6 million deficit in the next school year.

That budget proposal would not raise property taxes, according to an HISD press release.

It also includes raises for all district teachers for the first time since the 2009-10 academic year, Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union, said.

The proposed raises are scheduled to be presented to the board in detail in May.

Trustee Harvin Moore told Texas Watchdog that the deficit rose to $43.6 million from last month’s $34.7 million figure primarily due to the proposed teacher salary increase.

“We talked about that last time, but we didn’t have a number there yet,” Moore said.

HISD officials also withdrew a proposal to change school start times that would have saved about $1.2 million after receiving opposition from elementary school administrators and parents, according to the press release.

School board members are scheduled to adopt a final budget at their regular monthly meeting in June.

***
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 the Houston school district's Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center by Davidramirez, 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.

Houston ISD Trustee Paula Harris votes to rebid painting contract awarded to friend’s company
Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012, 05:09PM CST
By Mike Cronin
paint

For months, Houston schools Trustee Paula Harris kept her promise.

Last year’s school-board president did not vote on any potential contracts concerning Westco LLC, a company owned by her good friend, Nicole West, since August -- when she said she would abstain from West-owned company votes in a Houston Chronicle interview.

"I'm not voting on any more of her contracts," Harris told the newspaper. "And although it's not against the law for me to do so, it gives y'all so much to write about when I do. So, it's to save some ink."

Her decision came after a fusillade of questions from Texas Watchdog and other news organizations about possible misconduct surrounding her actions with respect to potential contracts between Westco and the Houston Independent School District.

But during Thursday’s regular monthly board meeting, Harris cast her vote with the majority in an 8-1 decision that approved the re-bid of a painting contract worth up to $600,000 with Westco and other companies.

Westco has been paid at least $3.8 million by HISD in the last two years, according to the district’s check register.

Local governance and school district governance experts nationally and in Texas have told Texas Watchdog that they would advise board members against voting on contracts involving companies run by friends. It gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, they said.

Others said board members abstaining from votes on contract awards with vendors who are personal friends also enables the vendors to confirm that they obtained HISD business fair and square -- not simply because a personal relationship exists.

Paula HarrisPaula Harris

Texas law and HISD’s current board ethics policy do not bar votes by board members on contracts involving friends.

Harris did not return a phone call or two e-mails requesting comment. An HISD staff member told Texas Watchdog by phone this morning that Harris wanted to review any questions on the matter before replying. Except for two in-person interviews, Harris has not responded to any Texas Watchdog queries since Aug. 4.

HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett told trustees during the meeting that she and district Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobadilla 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, referring to one of two audits of HISD’s procurement procedures completed during the past six months.

Both audits concluded that transparency problems existed in the district’s contract awarding process. Documents went missing from the Westco painting contract file during the audit.



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



Trustee Anna Eastman requested a formal examination audit in August due, in part, to heavy criticism and media attention from Texas Watchdog and others over how the district has done business in recent years.

A new recommendation on who to hire to do the $600,000 worth of painting would come before the school board no sooner than July, according to district officials.

***
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 paint cans by flickr user Sunfrog1, 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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