in Houston, Texas
Tornillo ISD should beef up financial controls, guard against more ‘reckless’ spending by superintendent Paul Vranish: TEA
Thursday, Sep 13, 2012, 08:00AM CST
By Steve Miller

The superintendent of the Tornillo Independent School District, Paul Vranish, benefitted by using his position to approve purchase of items that were not sanctioned by his contract, spent public money in a “reckless manner,” and submitted the same hotel invoice twice for reimbursement, according to a state audit.

The final investigative report from the Texas Education Agency notes financial lapses at the district and suggests at several points that Vranish may have violated numerous codes and laws.


The state agency examined $117,394 in reimbursements to Vranish and his wife, also employed by the district, in the 2011 fiscal year, finding $47,909 in questionable costs.


Several members of the district’s board of trustees and school system’s lawyer refute the state’s assertions.


"We are giving them feedback and expect everything to go away," said Jim Darnell, the attorney representing Vranish.


According to the state, which issued its final report Aug. 31, Vranish used travel for the district to earn frequent flier mileage points, then used those points for district travel.


“He then requests reimbursement for the miles used by submitting documents that show what that flight would have cost if the district had paid for a regular airline ticket, as well as the associated fees charged to use the frequent flier miles,” the report states. “Because the superintendent is charged with protecting the district’s assets and using them for the benefit of the district’s students, but instead used them in a reckless manner, he may be in violation” of several articles of the Texas Constitution.

Paul VranishPaul Vranish


Vranish declined to comment.


Among the other findings:

  • “PMV Services sold a 50’ DLP HDTV to (the Tornillo school district) for $1,200 in June 2007. The superintendent provided additional documentation regarding the self-dealing but this transaction is still questionable because it does not appear to be an arm’s length transaction.” PMV Services is a company owned by Vranish. In an interview with Texas Watchdog earlier this year, Vranish explained he operates it part-time as a certified board trainer for school districts.
  • Vranish “authorized a purchase order to purchase a cell phone for himself.” His contract provides that the district pay for his service, not his cell phone. Vranish also purchased a number of other tech items without the proper purchase authorization.
  • Vranish submitted two parking tickets for reimbursement, one at Houston’s Hobby Airport and the other at the El Paso airport. The tickets were issued in relation to a Texas Association of School Boards convention in which all travelers, including Vranish, rode together in a rental car. “Therefore, the reimbursement is questionable,” the report notes.
  • On several occasions, purchase orders were authorized after a purchase had already been made. Numerous items were shipped to Vranish’s home rather than his office, the report states.
  • Several trips were taken without an explanation of what they were for, and trips were reimbursed before they were taken.

See TEA’s analysis of expenses here.


TEA concludes the report by demanding new policies at the school district outside El Paso on the state’s western border. Among them, that the district implement new financial controls. The district must hire a forensic auditor to examine the district’s reimbursements to Vranish and his wife, Marla, for the years 2006 through 2011. The district must implement new measures to ensure Vranish reimburses the district for all expenses and ceases using his personal credit card for district-related expenses.


Records obtained by Texas Watchdog show the district has continued to defend Vranish. Several trustees in a March 9 letter claimed Vranish’s use of a personal credit card “was well known to everyone.”


“…Every year, auditors make a call to a trustee, private from the superintendent, to ask about board member knowledge of operations and possible fraud problems,” states the letter, which is not signed by the entire board but includes several past members.


Texas Watchdog reviewed a letter from Douglas Little, of the local accounting firm Little, Roberts and Company, refuting many of the TEA findings. The letter was written at the request of Darnell, Vranish’s lawyer.


Darnell calls the investigation and its reports “a crock of baloney.”


"I had a CPA go through the report, and he responds to every single one of the allegations," Darnell said. "We've got responses to every single one of the things they found. The report is sloppy to the point of incompentent."


In the April 23 letter, Little disputes the charges for the cell phone, saying the auditors ‘offer no argument why these items are inappropriate for Mr. Vranish’s job duties.”


He calls the auditor's questions about money Vranish spent to repair a snowmobile an “egregious overreach by the auditor” and says that a snowmobile – a 2007 Polaris - was damaged during a 2008 school trip to Colorado and that a repaid bill of $1,210.33 was put on Vranish’s expense report.


“Mr. Vranish owns two snowmobiles, a 1992 and a 1993 model which clearly do not match the description on the repair receipts,” he writes.


The school district’s lawyer, S. Anthony Safi, argued in an April 23 letter to the TEA that the selling of frequent flier tickets for district-related travel  “actually resulted in savings to the district.”


Safi also questioned the necessity of a forensic audit, calling it a “very significant, unbudgeted expense” that “should be left to the discretion of the school board.”


Safi did not return a call. Rachel Avila, president of the Tornillo shcool district board, did not return an email.


The TEA ordered the audit earlier this year after receiving complaints from several members of the school board, which is divided 3-3 in its support of Vranish.


Vranish resigned in January shortly after the news of the audit broke and received a $276,000 payout, which one report attributed to his contractual arrangement with the district. He’s still running the district, though, since he specified his last day would be June 28, 2013.


Vranish has previously left a top job with a school district amid controversy over expenses. He resigned in 1999 from the Lone Oak Independent School District in East Texas after an investigation questioning the district’s financial practices.



Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can do that,” Grier said.

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

A projected deficit of $34.7 million confronts HISD officials.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rodriguez, Stipeche and Skillern-Jones opposed the measure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Documents went missing during the audit from the painting contract file for Westco Ventures LLC, a company owned by a close friend of last year’s board President Paula Harris.

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

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

Texas Watchdog reported that one of those companies, Southwest Wholesale Nursery, won a contract despite its bid being nearly twice as high as the lowest bidder on the project and higher than seven other firms that bid on the job.

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

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

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

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

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

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Mixed reactions from Houston ISD trustees to idea of issuing new bonds
Friday, Mar 02, 2012, 11:32AM CST
By Mike Cronin

The announcement yesterday by Houston schools Superintendent Terry Grier that now might be a good time to consider issuing additional bonds to fix school buildings in disrepair caught school board President Mike Lunceford off guard.

“I was surprised (Grier) said it,” Lunceford told Texas Watchdog in a phone interview this morning, while conceding that “we do have buildings in bad shape.”

But Lunceford said he wants to ensure any discussion and review of a new bond issue for the Houston Independent School District is conducted correctly.

He has asked Leo Bobadilla, HISD’s chief operating officer, for details on the scope of a facilities evaluation that’s on the agenda for next week’s regular monthly board meeting.

“We don’t need a new school with room for enrolling 3,000 students when the expected enrollment is only 1,200,” Lunceford said. “We need to size the facility for the expected usage.”

Grier discussed the possibility of the bond issue -- HISD’s first since the 2007 $805 million in bonds that passed with a 51 percent majority of votes -- during an interview with the Houston Chronicle. He had just completed the annual 2012 State of the Schools address to an audience of about 2,000 at the Hilton Americas Hotel.

“In 2007, Houston voters voiced their support for Houston’s children by approving an $805 million plan to build new schools, renovate older ones, and provide safety upgrades to campuses across HISD,” Grier said in his speech. “Thanks to you, our classrooms are consistently brighter, more technologically advanced, and more energy efficient than before. Across Houston, we have already opened 16 new campuses. That number will soon reach 24 and include the new Carnegie Vanguard High School. More than 100 schools have seen significant renovations.”

The superintendent could not be immediately reached for comment because Grier is out of the office today, his assistant said. Texas Watchdog left a phone message and sent Grier an e-mail requesting his thoughts on the issue.

Even though it passed at the polls, some HISD residents have said district officials did not allow their voices to be heard in the 2007 bond-referendum process.

It’s crucial that any bond discussion must take place in public because a yes vote by HISD residents “will mean a tax increase,” Lunceford said. He added that he would like an organization independent of the school district to rank and prioritize what work needs to be done, Lunceford said.

Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones agreed that the bond conversations must be public.

“There has to be full disclosure because it’s their money,” Skillern-Jones said of district voters.

Skillern-Jones, who spoke by phone from Austin where she was attending a conference, said she has not been privy to any board discussions on a new bond issue and hadn’t yet formed an opinion on it.

“There are a lot of factors to consider before going for a bond,” Skillern-Jones said. “Everything needs to be fully vetted before we introduce the idea.”

But Trustee Manuel Rodriguez said he didn’t think Grier was announcing the district was going forward with a bond referendum.

Instead, “it might be just him thinking out loud,” he said. “Maybe he’s thinking how the district should move forward in a presidential-election year, when there will be a high turnout of voters. In a non-presidential election year, the voters who come out typically would be those who oppose a bond.”

Rodriguez pointed out that many advised the board to continue to wait until the following year before finally agreeing to put the $805 million bond referendum before voters in 2007.

“Then the economy went down,” Rodriguez said. “If we didn’t pass it, we’d be sitting here twiddling our thumbs trying to maintain our facilities. But the bond has been able to keep us on track by providing jobs to the public and to the city in renewing our facilities.”

And even with the money from the bonds five years ago, the district still has needs, citing as an example the many HISD magnet schools in disrepair, Rodriguez said.

And more bonds could go beyond simply tackling schools that are falling apart, he said.

“With this bond, we could do something better,” Rodriguez said. “We could maintain the quality and appeal of our flagship schools.”

UPDATE: This story was corrected at 2:45 p.m. to reflect that Grier discussed the bond issue with the Houston Chronicle. He talked about the issue after he was asked about it by the Chronicle's Ericka Mellon. 

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

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Houston ISD trustees sit out controversial votes rather than vote against colleagues
Tuesday, Feb 21, 2012, 08:22AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Man who wasn't there

Many Houston school-system residents have expressed frustration that three board members abstained from the vote earlier this month that extended Superintendent Terry Grier’s contract through June 1, 2014.

But abstentions, or simply avoiding one’s seat during a Houston Independent School District board vote, are a tactic commonly used by HISD trustees.

Rather than be on record as opposing an issue, board members sometimes register an abstention during a vote or ensure they leave no record of their position by being absent when a vote takes place.

Yet parents, former HISD trustees and national experts say board members should abstain only when a valid reason exists, such as a conflict of interest or a lack of information to make an informed decision.

“We elected board members to represent us,” said Nellie Naidoo, 41, a mother of two HISD children who lives in Trustee Harvin Moore’s district and a member of the group Parent Visionaries. Moore voted for Grier’s extension.

“They knew what they were getting into when they took the position,” Naidoo said. “There should be no wavering. It’s either yes or no. We’re looking upon them to make the right decision for us.”

Board President Mike Lunceford said at the board meeting earlier this month that he couldn’t support Grier’s extension because it would continue beyond his own term, which ends next year. Lunceford chose to abstain rather than vote against the superintendent’s extension.

“My goal this year is not to have the board degrade into brash public arguments but to resolve our conflicting viewpoints in a positive way,” Lunceford said. “My opinion is it is up to the individual trustee to vote the way they want. But, again, once the vote is taken, the issue is over. Now, over time positions can change and then, at that point, there needs to be a reevaluation of those issues.”

But Gene Maeroff, who is the author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy
and founder of the Hechinger Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York, said the most important role of a school board is to select the superintendent.

“Nothing ranks above that,” said Maeroff, who also is the school board president of Edison Township public schools in New Jersey. “If a board member abstains from that vote, that is very, very questionable behavior. That person has an obligation to put on record where he or she stands.”

Moore said that he felt there are several valid reasons for a board member to abstain, one being that’s it’s too soon to vote on a particular issue.

That was essentially the reason given by some of my colleagues, and I respect that,” Moore said. “We all feel that both the superintendent and the board must improve on some very important areas. Some of us believed that commitment is enough to vote, while others felt they wanted to wait longer. Abstentions are not no votes, and they shouldn’t be construed that way in this instance either.”

Trustee Anna Eastman, the only board member to vote against the contract extension, said it is the responsibility of elected officials to explain the reasoning behind their votes.

“Our votes may convey a variety of different messages and its incumbent upon us to communicate what those votes mean,” Eastman said.

Donald McAdams, chairman and founder of Houston’s nonprofit Center for Reform School Systems, agreed.

“We urge trustees not to abstain,” said McAdams, who was an HISD trustee from 1990 to 2002. “And if they do, to be very clear why they’re abstaining. We say the same thing when a board member votes no. When you’re at the table, explain why you’re voting no. But then after that, say nothing else.”

That’s because school boards must move on after votes, no matter how contentious the disagreement leading up to it, McAdams said.

The primary reason is that unlike other elected bodies, a school board is legally considered one thing, a singularity, “a body corporate,” said McAdams, 70, who raised two children who attended HISD schools.

That means a school board functions as all three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. It leads and makes decisions. It sets and votes on policies. And it hears appeals.

Even if the decision is a 5-4 vote, that decision is final and individual trustees should abide by it, McAdams said.

“Otherwise, you’re undermining the board if you’re campaigning against (a decision) after it was taken,” McAdams said. “When you’re on the school board, you’re responsible for the functioning of that organization. It has to flourish and thrive. You’re a trustee. You represent the owners, namely, the voters.”

By contrast, a member of Congress who is on the losing side of a vote must continue politicking to be reelected in the next election. And other public entities also have many types of representatives, be they presidents, senators or judges.

“But on the school board, you are the only representative,” McAdams said.

Also, McAdams added, continuing opposition to a decided vote impedes the superintendent from doing his or her job, specifically because the superintendent answers only to the board.

Aside from a conflict of interest, only a lack of information on the issue at hand is a legitimate reason to abstain, said Maeroff, McAdams and some HISD board members who voted for Grier’s contract extension.

“Rhonda (Skillern-Jones) was within her rights to abstain because she did not have sufficient information to make an informed vote,” said Trustee Manuel Rodriguez.

Skillern-Jones and Juliet Stipeche are the other board members who abstained from last week’s vote. The meeting was Skillern-Jones’ first. She was elected to her inaugural term on the board in November.

Skillern-Jones publicly stated that she could not cast an informed vote on Grier’s contract extension because HISD staff did not provide her with data she had requested on the superintendent’s performance.

Stipeche said that, “an abstention is a way to demonstrate that a trustee is not fully on board with the action, but is not prepared to vote no. But the trustee is still willing to work with his or her board colleagues on other issues in the future.”

Rodriguez continued that “abstentions should not be used, in my humble opinion, if you’re not in agreement with the action. If you’re opposed to it, then vote no.”

But Rodriguez employed the tactic of not being seated during a vote, despite being present at the board meeting, at least three times last year.

He left his seat during a vote on a standardized-bell schedule for HISD at the June 9 board meeting. Former Trustee Carol Mims-Galloway did the same thing during that meeting. Galloway retired at the end of her term last year. Skillern-Jones was elected to replace her.

And during the May 12 board meeting, Rodriguez left his seat twice. Once, during the vote to consolidate Stevenson elementary school into Memorial and Love elementary schools. And once, during the vote to consolidate Grimes, Rhoads and Carter elementary schools into Carter Woodson PK-8 school.

Of those absences, Rodriguez said, “They were not intentional.” He or another board member might have gotten a phone call he or she had to take, or they might have needed to go to the restroom. “I don’t see that as something done purposefully,” Rodriguez said.

Grier became the Houston Independent School District superintendent on Sept. 11, 2009, after leading the San Diego public schools. He succeeded Abelardo Saavedra.

He is the highest-paid HISD employee, earning a $300,000 annual salary. HISD is the seventh-largest school district in the nation. It has a roughly $1.6 billion budget and educates about 203,000 students.

Grier earned an extra $69,000 last month due to performance bonuses built into his contract.

This story was last updated shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday to add that Naidoo is a member of the group Parent Visionaries. 


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

Photo: (The lower half of) the poster for the 2001 Coen Brothers film The Man Who Wasn't There, including the lower half of the face of star Billy Bob Thornton. 

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Houston ISD school board extends Superintendent Terry Grier's contract
Friday, Feb 10, 2012, 05:07PM CST
By Mike Cronin

The Houston school board approved extending Superintendent Terry Grier’s contract during last night’s regular monthly meeting by a five-vote majority – the slimmest possible margin to pass the motion.

Grier’s contract terms stated that board members could vote to terminate the superintendent in December. Or, trustees could vote to extend his tenure.

Speaking for the majority, Trustee Harvin Moore made the motion to extend the superintendent’s contract through June 1, 2014.

“It’s important that we signal that Dr. Grier is on the right course, and that we stay on that course,” Moore said, explaining why he wanted to extend the superintendent’s contract at this juncture, rather than wait until closer to December.

Voting with Moore were trustees Greg Meyers, Paula Harris, Lawrence Marshall and Manuel Rodriguez Jr.

Trustee Anna Eastman was the only board member who voted against the extension. She praised the superintendent’s passion and said that though she wanted to be a part of the majority, she simply wasn’t there at this moment.

Eastman spoke about concerns that have remained with her since November 2010.

“I wanted to hear the same passion and zeal from the people on the ground,” Eastman said. “But I fear the culture of the (school-district) organization is struggling.”

Board President Mike Lunceford and trustees Juliet Stipeche and Rhonda Skillern-Jones abstained from the vote.

Grier became the Houston Independent School District superintendent on Sept. 11, 2009, after leading the San Diego public schools. He succeeded Abelardo Saavedra.

He is the highest-paid HISD employee, earning a $300,000 annual salary. HISD is the seventh-largest school district in the nation. It has a roughly $1.6 billion budget and educates about 203,000 students.

District data show that Grier did not meet HISD goals set for student achievement in 16 out of 24 categories, though he narrowly missed the mark in several.

The school board uses an evaluation form that consists of data measurements in categories such as the increase in student college readiness; recruiting and retaining the best teachers and principals; and improving the public support and confidence in HISD schools.

Grier earned about $69,000 in extra money last month due to performance bonuses built into his contract.

Grier’s extension is sure to set off fireworks among many HISD parents, teachers and school administrators. His two-year tenure has been a rocky one.

Some object to his intense focus on standardized tests to measure student progress and data-driven analyses to judge teacher and principal performance; a recent profile of Grier in Texas Monthly called him “the most hated man in Houston.”

But his fans say they support his efforts to improve the nation’s seventh-largest school system, where four out of five of the some 200,000 students are on free or reduced lunch programs -- and they support Grier’s broader goals of reform, even if he has rubbed some folks the wrong way.  

Grier’s board backers repeatedly spoke during last night’s meeting about HISD being “on the right track” under the superintendent’s leadership.

“The data tells the story,” Meyers said. “This superintendent has followed his charge. He’s put together a staff that’s doing what’s right for kids.”

Marshall, the longest-serving member with 15 years on the board, said he’s had the good fortune to work with 12 superintendents throughout his career.

“We’re proud to say that (Grier) is our superintendent,” Marshall said. “Dr. Grier has made a difference. Our role on this board of education is to make sure we get a return on our investment. The superintendent is that investment.”

Harris added that, though the data are important, so is the way people are being treated within HISD, and how the public perceives the district.

“Dr. Grier has surrounded himself with great people,” Harris said. “Yes, there’s always room for improvement, and we still have an open dialogue with the unions, parents and staff. People won’t always walk away happy, but we’ll always have an open dialogue because Dr. Grier demands it.”

Still, an August survey showed that district-parent dissatisfaction with the superintendent has increased under Grier. About 70 percent of parents said they were strongly or somewhat satisfied with the superintendent in 2007 when Saavedra was chief.

This year that number sunk to 58 percent. The feeling among the general population followed a similar track, falling to 47 percent this year from 57 percent in 2007.

And parents who believe HISD is strongly or somewhat on the right track plunged to 54 percent this year from 79 percent in 2009, showed a survey conducted by Creative Consumer Research based in Stafford, Texas. Among the general population, those numbers dropped to 44 percent from 58 percent.

Skillern-Jones repeated during the meeting what she said during campaign season: She would not weigh in on Grier’s future until she saw all the data. She said she still hasn’t received some of those data, despite requesting them from HISD staff.

“I don’t have the data, so I can’t make a decision,” Skillern-Jones said.

Board President Lunceford concluded the discussion before the vote by stating that the reason he couldn’t support Grier’s extension had nothing to do with the superintendent himself.

“There’s a reason we’re not a board of directors,” Lunceford said, who was elected to his four-year unpaid term in November 2009. “We’re trustees. We serve as a trust for the people. I have a problem with signing on (the superintendent) for a time period longer than I’ll be here for my constituents.”

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

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Major change could come out of Houston ISD procurement audit
Monday, Feb 06, 2012, 08:59AM CST
By Mike Cronin
Change sign

If the response by Houston schools officials to past audits is any indication, district parents and residents could see major changes to the school system’s procurement practices during the next few months.

Two separate organizations – the Washington-based nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools and the Houston accounting firm, Null-Lairson – have both examined the way the school system does business.

The council released its report of the audit it conducted in October last month. Null-Lairson is scheduled to complete its audit and issue its findings to Houston Independent School District officials during the upcoming weeks, board members and administrators have said.

HISD revised policies and changed personnel in key positions after the Council of the Great City Schools’ 2010 audit of the district’s capital facilities program found, among other things:
  • Substantial financial errors
  • The program had been operating without annual budgets, standard contract forms or budget evaluations.
  • The program had no set timelines for the completion of projects and lacked standard guidelines as to how projects would be established, evaluated and completed.
  • The program had no tracking system of amendments to projects that enlarged their scope and price tag, and that district staff had “no understanding of the impact” of such changes on costs.
District improvements based on that 2010 review were significant, Issa Dadoush, HISD’s general manager for construction and facility services, told Texas Watchdog in a phone interview.   

Among the most critical revisions in HISD procedures included:
  • Merging the previously separate construction department and facilities department. “Before, they were totally independent,” Dadoush said. “They were two silos and didn’t communicate with each other.”
  • Cultivating a pool of custodians similar to substitute teachers. “Back in 2010, it was not unusual to have 12 to 14 percent of our custodial staff absent,” Dadoush said. “We covered that with overtime, spending about $11 million annually. Since we created the (new system), we’ve saved HISD about $6 million.”
  • Re-establishing the district’s preventive-maintenance program. Now, Dadoush said, HISD is 27 percent more productive, acting on 139,000 work orders, as opposed to 110,000 prior to the council’s 2010 audit.
  • Starting an employee-evaluation process for contractors and consultants to hold them accountable. “The council’s 2010 report showed us that many employees didn’t receive evaluations,” Dadoush said. “Now, we articulate goals and objectives, and what are our performance measures, as well as the consequences for not meeting them.”
  • Hiring spot checkers to examine performance.
  • Becoming a “data-driven organization, where we analyze the cost-per-square-foot relative to others in our industry,” Dadoush said.
Though all those measures are good ones, Dadoush emphasized he and his colleagues aren’t finished yet.

“We’ve moved from a fair organization to a good organization,” he said. “We respond to about 95 percent of our work orders in a timely fashion. That means we still have thousands of work orders not responded to in a timely fashion. We want to get that number to 99 percent.

“We’re a work in progress,” Dadoush said. “We’re an open book.”

HISD officials paid about $22,000 for the 2010 council review, HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said.

District administrators are still waiting for the council’s bill for this year’s audit on HISD’s purchasing procedures, Spencer said.

The school board in October approved paying Null-Lairson up to $87,500 for the audit that firm is currently conducting.

The council’s October audit found that the ways HISD does business “lead to a perception of manipulation of and distrust in the procurement process.”

The report also concluded that “the majority of the district‘s purchasing... is awarded based on a number of weighted factors that are not always transparent or consistently applied.”

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, told Texas Watchdog that HISD’s lack of transparency in its contract-awarding methods was the district’s most serious problem.

Spencer declined to answer questions of how the district would address the council’s findings, saying that would be “inappropriate” until the Null-Lairson conclusions are released.

Contact Mike Cronin at 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 onTwitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on, and put our RSS feedsin your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

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
Texas Watchdog's Mike Cronin interviewed on News 92 about Houston ISD paying for two audits
Friday, Feb 03, 2012, 06:06PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
Marconi at his desk

Texas Watchdog's Mike Cronin talked with radio newsman Scott Braddock this morning about his story regarding the Houston schools paying for two audits of its procurement practices.

Cronin was interviewed on News 92 FM about his report, which noted that the Houston school system now says the review by the nonprofit Council of the Great City Schools wasn't really an audit.

Listen here
Listen to the audio of the interview in the player below.

Contact Jennifer Peebles at 281-656-1681 or or on Twitter at @jpeebles and @texaswatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us onTwitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on, and put our RSS feedsin your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.
Photo: Radio innovator Guglielmo Marconi at a desk with his equipment. Originally appeared in the March 1903 issue of The World's Work, now in the public domain and used here under a Creative Commons license via Wikipedia user Thomas H. White.
Fort Worth ISD trustee seeks closed meeting, says public forum to interview board applicants would 'jam up' process
Friday, Feb 03, 2012, 02:56PM CST
By Steve Miller

In Fort Worth, the school district has decided that rather than let voters decide who will fill a vacant trustee seat, the sitting board is better qualified.

The board claimed an election would be expensive, therefore it would do the selecting for the people. It will meet Feb. 21 to discuss who will join its ranks.

At least one board member, though, believes that the process should be closed to the public.

Fort Worth ISD Trustee Ann Sutherland feels that holding a public forum with the applicants would create a scenario where some could "jam up" the process.

"It's going to be huge and ugly if we do," Sutherland said, according to an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sutherland also wanted to keep the names of the applicants private, but the district’s counsel advised that would be illegal.

But the school district attorney, Bertha Whatley, believes the board can interview applicants and discuss its choice behind closed doors. Whatley said the Texas Open Meetings Act allows such, citing Texas Government Code Section 551.074.
Ann SutherlandAnn Sutherland

Today, the Star-Telegram weighs in with an op-ed on the situation, predictably – and reliably – coming down on the side of transparency.

Sutherland has been at times a foe of transparency. She was loud in her protest last fall of the public availability of e-mails sent by elected officials and public employees.

And an account last summer, also in the Star-Telegram, noted that Sutherland was texting with the representative of a potential vendor during a meeting on whether to hire the vendor to handle the district's collections from delinquent taxpayers. The representative's firm won the contract.

Of course Sutherland may have texted him in he past; he and his firm, Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, had helped her campaign in the past.

And she’s not afraid to defend her stance.
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or

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, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of crayons by flickr user KTVee, used via a Creative Commons license.
On the radio: Texas Watchdog's Mike Cronin discusses Houston ISD's procurement problems
Friday, Jan 27, 2012, 04:09PM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
On the Air

Texas Watchdog's Mike Cronin was interviewed on Scott Braddock's show on News 92 FM this morning about the recent performance audit on the Houston schools' procurement practices.

Listen here
The audit found numerous problems in the school district's system of buying goods and services --- echoing some of the same concerns highlighted in Texas Watchdog's reporting on a groundskeeping contract awarded to a company whose price was twice the low bid.

Take a listen via the embedded MP3 player. 


Contact Jennifer Peebles at 281-656-1681 or or on Twitter at @jpeebles and @texaswatchdog.

Photo by flickr user Rochelle, just Rochelle, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Lots of Einsteins or too low a bar? Houston ISD bursting at the seams with 'gifted' students, shelves plan to tighten standards
Thursday, Jan 19, 2012, 08:24AM CST
By Mike Cronin

Of all the challenges facing the Houston school system, here's one you probably haven’t heard about: It may have too many gifted kids.

About one student in every six in the Houston Independent School District has been identified as "gifted and talented" -- that's more than twice that of the Texas and national rates for gifted children, according to public records and a national expert.

Just what will be done about it, though, is unclear. HISD administrators in August had considered making it more difficult for students to qualify for the gifted program, but that plan was shot down after "feedback from principals" said it would be "a bad idea," district spokesman Jason Spencer said.

If the gifted criteria had become more stringent, he added, students already in the program “probably would (have been) grandfathered in.”

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, is one of many parents who complained that HISD “does not have a clear consistent path for" gifted and talented students.

“When I met with the administration in December, they admitted" they had not rectified the gifted and talented situation, "and said it needed to be addressed,” said Angela Standridge, 46, co-chairman of the committee. Her son, 14, is gifted and has an IQ between 165 and 168, depending on the test.

“I have not seen (a solution) in writing and action, but there does seem to be a dialogue. It would be most helpful if they filled the open position for a gifted and talented coordinator. It will not be on anyone else's front burner, no matter how many parents voice the concern.”

About 15.6 percent of HISD's student body has been identified as gifted and talented, according to e-mails written by HISD administrators in August and obtained by Texas Watchdog. The state rate is 7.2 percent, or closer to one child in every 14.

And even Texas’ percentage is a bit higher than the national average, which is between 6.5 percent and 7 percent, said Jim Borland, a professor who specializes in gifted and talented curricula at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.

“Houston’s percentage of gifted and talented students is very high,” Borland said. “I haven’t come across an urban school district with such a large scale of gifted and talented students – or anything close to this.

"It makes you ask why so many kids need a form of special ed. What’s wrong with the general education system? That’s sort of the implicit message – that about one in seven students need something outside the regular curriculum.”

Each Texas school district is required to use at least three criteria for entrance into gifted ed programs -- but the districts are allowed to pick what those criteria will be.

HISD officials use a matrix which includes these factors:
  • Student scores on achievement tests in subjects such as reading, math and science and on a nonverbal-ability test;
  • Grades on the student’s report card;
  • Teacher recommendations; and
  • Obstacle points, which are “awarded to those from low-income families, English language learners, historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and/or special education,” Spencer said.
The proposal that HISD administrators discussed in their August would have raised the score students needed to earn to gain admission to the gifted and talented program by five points, to 67 from 62.

Even if the five-point increase occurred however, the percentage of HISD gifted and talented students might drop only to 13.4 percent of the student population, according to the e-mails – still much higher than the Texas and national averages. Spencer said the five-point increase would reduce the percentage to 12.5 percent.

But Spencer said that “the fact that HISD has identified a higher percentage of students as (gifted and talented) than the average Texas school district is not indicative of a problem in and of itself.”

Yet Tracy Weinberg, associate director of the Texas Association for Gifted and Talented in Austin, disagreed.

“When you over-identify gifted and talented students, you’re slowing the pace of classroom instruction and not creating a challenge for students who are truly gifted,” Weinberg said. “They don’t get the depth of content and complexity because there’s too many bases to be covered in the class.”

And it could even hurt students who normally would not qualify as gifted and talented, said Columbia’s Borland.

“The whole goal of a gifted and talented program is to identify kids who need that type of instruction and group them homogenously with kids of comparable ability,” Borland said. “The larger you make that group, the more heterogeneous you make it. If kids are misplaced, it’s not good for anybody. It could be less effective because of the unwieldy range of abilities in the gifted program.”

But parents of HISD gifted students say any plan that would cut kids out of the gifted program could hurt the pupils who remain in it, robbing them of valuable dollars precisely at a time when the district faces cuts across the board due to a looming $44 million budget deficit.

“I’d hate to see the district take dollars away from the high-performing kids,” said Judy Long, 64, a parent who has raised four HISD graduates. “We wouldn’t do this to athletes, but we’ll do it to our most gifted kids, like the best violinist. It’s crazy.”

Texas funds programs for 5 percent of students whom individual school districts identify as gifted and talented, said Long, who also serves on the district’s gifted committee. The HISD board of trustees created that committee and appointed about 18 members last year.

“The remainder of (the funding comes) from the HISD budget for kids identified over the 5 percent,” Long said.

Parents have clamored for improvements to the Houston schools' gifted and talented curriculum since administrators eliminated the top program for the district’s best and brightest in 2006.

Long said she believes HISD officials eliminated the "Tier 1" gifted and talented selection process and program five years ago to allow more minority students to access to top-notch academic and arts learning opportunities.

Though a noble cause, Long said that hurts those students who are truly a cut above the rest.

“Now that great violinist goes into a pool with lower (collective) talent,” Long said. “If we do something for the least-able students, we need to do something for those working at or above grade level.”

But she emphasized that the answer is not to take away minority students' access to gifted and talented opportunities or lower the percentage of pupils identified as gifted and talented. That would only eliminate necessary funding to students with high ability.

Instead, Long and other parents said HISD administrators should restore the Tier 1 program, which would create a curriculum for those who really stand apart from the rest of the pupil population.

But even under the current gifted program, Hispanic, African-American and low-income students are under-represented, Spencer said.

For instance, Asian students are six times more likely to qualify as gifted and talented in HISD as African-American students, Spencer said. Overall, 42 percent of all Asian students in HISD have been identified as gifted and talented, along with 40 percent of all white students.

But just 7 percent of the district's African-American students have been designated as gifted and talented.

Those numbers aren't at all in line with the overall demographics of HISD's student body, which is nearly two-thirds Hispanic and about one-quarter African-American.

The state's plan for gifted ed says a school district's gifted and talented population should be reflective of its total population, Spencer said.

HISD officials have addressed this issue in recent years by implementing universal gifted and talented testing for all kindergartners and fifth graders, Spencer said. And in high school, HISD officials provide rosters of gifted students' names to ensure identification is carried over from middle school, he said.

Organizing students according to their actual abilities is the most effective manner to teach kids, said Patrick Suppes, an emeritus professor at Stanford University who founded that school’s Education Program for Gifted Youth.

“It’s a mistake to get caught up in a single definition" of gifted and talented, Suppes said. “It’s a good idea to stratify.”

Spencer acknowledged that the district "has more work to do when it comes to properly identifying" gifted kids, and said an ad hoc committee comprising HISD principals recommended examining the current matrix to determine whether it needs refining.

If district administrators decide it does, any changes would be made in time for the 2013-14 academic year, he said.

Contact Mike Cronin at or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
Photo by flickr user sethstoll, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpaceDiggFriendFeed, and tumblr.

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

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