People: Fight the Stone Wall

At the April 11, 2017, School Board Meeting, I asked a series of financial-transparency questions about a multi-million dollar bid, expensive outside consultants, and mysterious increases in estimates.

The board and staff members tried to create the appearance of responding, but failed to address simple questions with direct answers. In most cases, they provided no answers at all. And in one case, a staff member would not take the microphone or face the camera during his attempted explanation. The Board then voted unanimously to adopt all three items.

This created bigger questions than I first had. I now worry about the Board’s commitment to financial transparency, how they spend $350 million tax dollars each year, and why the school district does not follow financial-transparency guidelines recommended by the Texas State Comptroller.

Shifting Funds Away from Instruction

My first question: Why is money being taken away from instruction, guidance counseling and health services and put into maintenance, staff development and leadership. Answer: In general, it has to do with coding, end of year adjustments, and a desire not to overestimate. While not directly answering the question, it was the best attempt of the night.

Hiring Expensive Outside Consultants

Next, I asked about the recommendation to hire a consultant for one month’s work at the rate of $34,950 (an annualized rate of more than $400,000!). I asked, “Why is she being hired? Why is she worth so much? And is there no one else in the District who can perform her services?” Answer: In essence, she worked for us once before and we liked her.

Mysterious Estimate Revisions

I also asked about two estimate revisions. One increased 336% from $25,000 to $114,000. Another, from the same vendor increased 37% from $1.9 to $2.6 million, an increase of $700,000. Then I asked, “Why are these increases necessary? What are they for? Why were the original estimates so far off?” Answer: The question was not answered except to say that one of these items was discussed at “Breakfast with the Board.” However, the District’s website makes no mention of a Breakfast with the Board.  [Note: Special board meetings are held on campuses at 7AM occasionally, but no public records exist of them on the District’s web site, and I can find no mention of intent to discuss these estimates at such a breakfast.]

Not Revealing Competitive Bids

Finally, I asked about a project to renovate the roof on Kingwood Park High School for $2,034,000. I pointed out that the school had been renovated less than ten years ago and asked, “Why is another renovation necessary if roofs are supposed to last 20 to 30 years? Why wasn’t it listed in the items need for Kingwood Park in the 2008 bond fund?” There were seven bidders on the project. The winner was awarded on “best value,” not lowest price. So I also asked, “What were the other bids? Why can’t we see them on the District’s website? Why was the winner deemed the best value? How much did the consultant who oversaw the bidding cost? And why was it necessary to hire the consultant?” Answer: Part of the roof was 24 years old.

Holy cow! I thought $2 million sounded expensive for the entire roof. Now I find out it’s only for part of the roof! Worse, not one of the other questions about the project was answered.

See for Yourself

Witness the meeting for yourself and draw your own conclusions. My questions start at 1:02:00 into the meeting. Responses start at 1:28:35. See http://www.texanlive.com/2017/04/humble-isd-school-board-meeting-live-7pm-4-11-2017/

I went into this meeting seeking simple explanations about how my taxes were spent. I came away deeply suspicious with more questions than ever.

Consistent Patterns

In the minutes from previous board meetings, I have noticed huge unexplained increases in estimates. For instance, look at the minutes for the District’s August 16 board meeting. On Page 480, at the bottom of the page you will find $1.52 million of estimate increases without any explanation.

They include increases of:
• 119% for instructional materials
• 31% for unspecified technology
• 300% for more instructional materials (from another vendor)
• 633% for ice cream (listed as child nutrition)
• 338% for waste management and other unspecified services

Last month, the District spent more than $2 million to replace two chillers and one cooling tower at three schools. Again, none of the lower bids were revealed. And again, the basis of the “best value” bid was not explained.

Not Following Recommendations of Texas Comptroller

Review the contract and procurement checklist for transparency recommended by the Texas Comptroller.

Then try to find this information on the District’s website in one easy-to-find place. You won’t. Period. End of story. You have to wade through volumes of documents just to figure out what questions to ask, then make expensive and time-consuming public information requests to get the answers.

This information should be freely and readily available on the District’s website. It requires only a few keystrokes to show competing bids on multi-million projects, explain why one was chosen over another, and why estimates mysteriously increase for millions of dollars.

Raising Bigger Questions

It makes you wonder whether they’re hiding something. The more they resist simple explanations, the more excuses they make, the more evasive their responses become, the more they fight full disclosure, the more convinced I become that we need radical change in this election. If you vote for me, I promise to fight for compliance with the Texas Comptroller’s guidelines for financial transparency and fight to explain how your money is spent.

1 reply
  1. Mike Atchison
    Mike Atchison says:

    Bob, we both know a contractor who does over $20 million annually with the Houston Independent School District. His bids always seem to be transparent and competitive, but he admits that many of the winning bids involve who you know instead of what you know and it sounds suspiciously like it’s the case with the Humble Independent School District. Stick to your guns on this. You have my vote.

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