Some Testy HISD Trustees Pound on Staff Members About R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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In a Monday agenda meeting that started late but revved up quickly, Houston ISD trustees expressed shock that the after-school vendor process the law required and they okayed in January had removed many long-standing programs from the district’s approval list and returned to a debate over its job-order contracts program.

The meeting, threaded through with tension, reached its high point toward the end when several trustees, beginning with Rhonda Skillern-Jones, complained that they are not getting the respect they deserve from the HISD administrative staff.

Skillern-Jones said she was upset to discover that turnaround school community meetings were held in her district without her knowledge, saying this made it appear to her constituents that she didn’t care about them. She said this subject had been brought up many times previously and the administration always said it would never happen again, but it does. “I’m done with being patient with this. It’s rude. It’s disrespectful.”

This was followed by trustees Diana Davila, Jolanda Jones and Wanda Adams all explaining various ways they had been “disrespected” by members of the administration. Both Adams and Davila added that they appreciated the work the staff does, but Jones, keeping to form, rejected any such niceties, as two chief school officers came to the microphone to accept their correctional instruction.

“Y’all don’t have one more time to not tell me about something that’s going on in my community. That’s flat-out disrespectful. You guys better figure out a way to work with me or your life isn’t going to be real pleasant,” Jones said. “I’m not saying that to be mean, but people come to me when the stuff goes wrong. They don’t call you. They call me. “

“I’m not wishing you letting me know about stuff,” Jones said later in the meeting to the same two administrators. “I’m going to call names. If I feel like I’m in on this alone, I’m going to be on whoever the superintendent is to get people in those jobs who will work with us and not behind our backs.”

Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt apologized for the lack of notice to trustees, saying that the turnaround school community meetings were called by principals and that the board would get a full report at its June meeting of the findings at each school.

HISD Procurement Officer Richard Gay spent the longest time being questioned in the front of the room, answering questions about the JOC process, which allows the district to do work without going through the competitive bidding process – something that now suspended Chief Auditor Richard Patton had questioned in his audit report last year.

Gay assured the group that by going with a different and (initially, at any rate) more expensive outside firm to make sure it is getting a fair price from the companies it contracts with to do work in HISD, the district could actually save money over the normal bidding process. Jones asked why the verification process couldn’t be handled in-house, discarding the previous controversy about ballooning construction costs by saying, “Mind you, [former superintendent] Terry Grier is gone and his people too who [handled] the bond stuff.”

Trustee Anna Eastman questioned the list of approved vendors for in- and after-school programs and said the district children were going to lose a lot if more programs weren’t restored. Often these programs carry their own grant money and enable a school to offer activities it otherwise couldn’t afford, she said.

“We are about to cut off, put a big old tourniquet on, the wealth of resources that this city has,” said Eastman, who rarely raises her voice at meetings, but did while discussing this. She also warned that more students would move to charter schools if HISD schools no longer offer special programs.

Gay said they went with the 48 responses they had to the application process and that they’d sent out 1,200 notifications. Several board members said that low a response should have been a red flag that communications had broken down, or that the new process itself was just too difficult. “This is not in the best interests of children. Things like this limit the already reduced arts and science and after-school programs,” Skillern-Jones said.

Huewitt finally said the administration could reopen the process “although we can’t do that every month, not that you’re asking us to.” The law requires a more formal approval process if any vendor exceeds a $50,000 limit per year, which had been exceeded in past years because companies would have individual contracts with several different schools, he said.

“In the fall we became aware of the use of certain vendors well beyond the limit. We put things on hold, to get things in line with the statute. It’s one thing when you don’t know you’re breaking the law. When you know you’re breaking the law, you got to do what you can to get back in line,” Huewitt said.

Actually, as it turns out, because of the category that the in-school programs fall under, even vendors coming in under the $50,000 line will have to follow the more lengthy application and approval process, Huewitt confirmed.

Board President Manuel Rodriguez, who was back presiding at the meeting, came in on a motorized wheel chair that he said was no more difficult to operate than a golf cart. Rodriguez shattered the bones in one leg in a fall after attending a STEM meeting at the University of Houston and spent two weeks in the hospital, followed by five weeks of rehab, which is still continuing.

This Thursday the school board will meet again in its regular public monthly session beginning at 5 p.m.

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