Updated: HISD Spokesman Jason Spencer challenged HNOMA's numbers, sending this note after reviewing the letter a second time: "All of the design contracts approved by the Board stipulate that the design fees are not to exceed 7 percent of each project's budget. Assuming that all of the projects hit the 7 percent cap, these design contracts have a combined value of just $84.7 million. Of that amount, $11.4 million has been awarded to firms that are majority owned by African Americans."
To date, there's been approximately $1.24 billion devoted to the 2012 HISD Bond programs, set to repair some 40 schools in Houston, including 29 high schools. However, since voters approved the Bond last November, only two percent of the monies assigned have gone to the six architectural firms run solely by African-American owners.
The rate thus far has been sufficiently low to prompt a scathing letter from the Houston chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, which was obtained by Hair Balls. Addressed to HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, the letter from HNOMA, which was founded in 2006, cited a "grave concern" over HISD's actions since November.
"Not only are we extremely disappointed that Houston based African American architecture firms have been bypassed for the larger part of the bond work, we feel that HISD has disenfranchised our member firms and their employees with the selections made thus far," wrote HNOMA.
The letter's signatories, including HNOMA President Motunrayo Badru and HNOMA Vice President Anzilla Gilmore, described the specific complaints that their member firms brought forward. Those six firms, including Smith & Company Architects and RDC Architects LLC, detailed systemic issues experienced during the 2012 Bond assignment process. In addition to the mere fact that only two percent of the funds have been assigned to these firms, the letter notes that none have been tasked with working on the six "historically African American schools."
"I was contacted by my constituents and they were advising me of what happened through the 2012 Bond program," Gilmore told Hair Balls. "For whatever reasons, they haven't gotten any work...All African-American-owned architecture firms across the country have issues, but I don't know if they've had issues on this scale."
These "issues" extend beyond mere allocation. According to the letter, it appears that none of the six firms in question were even interviewed for projects pertaining to the four traditionally African-American high schools being rebuilt. "Of course, African American firms should not be considered to design African American schools exclusively. However, all of our members firms [sic] and their employees have contributed at some level to the success of previous HISD Bond programs and in many cases, contributed their own resources to bringing awards and notoriety to the schools that were completed in past HISD Bond programs."
HISD spokesman Jason Spencer couldn't verify HNOMA's numbers, but pointed out that of the 23 firms thus far approved by the Board of Trustees, 12 are "certified as minority/women-owned business enterprises."
"Our primary focus in this bond program is to provide world-class 21st century learning environments for all students while being the best possible stewards of taxpayer dollars," Spencer wrote to Hair Balls. "The architectural firms that have not yet been awarded a project are still under consideration for the remaining projects to be determined at a later date. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming response to the request for qualifications, not every highly qualified firm will be awarded a project."
Still, HNOMA stands by its figures. Gilmore also noted that all six firms had received work during HISD's 2007 Bond program, which makes their absence in 2012 that much stranger.
"In the 2007 Bond, all of these firms got work, so we assumed that with a Bond this big, these guys shouldn't have any issues," Gilmore said. "They just need the chance, and if they don't get the chance, they should be told why."
Stennis Lenoir, with RDC Architects LLC, said that he's worked on a handful of large projects over the previous two Bonds, but remains unsure why he's not received any work this time around.
"For some reason in this program, we've interviewed, but we haven't received any projects as of yet," Lenoir told Hair Balls. "I don't know how to address [the difference]. Their official position is probably going to be that they selected what they consider the best and most qualified firms to do a project, but that's very subjective."
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Approximately $650 million is still unassigned for projects relating to the 2012 Bond, so HISD could still rectify certain of these issues. However, if the previous six months are indicative, it seems unlikely that these six firms in question will receive the work they believe should be coming their way.
Entire text of letter below: