White-Washing Those Black Rodeo Gala Tickets

Well, Warner Ervin, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District's south region, must be feeling pretty good today.

He's the administrator being reluctantly investigated by the Texas Education Agency -- after a lot of urging from citizen and former HISD high school teacher Del Murphy -- for tapping into HISD discretionary funds to buy tickets to the Black Heritage Western Gala. Reportedly, principals and other administrators, working with and for Ervin, were persuaded by the regional superintendent to put up as much as $100,000 total for the tickets out of their campus discretionary funds.

In a letter dated April 13, the TEA's Laura Taylor, tells HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra that "the agency has identified an area of concern related to the determination of a public benefit or use of public funds."

All right. That's affirmation that there's something there, right?

A closer look of the accompanying four-page letter to Taylor from Rita Chase, the director of Financial Audits for the TEA who was in charge of the investigation, basically exonerates Ervin and all HISD administrators, every step of the way. After noting that the TEA had shut down its initial investigation on June 27, 2008, Chase confirms that her agency re-opened the case after receiving additional information (Read: Del Murphy screaming at them to do what he considers the right thing.)

In short order, Chase sets up and knocks down the allegations.

Point 1: There was no diversion of activity funds. Ervin (who is identified not by name but by his job position throughout her report) delivered all the campus discretionary funds collected to the livestock show and rodeo and did not get any money back from the rodeo in return.

Point 2: There was no conflict of interest because Ervin's director position with the livestock show and rodeo is unpaid. Without a financial exchange or ownership, "a conflict of interest has not been found." Apparently the TEA doesn't consider getting to be a VIP on a rodeo committee as any sort of benefit.

Point 3: There was no coercion of south-region principals. In this part, Chase writes that not all campuses participated and of those who did, not all commented on their participation. This enraged Murphy today, who called that "an absolute false statement" and that all the principals had commented. He, of course, believes there was coercion.

Point 4: The use of HISD activity funds to buy rodeo gala tickets is not a violation of the Texas Education Code. Wow.

Included in Point 4 is a note that there is no standard by which principals determine "public benefit" and a definition may be in order.

In conclusion, the TEA's Chase dealt out a mild pee-pee whack to the HISD Board of Trustees for essentially handing the store over to the principals with no board oversight in how these public funds are being used. As she wrote: "The agency is concerned that the determination of a public benefit or use of public funds has apparently been delegated by the board of trustees to the principals and the standards for making a determination of public benefit or use may not be sufficiently specified."

Taylor tells Saavedra that the HISD school board and its legal counsel should review its procedures for "determining expenditures from activity funds under the control of the principals." So much for an outside investigation.

Pretty much game-set-and-match to business as usual at the HISD.

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