The Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) Board of Trustees held their regular monthly board meeting on Tuesday, August 20th, immediately following the morning workshop on Early to Rise. Click here for the agenda.
The HCDE board meetings have citizen comments immediately after the invocation and pledges. Because the morning had been focused on the Early to Rise initiative, there were many citizens signed up to talk about that issue. There were eight total, including me. Six of the seven were against the initiative, one was against the way the department distributes current tax revenue. I missed the name of one of the citizens, I apologize for that.
First up was Minister DeWayne Lark. Minister Lark was concerned that the board would want to associate with a private group and give them taxpayer funds to train undereducated, non-certified workers and teachers at private day care centers. He wants the funds to go to Head Start programs that have had their funding cut. He noted that the initiative provides no direct services to children.
Carol Kitson told the board about a possible conflict of interest with Supt. Dr. John Sawyer. It seems that Dr. Sawyer was on the board of the Collaborative for Children, one of the drivers behind the Early to Rise initiative. Interestingly, the current link for the Collaborative for Children Board members is blank but I did find his name on several press releases on the site. Here is one.
At this point in the meeting, Trustee Marvin Morris interrupted to make certain that we knew that the HCDE board did not come up with the idea, an outside group approached them, the HCDE board has nothing to do with the ballot proposition, and that thus far he hasn’t seen anything that would make him vote for the idea.
Colleen Vera inroduced herself as a “watchdog” and proceeded to read from two Texas Attorney General opinions about the way the HCDE must use tax revenue and one Texas Supreme Court decision about the way tax revenue collected for schools must be used. She then made a veiled threat of sorts by telling the board that her testimony was being recorded on video to prove that the board had been told about the opinions and decision. I suppose this will be used in one of the many lawsuits that will result if the HCDE board approves partnering with the Harris County School Readiness Corporation (HCSRC).
I was up next and told the board that I appreciated the transparency of the workshop they held. I had come in against the proposition and remained against it but noted several areas where progress had been made – the composition of the HCSRC board and their accepting the guidelines of the Texas Public Information Act. I also told them that a better way to do this, if they really wanted to put more money into early childhood education, was to levy the remaining $0.0033 of their current tax rate authorization and keep the program in house. I’m not for that but it is a much cleaner way to accomplish much of what is being proposed without doubling the authorized tax rate or spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Going this route would raise about $10 million a year – if it works, then they could come back to the public, make their case from data, and then have a vote.
Rep. Debbie Riddle was next. She said that everyone wants to do what is right for the children but that too often we use our babies to profit ourselves and do not help them. She also told the board that Dr. John Sawyer had refused to answer a question from the Chair of the Texas House Public Education committee about transparency and if he did that to the Texas Legislature, this proposition would be no different. I found the archive from that committee hearing – you can watch it here: Public Education Committee Hearing 4-16-13 – starts at the 08:52:51 time mark. I didn’t find that conversation but it is a long hearing and might well be there if you watch it all. Rep. Riddle also gave an illustration saying that this proposition was the same as someone knocking on her door, offering to find someone to mow her yard for $100, then telling her that if she wanted to mow it herself, he’d pay her $25.
Rep. Riddle talked about her testimony on KSEV Radio with Paul Bettencourt after the meeting:
William Wilson testified against the bill.
Former Harris County Tax Assessor/Collector Don Sumners testified against the bill, saying that the board was wrong for not taking ownership of the proposition and shutting it down before it goes to the voters. He passed out a handout saying that bank robbers no longer bother with banks focusing on government instead because that is where the money is.
After the Open Forum ended, the board proceeded with normal business. I’ve noticed that the board is much more active this year and asks pointed questions to HCDE staff members – this wasn’t the case last year.
Several agenda items that were interesting
Agenda Item 5 B – Presentation on Policy CH (Local) – Jesus Amezcua, Assistant Superintendent for Business Services.
Mr. Amezcua spent a lot of time discussing the policy that procuring any single item over $50,000 or any aggregated item over $50,000 requires approval by the board. He spent a lot of time on this, explaining that sometimes the board has to approve additions to funding if the cost is underestimated. He gave several examples, mostly utility bills. One was the purchase of water from the City of Houston, budgeted at one number but they spent several thousand more, so the board has to approve the additional spending.
When I searched for the actual CH policy on the HCDE website, I found a CH(LOCAL) policy dated 7-24-2007 that conflicts with Mr. Amezcua’s presentation and statements at previous board meetings about a $50,000 cutoff point. Here is the relevant text:
The Board delegates to the Superintendent or the Superintendent’s designee the authority to determine the method of purchasing, in accordance with CH(LEGAL), and to make budgeted purchases. However, any purchase that costs or aggregates to a cost of $25,000 or more shall require Board approval before a transaction is culminated.
But in the long-form board agenda on page 496-7, there is a policy dated 4-47-2011 with the $50,000 amount. Obviously the website has an out of date policy and $50,000 is the correct amount. However, these types of mistakes contribute to the public perception that the department is out of control and mismanaged.
One thing is became very clear from Mr. Amezcua’s presentation – Dr. John Sawyer clearly violated this policy when he spent over $200,000 in the aggregate on lobbyists for the 83rd Legislative Session.
Agenda Item 7 C – Possible action on the appointment of bond counsel services for HCDE
This item contained the legal services contract with Fulbright & Jaworski pertaining to the Early to Rise initiative that I mentioned in this post. HCDE Board President Angie Chesnut told me during a break that Dr. John Sawyer had told her that this had nothing to do with the Early to Rise proposal and was only for legal opinions about the election if it takes place. Indeed, Marcus Detz, the attorney for Fulbright & Jaworski told me the same thing. However, under questioning by Trustee Kay Smith, it became clear that Mr. Detz had in fact participated in the negotiations for the draft proposal with Early to Rise. The board ultimately refused to approve the agreement until the wording is changed. Mr. Detz looked like he had been thrown under the bus after that happened.
Agenda Item 7 E – Consider approval to purchase 52 standard Lenovo Laptop Thinkpad computers from 466 CDW-G (Choice Partners job no. 10/009LB) for the purpose of service documentation by ECI Therapists and direct service staff in an amount not to exceed $50,704.
This was another example of how this board is different. Trustee Howard Jefferson questioned why the department would spend $1,000 on a laptop when you can buy a HP or Dell for $400. The staff stumbled around for awhile, then CIO Jim Schul took a stab at it. Dr. John Sawyer tried to intervene. In the end, the board wouldn’t bend and told Mr. Schul and his staff to come back to them at the next board meeting with a RFP and three competitive bids.
Agenda Item 7 F – Consider approval of Professional Service Contract with Janet Wachs for HCDE and the 468 HCDE Choice Partners cooperative for the period of 09/01/2013 through 08/31/2014 in an amount not to exceed $60,120 plus pre-approved expenses in an amount not to exceed $17,500 for a total aggregate of $77,620.
Once again, the board pushed back. This time Facilities Support Services Executive Director Les Hooper was on the hot seat. The board ultimately approved the hiring of Ms. Wachs but not before some pointed questioning. Turns out that Mr. Hooper had already hired Ms. Wachs and when asked why she would start work without a contract, Mr. Hooper told the board that she was working “on good faith”.
Ms. Wachs will be training Choice Partner field reps in “relationship selling” – remember that I talked about that subject before. Trustee Kay Smith went ballistic when Mr Hooper told her that Don Elder, who is being paid $102,357 per year could receive training from Ms. Wachs. The entire board seemed confused that Ms. Wachs will only work 3-4 days per week. In the end, they approved the contract but I think Mr. Hooper won’t do that again.
I left when the board went into closed session to receive legal advice on the Early to Rise initiative.
It was a long day but very informative. I was a bit surprised that no supporters of the Early to Rise initiative testified before the board – if I was in charge of that campaign, I would have rounded up a few citizens, gave them some talking points, and told them to get after it.
I like this board and the direction they are taking in asking tough questions and not being a rubber stamp for the HCDE staff. That is certainly a positive step for the future. If they have a future, but that is for a different day.