Project Grad Ann Stiles far L
Possible Ethics Lapse Right Under Board Member's Nose
Lynn Walsh of Texaswatchdog.org is reporting a possible ethics conflict between HISD employee, board member, and PROJECT GRAD
HISD employee double-dips with contractor to earn $187K a year; Grier: ‘Probably an ethical issue’
Wed Aug 11 05:03:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh
A Houston Independent School District administrator has had a lucrative side job for at least three years -- running an education nonprofit that has a nearly $2 million contract with HISD, something Superintendent Terry Grier says is “probably an ethical issue.”
Ann Stiles’ job at HISD in recent years has been overseeing the school system program coordinated by her own group, Project GRAD Houston, which tries to prevent low-income children in HISD from dropping out of school. Project GRAD has a $1.86 million contract with the Houston district, which school trustees renewed in June.
As HISD teacher specialist for Project GRAD, Stiles is a full-time HISD employee, earning a salary of $67,318 this year plus benefits, district spokesman Norm Uhl said.
But that’s not her only source of income. Stiles is also the executive director for Project GRAD Houston, where, according to the group’s IRS form, she earned $120,201 in 2008 and listed an average 40 hours of work per week. The total paycheck for the two jobs comes to more than $187,000 annually.
Stiles’ moonlighting was revealed Monday by Grier to school system trustees and the public. “I want to bring it to the board’s attention as it is probably an ethical issue that should be discussed,” Grier, who took over as the school system chief last September, told the group. He didn’t elaborate.
However, school officials had previously known of Stiles’ two jobs, Uhl said, though he did not elaborate on how long the district had known.
Asked whether an HISD employee is allowed to also work for a nonprofit that contracts with the district, Uhl said in an e-mail, “there does not appear to be a violation of any policy and it was known that she worked for the district. I just don’t think the question of the possible appearance of a conflict had been asked until now.”
Project GRAD Houston's IRS form and its Web site list HISD Trustee Paula Harris as one of the group's board members. Her name appears on the group's IRS form on the same page as the one identifying Stiles as executive director. Harris and another HISD trustee, Anna Eastman, had questioned Grier about Stiles' dual employment at the Monday meeting, but Harris did not volunteer publicly that she is a Project GRAD board member.
Stiles has submitted a resignation letter to the school district, effective Aug. 31, Uhl said. A school district staffer told the trustees Monday that the resignation had been turned in, though it was unclear exactly when it was submitted.
HISD salary records show Stiles has been a district employee since August 1993. She was initially hired as a teacher at Jefferson Elementary School, Uhl said.
The first reference to Project GRAD in Stiles’ employee file at HISD is in 1997, Uhl said, where Stiles is listed as a math teacher at the now-closed Lamar Elementary serving as a “Teacher Trainer under Project Grad.”
She began working as Project GRAD’s teacher specialist for HISD in August 2000, earning a salary of more than $40,000, Uhl said. Salary records show her HISD pay increased each year, up to the $67,318 she earned last year.
It was not clear at press time when Stiles became an employee of the nonprofit organization Project GRAD. IRS forms for the nonprofit were available online as far back as 2006, and all three years’ forms describe Stiles as the executive director.
Texas Watchdog called the Project GRAD Houston office number, asking for Stiles. A receptionist said Stiles was in a meeting and took a message. As of print, Stiles did not return the phone call.
HISD’s headquarters at 1800 W. 18th St. is 8.5 miles away from the Project GRAD office at 3000 Richmond -- a 25-minute drive in traffic, according to Google Maps.
According to its website, Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams) Houston is part of a national program that works to increase high school graduation and college attendance rates for low-income students. The national program grew “from a scholarship program which began in partnership with (the) Houston Independent School District in 1989."
The group was founded by former Tenneco oil chief James Ketelsen and his wife, Kathryn; James Ketelsen is Project GRAD Houston's president and board chairman, while Kathryn Ketelsen is one of Harris' fellow directors. HISD named an elementary school after James Ketelsen in 2002.
In June HISD trustees approved a renewal of the contract between the Houston district and Project GRAD Houston. The agreement for the coming school year, for $1.86 million, includes work at three high schools -- Jefferson Davis, John Reagan and Jack Yates -- and five elementary schools, Thomas Jefferson, James Ketelsen, Adele Looscan, Clemente Martinez and Sidney Sherman.
The possible addition of a ninth site, Phillis Wheatley High School in northeast Houston, prompted Grier’s mention of Stiles’ dual employment at Monday's school board meeting. The addition of Wheatley and the additional costs of $59,221 associated with it are up for approval by school trustees Thursday (agenda item D-4).
Do you think HISD should have a policy that prohibits an employee from receiving a taxpayer-funded salary from the school district while at the same time working for a business or nonprofit that contracts with the district?
Let Texas Watchdog know what you think. Contact Lynn Walsh, Lynn@TexasWatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. On Twitter, @TexasWatchdog or @Lwalsh, and follow #HISD for stories, meeting highlights and more on HISD.
HISD Taxpayers Must Question Board on Rationale for Hiring Grier
Parents in Guilford County, NC and Amarillo, TX, Wanted Grier Fired
School Boards in Guilford County, Amarillo, Sacramento, and San Diego Wanted Grier Gone
A Super Mess from Rhino Times, Charlotte, NC, March 30, 2006Terry Grier
Like most professional educrats, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Terry Grier is well traveled. And just like any car that's been around the block a few times, Grier has collected quite the assortment of dents, along with some bumper stickers.
The stickers, in this case, have usually come from angry grassroots groups calling for his resignation.
Before Grier landed in Guilford County six years ago, he was superintendent in Franklin, Tennessee, where parent groups brandished slogans like SOS (Save Our Schools) and SOF (Save Our Faculty) to express their frustrations with Grier.
The acronyms followed Grier to Guilford County, where parent groups upset with Grier's policies and practices have taken to distributing bump stickers that read "Get Grier outta Here" and "I've been Grier-ended."
Before coming to Greensboro, the longest tenure Grier held as a superintendent was three years. And speaking of frequent traveling, in Grier's first job as superintendent in McDowell County, North Carolina, he was cited for passing a stopped school bus, according to reports from The Rhinoceros Times – Greensboro. That, though, was apparently the least of Grier's shortcomings in McDowell County, according to some school board members.
Grier made such an impression on one board member in McDowell County that the board member wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper in Darlington, South Carolina, warning that city of Grier. He served as superintendent of the Darlington County School District from 1988 to 1991.
Before that, Grier was the superintendent of the Amarillo Independent School District in Amarillo, Texas, from April 1987 to May 1988. Grier resigned from that post under a cloud of controversy. Upon turning in his resignation, he received $178,000 from the school board. According to an editorial in the Amarillo Globe-News, if Grier had been fired, the board would have had to pay him the rest of his contract, which was about $307,000. Instead, the board encouraged him to resign and agreed to pay him a little more than half that amount.
Grier said he resigned because of "grave philosophical differences with the board," according to Rhino Times – Greensboro reports. Grier was reported to have explained his resignation by saying, "In my opinion, they [school officials] tried to line the pockets of their friends by convincing committees to do work with their friends' companies."
According to a Rhino Times report: "The president of the Amarillo Independent School District Board of Trustees evidently felt so strongly about being accused of wrongdoing he wrote a letter to the editor of the News and Press that states, in part, 'Dr. Grier's actions confirm that the Amarillo School Board's decision was right when members voted six to one to terminate his contract with the Amarillo Independent School District.'"
Grier didn't fair much better as the superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, where he was hired in 1994. Grier only lasted 17 months before the school board agreed to pay him $190,000 to leave. He filed a lawsuit against the four board members who voted to dismiss him, but a California Superior Court judge ruled against Grier. Grier appealed that decision to the 3rd District Court of Appeals, but the lower court decision was upheld. Grier also sued two school board members for slander.
Subsequent to his brief and stormy tenure in Sacramento, "it took Grier nine months and, according to the Sacramento Bee, 50 job applications to find a job," according to a Rhino Times report. Grier landed a job as superintendent of the Williamson County School System near Nashville, Tennessee, where, reportedly, he took a huge cut in pay.
During his tenure in Guilford County – bumper stickers and angry parent groups notwithstanding – Grier has had his share of success stories. Most notably, last year Newsweek magazine's Challenge Index ranked all 14 of Guilford County's traditional high schools in the top 4 percent of schools nationwide that offer Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. He has also won acclaim from supporters for narrowing the district's achievement gap and increasing student participation in high-level AP and IB courses by 95 percent.
At the same time, only 58 percent of Guilford County's schools met state test score goals for 2005 ABC report cards, down from 66 percent the previous year. And the percentage of schools meeting federal Adequate Yearly Progress fell from 78 percent to 58 percent.
Two Guilford County high schools were among 19 across the state, including four in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. recently threatened to close if academic achievement didn't improve. Just about half of the students at those schools have passed End-of-Course tests.
All of which might explain why the Guilford County school board declined to give Grier a salary increase last year. He currently is paid $210,500 to run the 69,000-student district, which has a budget of about $479 million.
Grier received a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University and two master's from East Carolina University. He began his education career as a classroom science teacher in North Carolina.
Letter sent to HISD Board Members, Houston Legislative Delegation, Board of Directors Greater Houston Partnership, ALF Houston Members
May 4, 2010
To Whom ItMayConcern:
l,ast month several cornmunity members in our city received a letter in which I described tle current
situation at the Houston Independent School Disdct. In the lener, one of my expressed concerns was the
unprecedented downgrading of HISD's accrediation by the Texas Education Agency. The letter also
indicated my intent to examine Dr. Terry Grier and his plan to reform HISD. In the past fuw weeks my office
has taken on the task of evaluating numerous claims made by the superintendenq paying particular
attention to his proposed reform plan to determine if these measures have proven successful at the previous
school districts where they have been executed.
Dr. Grier has repeatedly touted that during his eight-year tenure in Guilford County Schools in North
Carolina his accomplishments included: closingthe achievementgap, increased the number of studen8 who
took Advanced Placement tests, as well as the overall noted improvement in test scores and graduation rates.
A review of Dr. Griey's performance measures during his tenure in Guilford CounQr Schools reveals that
reading scores trailed ttre state average during all eight years, while the math scores tailed in seven of the
eight years. Guilford County Schools watched the achievement gap widen, as African American graduation
rates went from being 2?6lower than whites in 2003 to 13% lower inZAAT, and Hispanic graduation rates
plummeted from B% in 2002-03 to 22Vo lower than their white counterparts by 2007. The Advanced
Placement tests' pass rates were also the lowest among North Carolina's six major districts. Beyond his work
performance, Dr. Grier received less than stellar reports from the citizens of Guilford County, including
conflict-of-interest allegations, growing discontent from paren$, and allegations of intimidation of
The situation was not much different in San Diego, where Dr. Grier again rolled out sweeping changes. A
reorganization of the central administration replaced area superintendents with school improvement
officers and reassigned numerous responsibiHties to different positions. In less than a year in San Diego,
school PTA's complained that there was very little pubtic input in tlre Superintendent's decision making and
his relationship witlr the Board was characterized as tense at best. Last weeh the San Diego Unified School
District Board approved anotler reorganization of its central adminisaation, which eliminates school
improvement officers replactng them with a deputy superintendent [similar to HISD's present organizational
struchrre which Dr. Grier has moved to eliminate), eliminated redundant duties of the chief financial officer,
and is ccnsolidating certain departrrenS with similar duties. The Board estimat€s that returning to their
original organizational structure would not only be*ryre efficient, but it would also save the district an
estimated $2 million a year.
My staff has spent considerable time researching both the programs implemented by Dr. Grier and the
manner in which he interacts with the community in his previous districts. Dr. Grier is an impressive
salesman. He positions himself as a reformer and convinces school boards and community leaders that
together they will make transformational change under his guidance. He stays on message and effectively
cultivates t1e media and this same pattern repeats itself, in his relationship with school board members,
political leaders, and parents.
He convinces the board that changes will be har4 the community will push back and they must stay the
He demands that the board give him the authority to make the change he prescribes regardless of the
lack of buy-in from a communitythat has been removed from meaningful input'
When the parene and community begin to voice fheir concerls about his changes he uses the media to
make his case and to pressure the school board; too often, the school board learns abouthis programs
when they open their morning newspaper.
He attempts to publically marginalize political, business, or community figures who question his
approach by labeling them as against school reform-he has used this to marginalize every school board
that has everemployedhim.
o When the fire gets hot like it did in San Diego, Amarillo and Sacramento, he leaves for greener pashrres
with a buy-out that has been pre-negotiated. If that doesn t work - he sues the boar4 like he did in
There ls a considerable difference befi,yeen the myttr thatTerry Grier spins about his successful reform
efforts and the verifiable facts that my stafffound in Guilford County Schools and San Diego. This much we
can say - he has a strateg, a predictable pattern, and is a great salesman.
As stated in my previous letter, my core concerl is the education and welfrre of our studen6 staffand
protecting the general public-the taxpayers. lf Dr. Grier's past track record is any indication of what is to be
expected from the changes he is putting in place at HISD, then I must say there is reason for great concern.
It is time for all of us to start thinking about what is in the best interest of our children. It is time to start
looking for new effective leadership for HISD before it is too late.
Mario Gallegos, fr
Why Does Terry Grier Idol Martin Haberman Disregard Teachers, Parents, and Middle Class Kids?
From the San Diego Union Education Blog
by Jesse Alred
March 17, 2010
"Teacher behaviors," argues Dr. Martin Haberman, "obstruct learning."
"Misguided teachers," the professor writes, "make the naive assumption that problems [in the classroom] should not exist, or if problems do arise they should be dealt with..."
Haberman's theories, especially one he calls “the pedagogy of poverty,” have strongly influenced Houston's new Superintendent, Dr. Terry Grier. The Superintendent has served on the Advisory Board of The Haberman Foundation, and prefers using interview questions created by Haberman designed to identify and hire teachers amenable to disruptive behaviors.
Dr. Haberman believes the way to deal with persistently disruptive students is to tolerate those behaviors, to treat these students as if they were a family member with a chronic illness. Dr. Grier agrees. He is closing Community Education Partners, a program that separates disruptive students from their cooperative classmates.
Dr. Grier is choosing instead to emulate New Orleans by sending kids who disrupt their classes to other schools on the belief that the school environment, and not the student mind-set, is the problem.
[Maura Larkins' comment: Wait a minute. This isn't making sense. If the teacher is the problem, shouldn't the teacher be sent away rather than the student? Perhaps the teacher should be sent to a training program.]
Haberman believes the problem in schools serving low-income students are the adults not the students. The problem starts with “authoritarianism” of teachers. The “pedagogy of poverty” arises from teacher attempts “to ensure youngsters are compelled to learn their basic skills.” “Students are not necessarily interested in basic skills,” so “directive teaching must be used.”
Haberman's alternative is to sidestep basic skills education and have students develop the curriculum. He also wants a shift in subject matter to issues such as “Differences in race, culture, ethnicity and gender,” “Why are there rich and poor people,” or perhaps, “a racial flare-up.” “War”, “environment”, and “health care” are other “persistent basics of life” Huberman wants at the center of public school pedagogy.
As an experienced high school teacher, one who grew up in a low-income environment, I agree with Dr. Haberman on two counts: that low-income kids often resist formal education, and that teaching the basics are not enough. He is right that teachers with large numbers of disruptive students turn to more authoritative measures.
I am not sure the solution, though, is to pander to their class or racial and class prejudices, to indoctrinate them, or to ignore the absence of basic skills. Why did these students not learn the basic skills in their elementary and middle schools? Surely he is not proposing in-depth dialogues about the racist nature of our society in third grade, or allowing fifth graders to create their own curriculum.
Dr. Haberman also paints all poor kids with the same brush. While a significant minority of kids from poverty do resist formal learning passively or actively, many students do cooperate, learn the basics and more, and go onto success in higher education.
The reality is that formal education in a classroom is an awkward, unnatural process that requires discipline on the part of the student based on an understanding that by controlling himself now there will be a payoff later. This is true of every young person: rich, middle-class and poor. Very few people of any race or class embrace academic learning enthusiastically at a young age.
The successful charter schools, KIPP and YES PREP, adopt approaches just the opposite of Dr. Haberman. They work to make sure kids from low-income families understand “the deal:” that discipline, hard work and self-control in the classroom leads to college and financial and professional success as adults.
Underlying Dr. Haberman's “pedagogy of poverty” is not only an attempt to blame teachers for situations that victimize us as well as the student, but the assumption that poverty in an affluent society is a normal condition leaving no scars on the minority of people who go through this experience.
Like many scholars influenced by the sixties, Haberman, a New York City native, believes educational problems would be conquered if the authorities got out of the way and unleashed the people at the bottom.
“The bureaucratic functionaries,” he writes, “are well aware of the road to success and use various blocking strategies to prevent creating a critical mass of STAR teachers who are needed to turn a failing school around.”...
Keeping disruptive students in an environment they do not trust prevents teachers and students from building the cooperative culture...
[Maura Larkins note: Terry Grier is the opposite of Lowell Billings, the superintendent of Chula Vista Elementary School District, where I worked. Billings supported a highly authoritarian culture at my school--until his own henchmen, who included current CVE President Peg Myers, got carried away with their power and thumbed their noses at Mr. Billings. But instead of changing the authoritarian culture, Billings just tried to be the biggest authoritarian, making a big mess in the process. See all posts about Terry Grier; all posts about Lowell Billings.]
April 28, 2010 biographical update
Terry Greir, who was then superintendent of Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, was hired as Superintendent of San Diego Unified School District and then moved to Houston.
Trustees appear to be focusing on N.C. leader
By Helen Gao
San Diego UNION-TRIBUNE
January 11, 2008
...Under his leadership, Guilford has garnered recognition for its efforts to cut dropout rates, improve graduation rates and increase the number of students taking advanced courses. Grier was named North Carolina Superintendent of the Year in November.
Guilford is also known in North Carolina for being the first school system to pilot a pay structure that includes financial incentives to attract and retain teachers and principals and reward them for student performance...
Grier also has a good working relationship with the 11-member Guilford school board, said board member Anita Sharpe, who describes Grier as being “generally well-respected.”
If Grier lands San Diego's job, it would be his eighth superintendency. He has held top jobs in six states, including California, Tennessee, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas.
He started his education career as a teacher. His first superintendent's job was heading McDowell County Schools in North Carolina at age 34. In the mid-1990s, he led the Sacramento Unified School District, but was fired in a 4-3 vote without explanation.
He told the Charlotte Observer that after an election, the balance on the school board tipped against him.
Don McAdams, Now a Paid School Board Consultant, Advises Secrecy and "Hope No Citizens Show Up"
Split votes divisive, meeting in private OK: Former HISD Trustee Don McAdamsWed May 26 20:24:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh Texaswachdog.org
A former HISD board president who recently told Plano ISD trustees to vote in chorus and meet in private is bringing his consulting firm's training to Houston Thursday.
The former board member, Don McAdams, reportedly told Plano trustees to avoid split votes and to meet at a private home to get to know each other, and hope no citizens showed up.
McAdams defended his comments, saying his philosophy is like that of founding father Thomas Jefferson. McAdams recalled a favorite Jefferson quote: "Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities."
"It is worth your while to make compromises to get a supermajority vote," said McAdams, a Houston Independent School Board member for more than 10 years and founder of the Center for Reform of School Systems.
His center describes itself as a nonprofit teaching school boards and superintendents nationwide how to create a management model that delivers high student achievement.
Earlier this month McAdams made news when he spoke to Plano ISD trustees. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News:
"McAdams said he recommends that board members unanimously approve important or controversial proposals because doing so sends a 'message to the workforce and public that it's a done deal.'
'There's nothing bad about a 7-0 vote,' he said. 'It shows that you're doing your homework. It doesn't necessarily prove that you're a rubber stamp.' ...
'Come together one evening, sit around a table and buy a few bottles of wine or whatever suits you,' he told them. 'Just use your own money.'"
As a journalist who works for an organization that fights for government transparency, the article was alarming. The fact that HISD has paid more than $60,000 to the center since 2008 and McAdams' role as a past board member was just the cherry on top.
The program for Thursday's session is different than the workshop the center led for Plano ISD, McAdams said. And he won't personally be leading the Thursday class. A contract trainer from Duval County, Florida, Betty Burney, will, he said.
McAdams seemed surprised Texas Watchdog was asking him about his comments with the Plano board members, and elaborated on them in an interview Tuesday.
"I don't know why anyone would be upset with me saying a unanimous vote is the best outcome," McAdams said. "To me it shows hard work --- controversial issues should be thoroughly discussed, and the board can reach consensus. That is good voting. ...
"Votes 4-3 or 3-4 tend to stay alive and divide the community. It is better for the board to find a compromise if they can."
According to McAdams, he had avoided doing work with HISD for years after he served on the board. He stepped down in 2001.
"I wanted to be clear that I was not trying to meddle with HISD. I was no longer a board member and did not want to muddy the water or have people think I was trying to work behind the scenes," McAdams said.
It was not until the board voted unanimously to hire his company under past HISD superintendent, Abelardo Saavedra, that McAdams' company began training the HISD trustees, McAdams said.
HISD spokesman Norm Uhl said trustees are required by the Texas Education Agency to have a certain amount of annual training like that provided by McAdams' center. McAdams said Houston ISD trustees have received "more than 25 days of training over approximately two years" from the center. The training has included trips to institutes across the country, including a trip earlier this year to Georgia, outside of Atlanta.
Contact Lynn Walsh at 713-228-2850 or email@example.com.
HOUSTON CHRONICLE'S RICK CASEY GETS THESE COMMENTS FROM HIS AUGUST 4 2010 TPM OBSERVATIONS:
ANDY 2415 wrote:
"The TPM was never designed to be used in the way the state is using it," he said. "That's why I'm not a big fan of it. I think you should award people on how the kids do, not on how they're projected to do."
Thank you for reporting this issue. I am a high school English teacher. My school benefited from TPM and I'm completely opposed to it. We have to love our students enough to set high expectations. However, we also must have courage to look truthfully at the results--even when they may not live up to our hopes. It's frustrating to me that Texas is not willing to do this for our students. I'd like to add that although TEA reports that one reason for the TPM is because the difficulty of the TAKS tests increases each year, I don't believe this--at least when it comes to the Exit Level ELA test. This year I was shocked when a few of my struggling students passed the test. Yes, I believed in them and worked very hard all year to help these students. However, in my opinion, they passed because the Exit Level ELA test is in no way an assessment of college readiness. I would be interested to know the reading level of the reading passages. Moreover, from working with released tests over the years, teachers at my school have noticed that the tests have become easier over time. I don't "teach to the test" but our district does use released tests to give a benchmark test each year. This year in English we used the most recently available released test and I remember one student saying, "I honestly feel like my sister could pass this--and she's in the fifth grade."
Will Terry Grier turn down any bonus dollars that are connected to the Texas Projection Measure?
"Former HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, who retired in August, qualified for a bonus because it was based on test scores from last school year. He received $71,250 of a potential $80,000.
New Superintendent Terry Grier will be eligible for a $30,000 bonus this school year. Under his contract, the maximum will grow to $80,000 in his third year."
From Texas Watchdog:
Gift-giving culture flourished at HISD; vendors lavished cash, dinners and tickets on employees
Houston taxpayers birthday wish: Please spend my money wisely...
Tue Jul 20 16:40:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh, Texaswatchdog.org
A private birthday party at an upscale steakhouse, Houston Rockets playoff tickets, checks totaling $30,000 and the offer of a personal loan for an undisclosed sum were given to Houston Independent School District employees by private companies seeking millions of dollars’ worth of technology contracts with the school system, public records show.
The gift-giving stretched all the way to the schools' top office -- then-Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra and his wife saw three Rockets playoff games in a vendor's luxury suite at the Toyota Center in 2005. The gifts were said to have begun as early as that year and as late as 2008, according to a memo from an outside law firm hired by the school district.
The frequency of the gifts suggests a culture where vendors extended the type of largesse -- including personal loans and just plain cash to help with family problems -- that some people would be embarrassed to seek from close friends and family. Vendors schmoozed with school officials and the district's top technology officers on a private yacht and may have paid for one school system worker to go to Las Vegas twice, the records allege; one firm with a $45 million tech contract with the school system paid for cellphones for 26 school system workers at various times during the given period.
Such practices brought federal sanctions, costing the district around $1 million in direct costs --- that’s about how much the district may spend to rehabilitate Lee High School in northwest Houston --- and the loss of another $105 million federal technology funding.
But the practices did not yield any criminal charges for anyone involved with HISD, even though some of the allegations look similar to those in the case that sent a Dallas Independent School District employee to federal prison in a bribery and money laundering scandal. The gifts given to the HISD workers involve the very same federal tech program, called E-Rate, as the one in the DISD case, and they even involve some of the same players, such as Frankie Wong, a Houston businessman who entertained both DISD's chief tech officer as well as two of HISD's top tech officers on his yacht. The DISD official is now in a federal prison in Fort Worth, and Wong is being held at a federal facility in Bastrop.
Two of the employees named in the memo continued to receive pay raises and promotions while allegedly violating HISD E-Rate ethics policies, records show.
The revelation of the depth of the gift-giving also sheds new light on public, but vague, comments made recently by Saavedra's replacement, new HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, suggesting Grier may have concerns about how vendors and contractors are chosen by the school system. Grier described seeing names of private firms being put on, and then removed, from lists of potential school system vendors with "no rhyme or reason except, quite frankly, influence where influence has no business coming from."
Grier’s comments came right before HISD trustees approved minor construction and repair contracts in May. In his comments Grier called into question the entire contract approval process at HISD, but in the last two months Grier has declined to elaborate.
Except for trinkets like gift bags and drink holders, such gifts had been banned under HISD’s policies dating back to 2004, according to the Sept. 3, 2008, memo from two Bracewell & Giuliani lawyers to officials with the Federal Communications Commission and the Universal Service Administrative Co.
A new policy adopted by HISD trustees in March of this year banned gifts and limited campaign contributions from E-Rate vendors. The policy is aimed at squelching any improper relationships between HISD employees and vendors in the E-Rate program, which could bring HISD close to $90 million.
Grier “is comfortable with the progress that has been made,” he said via E-Rate compliance officer Richard Patton. “He thinks the past is behind us.”
Federal officials were scrutinizing the district as early as 2006, and that year shut down funding that benefited the vendors under the E-Rate program and sued the district.
According to the memorandum, Saavedra “and a guest attended three Houston Rockets playoff games in the Analytical Computer Services Inc. ('ACS') suite in 2005.” The district contracted with Analytical Computer Services for more than $45 million between July 2005 and June 2009, a contracts database shows.
Houston Rockets shirt
The Rockets played three home games at Toyota Center in the 2005 NBA playoffs -- games 3, 4 and 6 against the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs’ first round. The Mavericks took the 7-game series, 4 games to 3, and were eliminated in the conference semifinals.
A little less than a month after the May 5, 2005, game 6 playoff match, Saavedra sent a check for $300 to Frank Trifilio “as reimbursement,” the memorandum says. Frank H. Trifilio is listed as the owner of ACS in the settlement agreement between HISD and the federal government that ended the controversy.
In an interview Wednesday, the former superintendent said he attended basketball games with his wife “in a suite at the invitation of one or two board members” and said it was probably in 2005. When asked which board members invited him, Saavedra said he did not recall but remembered “two or three board members” being there. The former superintendent, who left HISD in August, now works as a consultant and plans to teach at Texas A&M this fall.
According to HISD trustee conflict disclosure forms none of the trustees accepted any gifts, meals or tickets worth more than $50 throughout all of 2005. In fact, in all of the trustee conflict disclosure forms from 2005 to January of this year, board chairman Larry Marshall was the only trustee who reported accepting anything over $50 during that time period.
Back in 2009, Marshall reported receiving game tickets to both an Astros game and two Houston Texans NFL games. During an interview with Texas Watchdog last year, Marshall said, "I can't say that there's a high degree of frequency, but invitations flow. Invitations flow, and you're constantly being invited to something."
The ethics loophole exempts board members from having to report meals, gifts and entertainment from a vendor if the vendor is present. The loophole -- which results in a lower ethical standard than the one imposed on district employees -- is in state law and applies to other local officials.
“I did not realize it was a suite of a vendor,” Saavedra said.
Saavedra said once he realized it was a vendor’s suite, he knew he had to reimburse the firm for the tickets.
“I did not know the value of the tickets, so I sent a check for $300 along with a letter explaining them to inform me if the check did not cover the cost,” he said.
Saavedra said he is not sure if the check was ever cashed, and said he did not know attending the Rockets game with his wife was against E-Rate rules.
“I knew some of the trustees and some of the staff members were attending, and I believe the (HISD) head of technology was there as well, but I did not know it was against the policy or a violation,” Saavedra said.
The policies in place in 2005 did not say whether employees can accept tickets, meals, etc. and then pay for them later. But the policy in 2005 explicitly banned “game tickets (i.e. football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and other sporting events)...” That policy specifically referenced “district employees” and did not make reference to HISD trustees or the superintendent - something Saavedra pointed out to Texas Watchdog during the interview Wednesday.
“If a full reimbursement is made by such recipient in a timely manner, the item ends up not being a ‘gift,’” Patton said by e-mail in response to a question from Texas Watchdog. Reimbursement is “probably not the best method to limit the appearance of a conflict. ... But, the policy does not specifically disallow the practice.”
Saavedra is not the only HISD employee named in the memorandum, which was from Bracewell & Giuliani lawyers George Foote and Kristin Berkland. Steve Kim, one of three former HISD technology employees at the center of the federal E-Rate investigation, “may have taken” trips to Las Vegas on the dime of vendor Hewlett-Packard in May 2005 and Frankie Wong in February 2005, according to the memorandum.
HISD documents show that “an unidentified district employee” registered for a conference in May 2005 at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the memo says. But HISD is “unable to confirm that Mr. Kim accepted a trip to Las Vegas from HP on any of these dates,” the memo says.
Kim worked as a manager of network operations in the networking department and as of 2006 he earned more than $89,000 annually. Kim was terminated by HISD in April of 2007 via a letter of resignation effective April 10, 2007. He had worked for HISD since 1997.
Texas Watchdog was unable to reach Kim at a phone number listed for a Steve Kim in Sugar Land.
Wong was at the center of another scandal in Dallas, and was sentenced to prison after being found guilty of conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to launder money, and eight counts of bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds.
The charges and convictions stem from business Wong, then president of Micro Systems Enterprises, conducted with Dallas Independent School District as an E-Rate vendor more than five years ago, according to an article in the Dallas Morning News. Micro Systems Enterprises also did business as Micro Systems Engineering.
In the settlement agreement between HISD and the federal government, Analytical Computer Services is listed as being a “joint venture or associated company” with Micro Systems. A company called Micro System Enterprises received more than $7 million through contracts with HISD from July 2005 to June of last year, according to a contracts database obtained by Texas Watchdog under the Texas Public Information Act.
The investigation appears to have been triggered, or at least helped along, by an e-mail sent anonymously from a whistleblower inside HISD.
The e-mail begins by accusing Kim of “taking cash and gifts and trips from ACS who also operates as MSE.” The e-mail, addressed to the school board, also names Laura Palmer, another of the three former employees accused of accepting gifts and meals from E-Rate vendors. Palmer was an assistant superintendent for technology and information systems as of September 2006, and had retired as of October 2007, public records show. Texas Watchdog left messages at a home number listed for a Laura Palmer in Houston since last week, but did not receive return calls.
“There are a lot of great people here that will get affected and more importantly HISD does not need to suffer any more negative media,” the whistleblower writes. ... “I care about where I work and don’t want to work in a department that is led by a shady manager.”
“The only document we ever found was an anonymous e-mail,” Chris Gilbert, a partner at the Houston-based Thompson and Horton firm, told Texas Watchdog. Thompson and Horton provides legal services to HISD. “To this day we still don’t know who the author of the e-mail was.”
In February 2006, according to the memorandum, a birthday party for Palmer was held at Truluck’s restaurant. “Approximately 15 people were in attendance and Mr. Bill Froechtenicht of MSE (Micro Systems Enterprises) paid for dinner.” The Truluck’s seafood and steak chain has multiple locations around the country, according to its website, and it’s unclear which one was the location of the birthday dinner.
Payments and gits to Palmer did not stop there. The memorandum relays comments from HISD’s inspector general, who said employee William Edwards told him that Palmer accepted personal checks and a boat ride from vendors:
“In or around the summer of 2007, Mr. Larry Lehmann [managing partner and owner of Acclaim Professional Services] wrote checks in the total amount of approximately $30,000 to Ms. Palmer to help her with her son’s personal issues. Mr. Edwards reported that he saw Ms. Palmer accept some of the checks. Ms. Palmer reportedly cashed some, but not all, of the checks and repaid the amounts she received shortly after receiving the money.”
The memo does not elaborate on the nature of the personal issues.
Edwards, a former assistant superintendent of HISD’s Technology and Information Systems department, is the third former HISD employee accused of accepting gifts and meals from E-Rate vendors.
The memorandum links both Edwards and Palmer to accepting a ride on Wong’s fishing boat, the “Sir Veza” --- the same name of a $305,000, 46-foot yacht connected to the E-Rate scandal in Dallas. Wong had created a company, Statewide Marketing LLC, which together with Micro Systems Engineering kept up the boat and made it available for the Dallas ISD’s technology chief, Ruben B. Bohuchot, who was also found guilty in the bribery and money laundering scheme, according to the Justice Department.
According to the memorandum, Edwards was offered a loan from Lehmann sometime between Jan. 1, 2005 and Dec. 31, 2008, to repair Edwards’ airplane. Edwards declined the loan, and the document doesn’t describe the amount of the loan.
Edwards earned more than $132,000 as of 2004, salary records show. He was hired in 1993 and was terminated by HISD via a resignation letter in March of 2005. No working phone number could be located for Edwards.
The memorandum also lists these gifts:
* ACS gave cellphones to approximately 26 district employees at one time or another from approximately August 2002 to February 2007.
* ACS gave Palmer 100 fanny packs in and around February 2006.
* In August 2006, Hewlett-Packard offered HISD two complimentary passes, worth more than $1,000 each, to the 2006 HP Technology Forum, which was held at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. District employees Mark Landrum and Carl Bradley attended the event. Calls and e-mails to both Landrum and Bradley were not returned. A voicemail message left for Hewlett-Packard's media office was not returned.
* Hewlett-Packard in April 2005 sent a computer and printer to HISD technology employees Ken Eaton and Wayne Franklin as a thank you for serving on a panel. The computers were supposed to be donated to an HISD school but remained at the school district’s west region office. Calls and e-mails to Eaton were not returned. Franklin is no longer employed at HISD, a district spokesman said. From July 2005 to June of last year Hewlett-Packard is listed as receiving close to $20,000 from contracts with HISD, according to a contract database Texas Watchdog obtained from the Houston school district. Hewlett-Packard banned ACS and Micro Systems Engineering from selling its equipment in late 2006, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Palmer, Kim and Edwards
During their employment at HISD, Palmer, Kim and Edwards all signed conflict of interest forms acknowledging they were aware of HISD’s policies against conflicts of interest. According to Patton, if an employee is “offered” a gift, “the recipient should report such action to my office so we can log the occurrence and educate the vendor about our policies.”
For years, Palmer and Kim did not disclose receiving any meal exceeding $50 per meal or $100 annually to the district. One of Palmer’s disclosures was signed and dated just days after the birthday dinner in her honor.
Edwards did not disclose “any gift, service, favor, loan or remuneration in excess of $25,” from any vendors associated with HISD. When asked on district forms to report any gifts, all three employees wrote, “none.”
Within months of the federal government's freezing of HISD's E-Rate funding in 2006, Palmer got a 45 percent pay increase and promotion, according to HISD personnel records. Palmer was listed as an assistant superintendent for technology and information systems as of February 2006, earning more than $122,000, a big boost over her previous salary of about $84,000 in 2005. She was earning more than $126,000 in fall 2007 and had worked with the district since 1994.
Texas Watchdog placed calls and e-mailed HISD’s current Chief Technology Officer Gregory Valdez to ask him if the culture of accepting gifts and meals from vendors has changed. Valdez did not return any phone calls or e-mails.
After the Federal Communications Commission filed a lawsuit against the district in 2006, funding under the E-Rate technology program was frozen, causing the district to lose $105 million in federal funding.
More than three years after the lawsuit was filed against HISD, the district paid $850,000 to settle the suit, and is once again receiving money under the federal program.
In Appendix A of the settlement agreement is a list of companies for which HISD submitted “false claims for payment” to the Federal Communication Commission for E-Rate projects; ACS and several associated companies are included in the list.
On top of signing a settlement agreement, HISD signed a subsequent compliance agreement that required HISD to hire an E-Rate compliance officer, who makes $150,000 annually. HISD hired Patton in February using a headhunting firm that reportedly charged $67,200.
Patton has spent hours training employees and board members on stricter ethics rules to avoid a repeat of the earlier problems. He has recommended HISD spend an additional $10,000 a year on monitoring software.
Texas Watchdog was unable to get in contact with ACS, Acclaim Professional Services or Micro Systems.
A contact number associated with ACS in an HISD contracts database was disconnected Monday, and the number associated with Micro Systems in the same database rang to a company voicemail for a different company. Texas Watchdog left a voicemail message that was not returned as of the deadline for this story. ACS no longer exists, according to Texas Secretary of State corporate filings. A phone number associated with a company called Acclaim Professional Services with the same address listed in the federal settlement for a company by the same name was disconnected.
Contact Lynn Walsh at 713-228-2850 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, @lwalsh.
Photos all from flickr users, used via Creative Commons licenses. Image of a birthday cake by Rob J Brooks, a checkbook by oblivion9999, a fanny pack by amerainey, a Houston Rockets T-shirt by user aJ Gazmen GucciBear.
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Working at HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT — Reviews by Employees
Average Ratings (Based on 4 Reviews)
Total Average -24
Work/Life Balance -3.25
Career Potential/Growth -3.25
Job Security -1.25
Co-worker Competence -2.5
Work Environment -4.5
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Reviews of Jobs at HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
From Houston, TX — 02/23/2010
Job Security 0
Work/Life Balance -3
Career Potential/Growth 0
Co-worker Competence -2
Work Environment -5
I'm paid well enough, but not nearly enough for the disrespect I am having to "tolerate" from other colleagues on my campus. The Principal and AP are well aware of the issues, but are more concerned with raising test scores than professional behavior and courtesy. It's as if they don't care about who they have to piss on to get the scores up. Teachers at my school frequently get away with catty and passive aggressive behavior towards other school employees and teachers with no fear of reprimand. See, in order to "officially" reprimand a teacher, there has to be documentation from the admin's. No documentation? Then the unprofessional behavior can not be reported on the teacher's summative performance review. It's ridiculous, and I'm counting the days until I am out of here!!!
From Houston — 01/10/2010
Job Security -5
Work/Life Balance -3
Career Potential/Growth -3
Co-worker Competence -5
Work Environment -3
The #hitholl of working.
From Houston, TX — 12/30/2006
Job Security -5
Work/Life Balance -4
Career Potential/Growth -5
Co-worker Competence 2
Work Environment -5
This summer I was told by the principal to come in and move my classroom. Clean out the old one. Clean out the new one. Arrange the enw one. I did. When I came back in the fall my desk and files had been gone through and a box of my 20 years of files was missing. It goes down hill from there. The district spent over a year rewritting the curriculum. They did a pretty good job. We spent most of our week of 'teacher days' rewriting it again. We must not have done a very good job because it has been changed 4 times since then. Since August we have been giving practice TAKS tests every other week. The tests basically take all day and the kids are sick of it. They have to be hand graded and the results put on a spreadsheet. This means that each of my student's responces for each question have to be recorded by hand on an Excel document along with percentages of students making various percent scores. This is all due Monday mornings. There is an administrative person in and out of my classroom almost every day 'observing'. There have been as many as three of these folks in at the same time. Do I get written feedback? Sometimes and sometimes not. I have been told that if less than 70% of my students fail that my contract to teach will not be renewed. I am an excellent teacher with over 2 decades of experience in the classroom and an advanced degree. People who have not taught in years and never at my grade level are telling me that I take too much time teaching a concept and don't have good raport (sp?) with my students. How do you measure things like this? How can anyone work under such conditions? I'm not sure whether I should hang on and fight for my job or just get the heck out. Anyway, thanks for letting me vent.
From Houston TX — 06/29/2006
Job Security 5
Work/Life Balance -3
Career Potential/Growth -5
Co-worker Competence -5
Work Environment -5
HISD is the largest employer in Houston because it is the cesspool for all bad employees in Houston. The pay is below market, nobody respects anybody here, the benefits are putrid, job security is great because you basically have to spit in your boss' face to get fired, no career growth here unless you have sex with the right person, co-workers are the most incompetent I have ever worked with. As soon as I can find something else, I am out of here.
Texas Taxpayers Don't Want the Bull of TPM
If you're a politician, the temptation is great to manipulate data to show you are doing your job. The Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has mastered the art of deconstruction/reconstruction. Moving "his" schools up the ratings scale just in time for the elections is too hot to pass up. But how did two schools in HISD, Lanier Middle School and Bellaire High School, become "Recognized"? TPM, baby.
This editorial from Friday's Dallas Morning News pretty much clears the air on TPM:
Editorial: No sweeteners for school rankings
05:09 PM CDT on Thursday, July 15, 2010
Texans need useful information about which of our public schools and districts do a good job. So the state has repeatedly reinvented its yardstick for measuring performance over the last two decades. Regrettably, a new wrinkle designed to give extra credit for student improvement has placed the rating system's reliability and value seriously in doubt.
What's The Big Story? Find out at dallasnews.com/opinion
The two-year-old Texas Projection Measure should be considered a failed experiment and taken out of the system as quickly as possible.
Perhaps the fatal flaw was jamming a measure linked to progress into the long-established ratings scale that is based mostly on TAKS test results. The scale gives districts and campuses one of four now-familiar labels: exemplary, recognized, acceptable and unacceptable.
That classification system put educators at great disadvantage at some schools – such as those with high poverty rates or high numbers of students with limited English skills. Shouldn't those educators get high marks when they make extraordinary progress against the odds? Shouldn't that be the mark of an exemplary school even if test grades are still low?
Yes and no. Words matter. Commend a school for its achievement, sure, but make clear what kind of achievement. Don't give a low-performing, rapidly improving school the same label as a school whose students pass the TAKS at far superior rates. That misleads the public.
Another problem is that the TPM relies on a mathematical crystal ball, using computations to project when students will enjoy higher test scores. That might be OK if the formula made sense, but a recent grilling of state education officials in Austin showed just how nonsensical the numbers can be.
State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, dissected the projections and, in one case, determined that a student in a given school could fail every writing question and, based on math and reading scores, still be presumed to pass writing in the future. So that student, in effect, "passes" today.
Hochberg also released data that show such projections to be inaccurate 19 to 48 percent of the time, depending on grade and subject.
Bending to the criticism, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott says he's willing to overhaul or dump the new measure. As he told The Texas Tribune, "Statistics tell me it's reliable and accurate, but there's criticism, so what the heck."
New ratings will come out for Texas schools at the end of July with the TPM sweeteners intact. And for the second year in a row, communities will have no easy way to know whether the neighborhood "exemplary" school truly had superior test results or is just expected to attain them in the future.
Scott's homework assignment now is to come up with a more transparent, easy-to-understand report card for schools that reflects what is actually taking place in the classroom.