Ethics Before HISD Bond

There’s no doubt about my excitement over the possibility of Houston ISD spending almost $2 billion on infrastructure; namely, much needed high schools across the district. The prospect of Lee High School (down the street from me) being completely replaced and made into a 21st century facility is exciting for many in my neighborhood. But there is something missing.

With this much money to delve out comes politics, and worse, the possibility of corruption–or at least the opportunity for some unfairness. Houston ISD lacks a strong Ethics policy, of which we heard during the last Board election. Rejected previously, it seems Houston ISD just might develop an ethics policy that brings with it campaign finance reform.

The proposed changes, meant to restore public confidence that the Houston Independent School District is hiring the best contractors without undue influence, also could affect trustees’ political campaign coffers.

Trustees would have to abstain from voting on deals involving vendors who had contributed more than $500 to their campaigns the prior year. They also would have to disclose and abstain if they have a close relationship with a vendor.

Board president Mike Lunceford pledged that trustees would take a preliminary vote on the new policies in September. The changes would be in place before November, when the board is asking voters to approved a $1.9 billion bond issue that would result in the district awarding numerous lucrative construction contracts.

There is a lot of mistrust when it comes to Houston ISD, and deservedly so. When hundreds of millions of dollars are moving to different vendors, it would be nice to know the relationship between Trustees, administrators, and vendors. And yes, even political action committees. Which is why it becomes important to also make public any conflicts of interest.

The outside auditors with Whitley Penn also suggested that HISD trustees disclose a wider range of possible conflicts of interest with vendors and abstain from voting on their contracts. Trustees now only have to disclose if their parents or children work for a district vendor. The rule would be expanded to other relatives.

Auditor Chuck Yaple said in an interview after the board meeting that he planned to revise the suggested policy to require disclosure of even the appearance of a conflict of interest, which could include a trustee’s close friend.

I hope that any reform comes with a strong punishment phase. Yes, allow the Board to decide publicly if they wish to punish a fellow board member, thus, bringing into play the political consequences of their decisions.

In this day and age when people like to throw around terms like “education reform” and all sorts of expensive ideas are thrown about and paid for without much debate, strong ethics reform will put everything under the microscope; as it should be.

Frankly, I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly support the Houston ISD bond without ethics and campaign finance reform.

Kuff has more.

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