HISD superintendent email raises questions if bond promises will be kept

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ByTed Oberg via KTRK logo
Thursday, November 26, 2015
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HISD is trying to figure out how to keep its promise of new schools, Ted Oberg investigates.

When HISD Superintendent Terry Grier announced in September that the nearly $2 billion bond program designed to rebuild or renovate 40 schools faced a $211 million shortfall, he also promised that despite the shortfall, all the schools taxpayers and parents were promised would be built.

"We're going to build the schools we promised we're going to build," he said during a Sept. 10 press conference when he also announced his plan to resign March 1.

But in an email written to board members just days earlier -- the very day of $211 million shortfall bombshell became public -- he raised another possibility: Halting construction when the $1.9 billion in bond money runs out, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for the schools that missed out.

"When the money runs out, we stop construction -- even if some projects are delayed until a future bond," Grier wrote Sept. 4 in an email. "This is the same concept that every district where I've worked has used."

HISD administrators said they had been keeping board members appraised of possible shortfalls for months.

In an Aug. 25 email to the board, Grier wrote that he believes the shortfall to "be closer to $250M." In that email, Grier also raised the prospect of not building some of the promised schools.

"We should consider... prioritizing the remaining projects and not build the 'bottom' $250M in projects -- using this (sic) dollars to build what we said we would in the first phases," he writes. "We would build these delayed projects from funds from a future bond. And, yes, there will be a future bond(s)."

If construction continues at its current pace without additional cash, as many as six schools at the bottom of the HISD construction list would be in jeopardy. including ones in some of Houston's poor and minority neighborhoods, such as Austin High School in the East End, Jones High School in the southeast and Madison High School in the Hiram Clarke area.

See Grier's emails here and here.

An HISD spokeswoman said in an email to abc13 that the emails in question were old "informal conversations."

"They took place three months ago before district staff identified a source for additional funding," wrote Holly Huffman. "The project-by-project analysis presented a month ago outlines the additional funding needed - based on current conditions, projected cost increases and compounded inflation."

Huffman also noted the district cannot spend any additional money, or change the scope of any project, without board approval.

"We have no plans at this time to cut any projects or re-prioritize the list," she said.

Grier is recovering from knee surgery and was unavailable for interviews to explain his words, although he was able to come to work for a going away party earlier this week. Ted Oberg Investigates asked for other HISD officials to interview for more than a week. Even after knowing abc13's deadlines, HISD refused to make any other staffer available until Dec.1

The spectre of possible broken promises leaves some of the HISD trustees representing the districts where those schools are located "nervous" and "up against the wall."

That's also because this all comes in the wake of key administration staffers quitting -- including the person responsible for overseeing the bond, Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobadilla -- and in the wake of an internal audit released last month that raised questions about Grier's claims that "rising inflation and construction costs" were to blame for the $211 million shortfall.

The internal audit -- ordered up by HISD board members -- pointed to a lack of competitive bidding and points to "scope creep by agreeing to work that was not in the original plan" as reasons for the shortfall, rather than inflation. The trustees last week unanimously voted to hire an outside auditing firm to continue probing the management of the bond.

And the project-by-project analysis supplied by the school district shows that the only 'Plan B' that the administration has made public -- in case trustees don't ok the additional $211 million -- is to build all the new schools, but not include new desks, chairs or computers.

The lion's share of that $211 million is money that school district administrators would have used for school maintenance. The rest is from reserves.

No one has recommended scaling back on already approved plans, especially since numerous contracts have already been signed over their budgeted amounts.

That leaves those schools last on the list hoping that HISD's trustees will be willing to spend hundreds of millions of additional dollars to keep the promises made to voters in 2012 when voters overwhelmingly approved the bond.

"We all are nervous," HISD Trustee Wanda Adams said. "We're concerned. I'm not the only board member who has schools in that bottom tier. We're always going to have a concern of the unknown. Anything can happen."

In a Nov. 18 workshop, administrators said they wanted a vote on the additional $211 million at the next trustee meeting on Dec. 10. Adams said she wants to see what the outside auditors find before the board votes on the additional $211 million.

Adams also said that she does not support a second bond and that all the promises to taxpayers, neighborhoods and parents must be kept.

"We need to build community trust back, make the commitment we said we were going to make, and be accountable," she said. "If we did some things wrong, it's ok to say we've done some things wrong but now the issue is we have to go back and fix those things."

Trustee Juliet Stipeche, who will step off the HISD board in January after losing the seat the in the Nov.3 election, said she fears that the $211 million is not enough.

"We have no way on relying on that number," she said. "To this day I have no idea on how that number was calculated."

She had seen the emails obtained by Ted Oberg Investigates.

"When I saw those emails I was absolutely terrified and very, very worried about what was happening," Stipeche said. "That set into motion the reason the internal and external audits were called on."

With the district's 'Plan B' essentially no plan at all, Stipeche said that board members were put "up against a wall."

That's not the way to run a 2012 bond program when so many promises were made," she said.

Like Adams, Stipeche said that the promised schools must be built and that HISD cannot go back on its word.

"That cannot happen," she said. "With the promises that we made to the community that cannot happen. You need to have competent, efficient, reliable leaders to get the community what they were promised. Until that happens we will be in a state of worry."

No matter what the fix of the bond problem, Stipeche said parents must be at the center of the solution.

"I think parents need to get angry," she said. "I think parents need to get involved. I think parents need to be active. I think the general assumption often times is that good government exists in and of itself, but I will say to the community that it is important for them to hold the board and the administration accountable."