Houston ISD’s newly reshaped Board of Trustees is already off to a questionable start. This Thursday will be their first meeting since the election where the board will consider a laundry list of items. Most importantly, they will vote on a policy change that would end the requirement of trustees to abstain from voting on contracts of donors who contributed $500 or more to their campaigns in the past twelve months.

The change to the district’s policy would still require Trustees to disclose “donations, agreements, or other District related actions” if the receiving entity has an interest in the outcome of the board vote, something that should be required statewide for all public servants holding elected office. But this is just a watered down version of the original policy providing more room for potential conflicts of interest.

Oddly enough, in a section marked “Organizational Goals/Impact” the board says that this item supports HISD’s fifth organizational goal, which is to “Improve Public Support and Confidence in Schools.” Somehow, lowering their ethics standards by allowing board members to vote on contracts of vendors who financially supported their campaigns improves public support and confidence in the district?

HISD Trustees have a record of blurring the lines of appropriate conduct with vendors and supporters.

Former Trustee Paula Harris drew some attention when she cast four votes to the total of $28 million in contracts for her friend, Nicole C. West, to provide work for HISD. Even more questionable was the wide array of services that West’s company (Westco) offered, such as: private investigations of truant teens, dry cleaning drapes, tutoring students, and installing burglar alarms and security cameras.

Not to be forgotten is also the widely reported Larry Marshall scandal where Trustee Marshall was sued for allegedly participating in a bribery scheme involving kickbacks for HISD construction contracts. The case is still yet to be settled.

It’s a bold move by the district’s Trustees to attempt to scale back ethics rules aimed at transparency, while questions still loom about contracting misconduct that caused the $200 million shortfall of their 2012 $1.89 billion bond.

If the board’s true goal is to “improve public support and confidence in schools,” they will uphold the Trustee abstention requirement on contracts involving vendors who donated $500 or more to their campaigns. While not the highest ethical guideline, it is all local taxpayers have to ensure representation in a governmental entity that is rarely held accountable for their votes.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.

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