Sunday, October 12, 2014

Texas Virtual School…another CSCOPE?

When CSCOPE hit the news, most of the attention was focused on the lessons.

Much less attention was paid to the money side of CSCOPE. 


picture 2But there were so many questionable practices from contracting to accounting, that the Texas State Auditor was asked to get involved.

The Auditor’s report stated that the ESCs had such poor accounting practices that:

“auditors were not able to fully answer the audit objective to determine the amount of revenue and expenditures related to the development, installation, distribution, and marketing of CSCOPE.”

The ESCs collected $73.9 million for CSCOPE, but they couldn’t account for over $6 million of public funds.

No one involved suffered any consequences. They are all still on the public payroll because, according to the Auditors report:
  • “the education service centers do not have specific contract laws that they must follow “
  • “there were no specific state funds appropriated for the development, implementation, and operation of CSCOPE.”
  • And even though the CSCOPE contracts “lacked fundamental provisions to help protect the State’s and taxpayers’ interests,” none of it was illegal because
  • “education service centers are not required to comply with the contracting processes in the State of Texas Contract Management Guide.”
picture 3

That was a surprise to many
Texans, like myself, who assumed that our public education dollars were being protected by at least the minimum in standard contracting and accounting procedures.

But we were wrong.



Were these practices unique to CSCOPE or was this the way ESCs operate in general?

To find the answer I decided to investigate an ESC program that:
  1. does have specific state funds allocated by the Legislature,
  2. is contracted through TEA (thus required to meet State of Texas contract standards) and
  3. does have legislation outlining specifications.

I chose the:




picture 5What I found, from the standpoint of financial accountability, is another “CSCOPE.”




But this time, instead of just having poor contracting and accounting procedures with public funds, I have a video of a government entity explaining how they defied the Legislature and by-passed Texas law in order to operate TxVSN, and their elected officials rationalizing their actions.

I don’t have enough room to print everything, so I have chosen a few highlights of my findings to share here.



picture7
The Texas Legislature passed SB 1788 in 2007 establishing the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) and funding the operations with state funds.

The Commissioner of Education was given authority over the network resources and instructed in statute to contract with an ESC for  the ESC to operate the network.

The Legislature chose ESCs to operate the network because one of their statutory purposes is to   “implement initiatives assigned by the legislature.” (8.220)



picture8Texas Education Agency (TEA) issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) entitled “Central Operations for the Texas Virtual School Network” with the deadline for submission 3/5/08. Eligible proposers were limited to the 20 Texas ESCs.

The purpose was to identify the regional service center to operate the network.” The RFP stated, “a collaborative of ESCs will also be considered.”


picture9
The RFP included other qualifications such as HUB percentages, an understanding of TxVSN, etc. as well as a statement that the proposer had not
 “communicated directly or indirectly the proposal or bid made to any competitor or any other person engaged in such line of business during the procurement process for this contract.”

According to discussions held in a public meeting on 2/26/13, The Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) wanted to bid for Central Operations of TxVSN, but was excluded by the mandates of the legislation because they are not an ESC.

Excerpts from HCDE’s public discussion concerning TxVSN:
(Note: Translation is approximate because some is difficult to understand. Please watch video for exact wording.)
John Sawyer (HCDE Superintendent): “… we wanted to bid on the contract. So I negotiated with (ESC)Region 10 who said, “We don’t know how to do it.” And I said, “We do. But we can’t bid.” So they bid and we are doing about 70% of the infrastructure work. And they are the front of the Texas School. And they handle the money and the student registrations and all that. ..“
Angie Chesnut (HCDE Board President): “You might explain why we couldn’t bid directly.”
John Sawyer (HCDE Superintendent):“…When the law was passed the wording in the law said that the only people who could bid were Regional Service Centers…We don’t qualify as a Regional Service Center. I never could decide if that was purposeful or accidental, but it didn’t matter. We got our share of the business anyway…”
Kay Smith (HCDE Trustee): “I have a question just for clarification. We could not bid on this directly?”
Sawyer:That is correct”
Smith:So they bid on it and then they sub it out to us?”
Sawyer: “The director at Region 10 is a former school superintendent that I happen to know pretty well… When I realized that we were not going to be allowed to bid on the project, and the bid was due in Austin on Tuesday of (the) next week…I called Buddy and said, “OK. Here is the deal.” I told you that conversation. He said, “John, we don’t know how to do this.” I said, “We do. But we can’t bid.” So we sent a team to Dallas…And spent the weekend. Wrote the proposal. We delivered it to TEA on Tuesday. Jointly. I mean we helped them with the proposal. And they got awarded the contract and we get about 70% …”

View the full Board discussion video: here 

(Note: After the discussion, only one Trustee, Kay Smith, voted not to approve the contract.)


Three weeks before the final proposal for Central Operations of TxVSN was due, TEA held a conference in Austin “to assist potential proposers in clarifying their understanding of the scope and nature of the work…” It was open to “all potential proposers. 

Records show exactly who attended:
picture 10
ESC-11  sent 3 people
ESC- 4   sent 1 person
ESC-12  sent 1 person
HCDE - not qualified to bid - sent 6 people



ESC 10 – DID NOT ATTEND

Yet, TEA awarded the contract to operate the Texas statewide on-line school to ESC-10, an ESC that:
  • did not even attend TEA’s proposers conference, and
  • John Sawyer claims said, “We don’t know how to do it.”
(Note: I requested to view the winning bid from ESC-10, but TEA asked for a ruling from the Texas Attorney General Open Records Division – brings back more memories of CSCOPE.)



picture 12









Esc-10's first TxVSN contract period was 4/10/2008 through 8/31/2008 for $750,000.





picture11picture 13



ESC 10 immediately
subcontracted with HCDE

(NOT an ESC and NOT an HUB) to provide 74.5% of the work for $559,138.







The first sub-contract with HCDE covered the same dates, 4/10/2008 through 8/31/2008.


But records show the work began months before the contract was formally signed. 

HCDE’s Board didn’t even vote to approve the contract until 2 WEEKS BEFORE IT ENDED.





  • 4/10/08 - Sub-contract began
  • 7/15/08 – HCDE’s expenditure sheet for $325,997.98
  • 7/24/08 - ESC-10 signed sub-contract
  • 7/28/08 - ESC-10 received $325,997.98 HCDE invoice
  • 8/19/08 - HCDE’s Board approved sub-contract
  • 8/31/08 - Sub-contract ended

picture20 picture15 picture21
(Note: I did not find records showing the date HCDE signed the contract.)

This sub-contract has been renewed or extended every year with the same discrepancies repeating themselves.

During HCDE’s February 2013 Board meeting, HCDE Trustee Erica Lee Carter asks this question about their 12/13 TxVSN contract:

Why are we voting on a contract that started last September?”

But dates and signatures are only part of the contracting concerns.

picture22Documents show that ESC-10 did not request bids before it sub-contracted the development of TxVSN Central Operations to HCDE.
Instead, ESC-10 claimed, “No bid required since professional services.”

But this was a TEA contract which had to follow State of Texas contract guidelines. Texas Government Code 2254 defines “profession services” as services within the scope of the following professions:
accounting
architecture
landscape architecture
land surveying
medicine
optometry
professional engineering
real estate appraising
professional nursing

Technology is not listed.


Appendix 1 of the TEA contract reads:
picture25

"No funds shall be used to pay for food costs (ie refreshments, banquets, group meals, etc.) unless requested as a specific line item in the budget by the contractor and approved (prior to expenditures occurring) by TEA.
I did not find budget line items or TEA prior approval documentation, but I did find the following purchases in the HCDE check registry under TxVSN budget codes:
picture 4
(Note: HCDE has removed links to its check registries online so I was only able to collect data from a link I had saved.)



Statute dictates that an ESC will operate the network and TEA awarded ESC 10 the Central Operations contract.

But I found multiple contradictory statements as to who is actually “operating” the network:


  • The TEA website claims: “ESC Region 10 serves as central operations for the TXVSN” and “oversees the day to day operations of the network
  • The ESC 10 website claims:ESC Region 10, in collaboration with the Harris County Department of Education, has been awarded Central Operations of the TxVSN”
  • The TXVSN website claims:ESC Region 10, in collaboration with the Harris County Department of Education, is Central Operations.”
  • The HCDE website claims: “Harris County Department of Education, in collaboration with the Education Service Center (ESC) 10, has been awarded central operations of the TxVSN.”
Harris County Department of Education was awarded Central Operations of the TxVSN.”

Since TxVSN is online school for thousands of students across Texas, I decided to see who is really operating the network by checking who registered and owns “txvsn.org.”

The result?   HCDE

picture31I checked the form participating school districts need to send to TxVSN Central Operations for the mailing address.

Whose address is it?     HCDE





picture30

If you call the TxVSN Central Operations Help Desk…

Where is the phone answered?  

             HCDE



Then I looked at the original “Scope of Work” descriptions spelled out in ESC-10’s sub-contract with HCDE, it is obvious who is actually “operating” the TxVSN.


TEA / ESC -10


HCDE

picture14 picture17

But there are two major issues with HCDE operating the TxVSN.

First – State statue dictates that an ESC will operate TxVSN. HCDE is NOT an ESC. (30A.052)

Second – Documents show the name “HCDE” is actually an “aka” of the “County School Trustees of Harris County.”

picture40
Why would a government entity go down to the county courthouse and file documents in order to conduct business under an assumed name?

Well, HCDE is actually an old county school board leftover from the days when counties still ran the public schools (1889 to mid-1900s) – before Texas instituted our current ISD system. They still exist in Harris County because of a loophole in the law which allows them to remain in operation under old, repealed county school statutes.(11.301)

One of those old laws, TEC 17.94 states:
“After December 31, 1978, no state funds shall be used to support … a board of county school trustees…”

TxVSN central operations is funded with state dollars. (30A.152)

Would someone question a contract using state funds being issued to “County School Trustees of Harris County?”   

They might.

Would someone question a contract using state funds being issued to “HCDE?”   

Much less likely.


Just as with CSCOPE, I end up asking a whole series of questions….

  • When it comes to Texas education dollars, who is watching the store?
  • Do the ESCs and other government business enterprises like HCDE really operate unchecked?
  • Do the Commissioner of Education, TEA and the Legislature really not know what is going on – or are they part of the problem?

Could the answers to all of these questions be something as simple as… … follow the money?

Is it just a coincidence that less than a year after leaving TEA, Robert Scott, the Commissioner of Education from 2007-2012, became a paid “consultant” for HCDE?

1st Payment to Scott in HCDE Check Registry












Is it just a coincidence that when leaving the Legislature Rob Eissler, Chairman of the House Public Education Committee from 2007-2012, also became a paid “consultant” for HCDE ?
1st Payment to Eissler in HCDE Check Registry












(Note: Notice this first payment from HCDE to Rob Eissler was 12/21/12  - while he was still officially the Chairman of the House Public Education Committee??? )


sawyer emails day 3 170
Is it also just a coincidence that emails show when HCDE’s Superintendent warned Rob Eissler this past May that his lobbying group's $269,500 HCDE “consulting” contract may be in jeopardy, Eissler called a current member of the Texas House Public Education Committee, Rep. Dan Huberty, who then called HCDE Board President, Angie Chesnut, and the contract remained intact?



I am sure, just like the HCDE name change, they are all just remarkable coincidences.




With CSCOPE, the ESCs got off scott free because the Legislature left so many loopholes in the statute governing them. 

But with TxVSN, the Legislature dictated the funding and the operations in statute so I have personally asked the State Auditor's Office to investigate the contracting of the TxVSN.

If you agree, you may contact the State Auditor's Office and urge them to investigate Texas Education Agency's TxVSN contracting with ESC-10 and HCDE @ 512-936-9500 or email.

You may contact the Texas Senate Education Committee and urge them to request a state audit of TxVSN contracting @ 512-463-0355 or email

You may contact the Texas House Public Education Committee and urge them to request a state audit of TxVSN contracting @ 512-463-0804 or email


Colleen Vera



















































Saturday, September 20, 2014

HCDE Helping Turn Texas Blue???


On May 19, 2014 I filed a simple request for public information -
to view the emails (from a 6 week period) of John Sawyer, the now former Superintendent of the Harris County Schools (aka-HCDE.)

All I really wanted was an outline of the day to day activities of HCDE. Instead, I got an outline of how HCDE is using our tax dollars to influence elections.

The first email attachment to raise my concern was sent on 2/26/14 from the HCDE Board President, Angie Chesnut, to George H Scott.  Scott is a media/public policy consultant who writes a blog entitled “George Scott Reports.”

George Scott’s emails to Sawyer give you a glimpse of his work history. One reads:

“…In the meantime, I just helped Alton’s school board candidates win a clean sweep by dumping on the idiots from the TEA Party… “



President Chesnut’s email to Scott concerning the HCDE Republican primary  is below:




Chesnut ends her email with:
 “George, my request is that you help get the word out to your readers to vote for Dianne Williams and RW Bray for the HCDE Board of Trustees.  
Please let me know if I can help in any way. 
 Thank you for all you have already done.” 
(Note: Chesnut ran for office as a Republican; yet she supports expanding government spending, government programs such as Head Start, government pre-k, government after school care, etc;  Wolfe and Summers positions were actually the more conservative in the race. They both questioned how HCDE uses tax dollars. They both won their primaries.)




Records show Scott has received funds numerous times from HCDE.


 As a matter of fact, HCDE’s response to an open records request to view publications paid for by HCDE in 2013, incuded blog posts written by George H Scott. Some were posts critical of the Harris County Appraisal District and the rest were stories flattering to HCDE.




It does appear, however, that Scott did not have a contract with HCDE at the time of Chesnut’s request.


Emails show Scott did submit a new proposal to HCDE for more consulting work by May.


If Chesnut had asked a blogger who did not contract with HCDE, there would not be an issue.

But, for an elected official, who casts votes on government contacts, to ask an off-on-again contractor to “help” her influence the outcome of the Republican primary election of her own board is, to say the least, inappropriate.

Lack of ethics to influence elections is one thing. Use of public employees and public funds is a whole different ballgame.

The following email shows:

HCDE Board’s Executive Assistant setting up a conference call
for 9:00am on 5/12/14 between the HCDE Superintendent, two
HCDE paid consultants, an addressee redacted by HCDE, and 
two paid staffers for the Wendy Davis for Governor Campaign.

Angie Chesnut (R), the HCDE Board President, is listed as  “optional.”




It appears the call took place on schedule because an email was sent 3 hours later from HCDE Board member Diane Trautman (D) to Wendy Davis Campaign staffer, RoyceBrooks, stating,

“I enjoyed meeting you this morning on our conference call.” 

She also adds,

Please let me know if there is anything else I can help you with…”


She attached her own quarterly newsletter which ended with:

 “Pd. Pol. Adv. By the Diane Trautman Campaign…”


If the call had been to Sen. Wendy Davis in her capacity as a State Senator, there would not be an issue.

If the call had been on their personal time using their personal phone systems, there would not be an issue.

But, the taxpayers paying for the facilities, the phone and emails systems, the salary to set up the call, as well as the salaries and consulting fees for HCDE to participate in a call with the campaign of the Democrat candidate for governor is, to say the least, HIGHLY QUESTIONABLE.

Texas Statute does not allow the use of school district facilities and/or personnel to support candidates or parties.

(Note: When the Legislature  repealed the laws governing county schools, it allowed Harris County to remain open under the old laws plus any current laws governing ISDs. TEC 11.301)


On 3/27/14 HCDE’s  Education Foundation Board of Directors held their meeting at the HCDE Administration Building, a building supported completely with public funds.

HCDE’s Education Foundation is registered with the
IRS as a 501(c)(3).

In their Articles of Incorporation filed with the Texas Secretary of State the Foundation claims:



The corporation is organized exclusively for educational purposes within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal revenue Code




  …the corporation shall not participate in or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements) any political campaign of any candidate for public office



Yet, the review of emails shows that meeting minutes were distributed using HCDE’s email system which included the following statement on page #3:

“4. The primary elections are over and the two candidates for HCDE Trustee positions I would ask you to endorse and vote for in the upcoming November election are Debra Kerner, current HCDE board vice president and Melissa Noriega, former Houston city councilwomen and administrator at HISD. The opponents for both of these women support the abolishment of HCDE, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners.”
(Note: the candidates the foundation asked members to endorse and vote for are both Democrats. Both opponents are Republicans.)












In this case, not only did taxpayers pay for the facilities to hold the meeting and the email system to distribute the Democrat candidate endorsements, this year HCDE Board of Trustees donated $202,107 of our tax dollars to the Foundation just to fund the position of Director as well as to provide his office facilities in the HCDE Administration Building.




Texas Statute also does not allow school district email systems or other public funds to be used for political advertising.

IRS rules do not allow a 501(c)(3) to endorse candidates.

HCDE’s Foundation’s charter does not allow them to participate in publishing or distributing statements relating to campaigns.


In a quick look at the alphabetical list of Directors/Members of the Board on the Foundation website, the first name you see is Judge Eric Andell, Senior Justice, First Court of Appeals. This makes one question why a Senior Justice didn't stop the Foundation from breaking the rules. 




But a google search might explain it. In 2005. The Houston Chronicle reported the following:

 Former judge Eric Andell of Houston was sentenced to one year of probation and fined $5,000 Friday after pleading guilty to charges that related to cheating taxpayers out of thousands of dollars in bogus expenses charged to the federal government while he served as a top official in the U.S. Department of Education.”

A check of current judges serving the Texas Appellate Courts does not list Eric Andell. 

Makes me wonder what else on the Foundation website might be questionable, or at least, slightly inaccurate.

Note: The Foundation just changed its website removing Judge Andell from their Director's list. That was fast! On the left you will see the screen shot I took on 9/13/14. On the right you will see the page today.


               On 9/13/14

          On 9/20/14




Pat Strong, who participated in the conference call with the Wendy Davis Campaign, is owner of Strong Strategies. HCDE pays her $82,000 per year (plus expenses) to serve as one of their many political consultants. She oversees the HCDE Board’s “government relations” committee. Her website lists some of the politicians she has worked for:
  • Congressman Ken Bentsen (D)
  • Governor Ann Richards (D)
  • Clinton/Gore (D)
  • Democratic National Committee
  • Vince Ryan (D)
  • Congressman Al Green (D)
  • Senator Rodney Ellis (D)
  • Melissa Noriega (D)  - current candidate for HCDE Board

Her HCDE duties also include keeping the board “informed” on pressing  issues. The email review shows the type of “information” she sends to the HCDE Board in their weekly packet as well as the personal comments she writes in the upper right hand corners. Two examples are below.



























Article from: The Texas Observer

Should taxpayers really be paying for a political consultant to forward a story to a school board that reads…..?
“…We love Wendy Davis. You love Wendy Davis. We and you want to do very sexy things to Wendy Davis, even the straight chicks…”


Reviewing all these emails made me very curious as to what Pat Strong reports to the HCDE Board Government Relations Committee. So when HCDE posted a public meeting of the committee on their website for 11:00 am on 9/16/14, I attended.

I arrived a few minutes early with my cell phone camera fully charged. Pat Strong (lady on the left with the white hair) was already seated with her report ready to present. At 11:00,  President Angie Chesnut opened the meeting.
(Note: The following is an approximate transcription. Some was difficult to understand.)  

Chesnut: Good morning everyone. Well, I guess the meeting is now in order. What…It is not a meeting. (difficult to understand) That’s right. It is a committee meeting.
Board Attorney: (something I can’t make out about not having a quorum.)
Chesnut:  Oh true. So, with no further ado, let’s get started with Pat giving us an update on different things that have happened.
Board Attorney: (something I can’t make out)
Chesnut: Oh, since this is not an open meeting, I am going to have to ask you to leave Ms Vera, if you don’t mind. It is a closed committee meeting.
Board Attorney: It is not a meeting under the Open Meetings Act since there is no quorum.
Chesnut:  It is not a posted meeting.

I complied.

                             Watch the short video. 


AFTER Pat Strong completed her report, President Chesnut changed her mind and decided the public could view the rest of the committee meeting, even though they still did not have a quorum. By the end of the committee meeting, a board quorum was present.

You may watch the video of the meeting after Pat Strong was finished with her report and I was allowed to re-enter the room: here

Was Chesnut accurate when she stated, “This is not a posted meeting?”

In a quick check of the HCDE website, under Board Agendas, you will find the official posting of the meeting with Angie Chesnut’s signature.


What was in Pat Strong’s report to the committee that President Chesnut felt the need to hide from the public? I may never know.

But I do know that if this was a government entity using government funds and a 501(c)(3) to promote conservative Republican candidates and issues, the IRS would remove their tax exemption immediately and I’d bet our County Attorney would order an investigation.

But these government funds and the 501(c)(3) are being used to support liberal Democrat candidates and issues, so I won’t hold my breath waiting for any investigation.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s daughter, Erica Lee Carter, is a current HCDE Board Trustee so I don’t expect to see any action from the IRS.


In his most recent campaign financial report, our County Attorney, Vince Ryan (D) lists payments to Pat Strong for “fundraising and compliance services” so I don’t foresee any action coming from that office either.





It’s stunning to me that a cursory review of emails turned up so many examples of apparent violations of state and federal statutes. I will certainly dig deeper before drawing any final conclusions.


But the fact that all this goes on right
under the nose of a Board President
who is a self-proclaimed

 "conservative Republican" 

 in my opinion, is nothing short of shameful.

Absolutely shameful.




Arne Duncan and Angie Chesnut


If you agree, you may contact HCDE Board President Angie Chesnut at:  achesnut@hcde-texas.org



Colleen Vera