Thursday, September 24, 2015

Warning for all Texans who fight for government transparency…

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Office is in the process of reviewing a request from the Harris County School Trustees (HCDE) asking him to block release of written notes passed to a School Trustee during an open meeting.

In short, HCDE is attempting to use the Texas Public Information Act to nullify a portion of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

It stems from the 8/18/15 HCDE Board Meeting in which secret notes were passed during open session to only one board member after he entered the meeting 2 hours late.

  • One note came from the superintendent’s “special assistant.”
  • One note was passed from the acting chair to the attorney, who then passed it to the Trustee.
  • The third was from the attorney to the Trustee.

30 seconds after receiving the 3rd note, the Trustee remarkably knew which agenda items had not passed previously due to tied votes, and requested to go back and    “re-vote.”

The agenda items passed when “re-voted,” which altered the outcome of the meeting.

A request for public information was filed for those notes passed to the tardy Trustee during open session.

HCDE released one document –

a hand written note reading

“6-A-2” and “7-H”

the numbers of the two agenda
items “re-voted.”

HCDE has asked AG Paxton
to block release of the other 
notes claiming:

“attorney client privilege.”

                           View full letter: here

Why should anyone care?

Because this ruling will set a precedent for all public meetings across the Texas.

If Paxton rules in favor of HCDE, government entities with corrupt leadership like HCDE, will be able to bypass public deliberations during their open meetings.

They can simply hold secret discussions by sending notes, texts or emails via their attorney – claiming attorney client privilege – in order to exclude not only the public, but any member with a minority view.

What can you do?

1. You may register your opinion with AG Paxton via email and encourage him to uphold the Texas Open Meetings Act by urging the Open Records Division to require Harris County Department of Education release all notes passed in secret during open session of their meeting held on 8/18/15.

2. You may contact the three HCDE Trustees working to keep these notes secret and urge them to support government transparency by releasing all notes passed during the open session of their board meeting on 8/18/15.

  • Trustee Kay Smith (R): Meeting chair: passed                        note to Morris via attorney  
  • Trustee Angie Chesnut (R): Board President                                                                            email:

Special note for Harris County Voters:

if you think this whole thing STINKS…these three trustees will be on your March Republican Primary ballot:

Kay Smith – running for Texas State Representative
                          (District 130)

Marvin Morris - running again for HCDE Trustee    
                                 (Precinct 2)

Angie Chesnut – running again for HCDE Trustee
                                  (Precinct 4)

Extra Information

Link to my letter to AG: here

Links to my video of HCDE’s 8/18/15 meeting:
Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4,
Part 4.5, Part 5Part 6

Colleen Vera

Friday, September 11, 2015

HCDE Trustees and Contracts: A Board of Rubber Stamps? - Part 1

At the HCDE August board meeting, the two conservative trustees, Don Sumners and Michael Wolfe, questioned some of the cushy “consultant” contracts HCDE dishes out every year. Trustee Sumners even joked, “If I resign, can I get one of these jobs?

So I decided to look into one of these “consultant” contracts – one that only Trustee Wolfe voted against - to see exactly what Harris County public schools are getting for our money.

I chose HCDE’s contract with Elder Consulting.

Elder Consulting

Who owns Elder Consulting?

A former HCDE Trustee

                      Don Elder, Jr

         (what a small world!)

How much was this “consulting” contract worth in 2014-2015? 

How much was his last monthly “consulting” check from HCDE?

What “consulting” did Elder claim to do for HCDE to earn this $7,000.50?

Elder claimed to have worked for our Harris County
School Trustees a total of 14 whole days in May
at a rate of $459.00 per day + expenses.

Elder filed a handwritten account of each work day to justify payment from our county EDUCATION dollars. 

Some highlights of Elder’s May “consulting work” include:

5/6/15 – “Met with Mayor Fabol Hughes to discuss
                needs on construction for City of Katy.
                Visited Mayor Allen Owen of Missouri City
                to discuss O&M work in the future budget.”

5/7/15 - “…met with city administration on large amount
                of work they will need our help on in the next
                few months…met with Public Works Director
               to discuss Public Works Building…visited with 
               Roy Morales…”(ANOTHER former HCDE
                                          Trusteesuch a small world!)

5/11/15 –“Visited with Paul Duke Purchasing and 
                  Distribution Services for UTSA in San
                 Antonio on an Appointment”

5/12-5/14 –“Texas Association of County Auditors 
                     Conference in Austin. Worked booth 
                     and networked(Wife accompanied on trip
                     – HCDE paid extra for double occupancy)

5/27/15“Met with city administrator Byron Hebert
                  of Katy to discuss remodel of fire station

5/28/15 – “Visited with Gary Ridgeway of Facilities
                  Services on Katy Public Works Project.
                  Met with former KISD Superintendent
                  Dr Lenard Merrill to discuss Choice Programs”

To view Elder's handwritten expense log, click on page links: 

Page 1         Page 2         Page 3
Page 4         Page 5         Page 6
Page 7         Page 8         Page 9
Page 10       Page 11       Page 12
Page 13       Page 14       Page 15

Receipt showing extra double occupancy fee paid to
accommodate Elder's wife. Click to enlarge

Elder's Hotel charged to HCDE

UPDATE 9/21/15:
Elder participated in METRO board committee meetings on 5/18/15 and 5/19/15.

HUMMMMMM….. most taxpayers may have trouble understanding WHY Harris County School Trustees distributed $102,357.00 of our county EDUCATION dollars to a former Harris County School Trustee to “consult” with mayors and other city officials on city budgets, fire stations, and public works projects as well as to attend county auditor meetings.

But, a deeper look into Elder’s work claims in May, gives taxpayers even MORE to question about this “consulting” deal.

Document Comparison

Because many of the persons Elder listed on his meeting schedule are public officials or employees, I filed open records requests for their daily meeting schedules to compare to Elder’s claims.

Elder’s meetings with private companies are marked ** because private records are not available.

Sample #1 – May 4, 2015

Elder claimed to have met with three persons to earn his full day rate of $459.00:

1. Regina Stephenson of Katy ISD about vendor to clear land
2. Nash Industries to discuss Katy ISD work **
3. Peter McElwain Katy ISD architect about Bond Program

Neither Stephenson nor McElwain have a meeting
 with Elder listed on their calendars that day.

 Regina Stephenson of KISD
 Peter McElwain of KISD

Sample #2 – May 6, 2015

Elder claimed three meetings to earn his full day rate of $459.00:

1. Nash Industries on Katy ISD work **
2. Mayor Fabol Hughes to discuss needs on construction

    for city of Katy
3. Mayor Allen Owen of Missouri City to discuss O&M
    work in future budget

Mayor Hughes’ schedule shows Elder did meet with him and the owner of a BBQ restaurant at the Mayor’s office from 2-3pm concerning a restaurant site in WoodCreek.

Mayor Allen Owen had no records from my request.

 Mayor Hughes of Katy
 Mayor Owen of MC

Sample #3 – May 7, 2015

Elder claimed three meetings to earn his full day rate of $459.00:

1. City administration (Katy)
2. Elaine Lutringer of Public Works (Katy)
3. Roy Morales (also a former HCDE Trustee)
    of Lone Star Telemedicine Services for Katy ISD**

Byron Hebert’s calendar confirms meeting with Elder from 10-11am at City Hall concerning Public Works building.

Elaine Lutringer ‘s calendar reads: “Out of Office All Day

 Byron Hebert of Katy
 Elaine Lutringer of Katy

Sample #4 – May 27, 2015

Elder claimed three meetings to earn his full day rate of $459.00: 

1. Byron Hebert (Katy) concerning fire station remodel
2. Regina Stephenson (Katy ISD)
3. John Yeates for lunch**

Byron Hebert’s calendar did NOT include a meeting with Elder.

Regina Stephenson’s calendar did NOT include a meeting with Elder.

Elder turned in a handwritten receipt to be reimbursed for lunch for two.

B. Hebert of Katy
  R. Stephenson of KISD
 Lunch for 2


There are two major concerns I found in reviewing Elder’s May billing to HCDE:

#1: Lack of supporting documentation

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone forgets to document now and again.

But, for 6 of the 8 meetings sampled, public records do not back up Elder’s billing claims?

That means 75% of the meetings with public officials or employees that Elder billed HCDE in May, are NOT confirmed on other calendars? Did these meetings we paid for actually take place?

Looking at the detailed appointment records kept by some of these persons, do you believe 75% of the time these public employees “forgot” to document their meetings with Elder on their calendars? 

Especially meetings as important as city budgets and bond programs?

#2: Lack of “educational” purpose

Should the Harris County School Trustees really be using our county EDUCATION dollars to pay a “consultant” to meet with a small town mayor and a private business owner to select a new restaurant site?

Should the Harris County School Trustees allow our county EDUCATION dollars to be used for a consultant to treat a vendor to lunch or to pay an extra hotel fee so the consultant's wife can travel with him?

HCDE argues that this is standard practice in the business world and they are justified in using our county EDUCATION dollars to operate sideline businesses across the United States – even though the majority of the work has nothing to do with Harris County education - because they often bring in revenue.

But who is actually benefiting more from this “revenue” – Harris County public school students or former HCDE Trustees?

Fiduciary Oversight

The most important responsibility of board membership in any organization is fiduciary oversight. Watching the MONEY!

That is obviously NOT happening at HCDE. The majority of the board votes like robots -automatically approving payment after payment every month.

Are they REALLY that blind?

Or could there be another reason they look the other way?

Stay tuned for Part 2

Sunday, July 26, 2015


Is HCDE planning to silence critics with legal action...again?

Follow the trail and see what you think.

Then please take action if you think it’s true

A brief history:

HCDE is the dba of The Harris County School Trustees. They are a leftover government entity from a past era in Texas Education when Counties ran the public schools. All 252 other counties in Texas closed their county boards when Texas moved from county run schools to our current “independent” school district system. Only Dallas and Harris Counties continue to elect County School Trustees. HCDE is only school board in Texas elected by political party. Harris County citizens have been working to close ours since the 1980s – but HCDE uses the property tax they still collect to lobby the Legislature to stay open.

What we know happened:

In 2015, Senator Paul Bettencourt(R) sponsored SB 1216 to place HCDE under Sunset Review - which identifies waste, duplication, and inefficiency in government agencies. The bill passed the Senate 31-0 but died in the House.

Two persons paid by HCDE traveled to Austin and testified as “representatives” of the HCDE Trustees AGAINST SB1216 - the Superintendent and the Trustees’ “outside general counsel.”

Two HCDE Trustees traveled on their own time and expense to Austin and testified as private citizens in SUPPORT of SB1216.


Three private citizens (including myself) traveled on our own time and expense to Austin and testified in SUPPORT of SB1216.

The above facts are clear and ordinary. But what happened next reads more like a Tom Clancy novel.

Request for Public Information

I simply wanted to know how many education tax dollars (intended to benefit students) had been spent by HCDE to fight against SB1216. Through review of public records, I already had the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on lobbyists, the salary and travel expenses of the Superintendent, but I was missing the attorney fees. 

I also wanted the directive from the Trustees sending the superintendent and board attorney to testify on their behalf against SB1216.

So I filed a simple request to view meeting minutes and the billing documents for attorney fees related to SB1216, including travel expenses.

The Result:

The result was SHOCKING to me…

First, HCDE has no records showing the Trustees ever voted to approve or ever issued a directive to either person who testified against SB1216 on their behalf. So it seems that the Superintendent and the Trustees’ chief legal counsel spent public funds on travel and accommodations in Austin to “represent” the Harris County School Trustees, WITHOUT approval of the Harris County School Trustees.

Second, HCDE is now trying to hide from the public the fees their attorney charged in relation to SB1216.

HCDE has asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to block public release of their attorney fee billing related to SB1216 for two reasons:

  • Attorney-Client Privilege and
  • Work Product Privilege because:
The party resisting discovery believed in good faith that there was a substantial chance that litigation would ensue and [created or obtained the information] for the purpose of preparing for such litigation

You can read HCDE’s full 

letter to Ken Paxton: here

Litigation related to SB1216???   Against whom???

Who is HCDE preparing to sue related to a simple bill to place them under Sunset Review? 

Certainly not:
  • Senator Bettencourt for sponsoring the bill or
  • The Texas Senate for voting 31-0 to pass it.

So, the only people left that HCDE could be preparing to sue over SB1216 are the five citizens who testified in support of the bill:

  • Me,
  • two other private citizens and/or
  • two Harris County School Trustees who testified as private citizens IN FAVOR of the bill

The Texas Citizens Participation Act passed in 2011 protects citizens’ right of free speech and the right to petition our government. The purpose of that legislation was to prevent “civil lawsuits . . . aimed at preventing citizens from exercising their political rights or punishing those who have done so. “

It makes it virtually impossible for an organization to successfully sue a person for speaking out on issues related to government and allows a judge to dismiss frivolous lawsuits filed against one who speaks out about a “matter of public concern.

Why would HCDE file a lawsuit they can’t win?

Could HCDE be so AFRAID of the waste and inefficacy a Sunset Review would reveal, that the purpose of a potential lawsuit has nothing to do with WINNING in court?

What if the real purpose is to intimidate those who speak out with the threat of lawsuits, either regular citizens, activists or elected officials?

Would HCDE actually waste taxpayer dollars pursuing litigation to shut people up?

They’ve done something similar before.

In 2007, a newly elected HCDE Trustee began speaking out in public about the waste, duplication and inefficient use of taxpayer funds he was finding at HCDE.  

Some other Trustees accused him of “circulating and disseminating” “misinformation” and asked him to resign. He refused. 

Four Trustees voted to use tax dollars for legal action to remove him from office. The case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court – HCDE LOST. The Trustee remained in office.

But this time, meeting minutes show HCDE Trustees have never discussed or voted on SB1216 or filing lawsuits related to SB1216.

Does that mean the HCDE administration is using public funds (without board approval) to prepare to attack elected officials that question their activities? 

Or does it mean one or more Trustees is using public funds to prepare an attack on political opponents?

The public won’t know for sure what HCDE is doing unless the full billing documents are released.

What can you do?

1. You may contact the HCDE Trustees and tell them to release ALL attorney billing records related to SB1216 to the public.

Angie Chesnut (R), Board President  
(Up for re-election in 2016)
Phone: 713-696-0715

2. You may also contact Sen Bettencourt and urge his office to investigate HCDE’s use of property tax dollars to prepare litigation related to his SB1216.
Phone:  (713) 464-0282

Colleen Vere

Saturday, June 27, 2015

School Districts' Needs vs Wants

Later this year, the Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments from attorneys representing over 600 Texas school districts who claim they cannot properly educate Texas school children because the State does not provide enough money.

As a retired teacher who taught in 4 Texas public school districts over 30 years, I know first-hand that “money” does not equal “learning.” 

Yet, Texas School Boards and Superintendents seem to always be screaming that the answer to low performing schools is more tax dollars.

Some offer complex explanations of how items from testing requirements to unfunded mandates drain the districts’ budgets – so much so - that hiring classroom teachers only occurs if funds are left over. 

But could there be a much simpler explanation?

Something as basic as “needs vs wants”?

Did Lt Governor Patrick  hit the nail on the head when he was quoted as saying:
I am proud of the Texas Senate for uniting to produce a conservative, responsible, state budget that will sufficiently fund our state’s needs over the next biennium, while providing $3.8 billion in necessary tax relief to the businesses and property owners of Texas.” 
The Texas Senate figured a way to fund the “needs” of Texans and cut taxes. Why can't 600+ Texas school districts figure it out?

Look closer at Patrick’s statement. Notice the two words: conservative and needs.

The Texas Senate budgeted for the “needs” of Texans, NOT for the “wants” of every Legislator or school superintendent.

That is the true fiscal difference between liberals and conservatives. 

Conservatives believe taxpayer  money should only be collected for “needs” that only government can provide, (roads, schools, military, etc.) while liberals believe they are ENTITLED to taxpayers supplying their “wants” (day care, health care, cell phones, etc.)

But so many education leaders are “liberals” these days,  that often student “needs” and district “wants” are  purposely mingled. 

To prove the point, I tried a little experiment: comparing the spending habits of two public officials – a conservative who believes taxpayers should only fund the “needs” of government vs a liberal who believes taxpayers should be paying more to provide for “wants.”

I selected two public officials from my area who were both new to their offices –

                    Dan Patrick 

      Texas Lt Governor
Took office  1/13/2015 


School Superintendent 
Harris County
Took Office 12/1/14 

I filed public information requests to find out how each official had spent public funds on "wants" vs "needs" from 1/1/15 thru 6/1/15.

Was there a significant difference? I will let you decide.

First – Office Needs

Both men were provided the same fully furnished office space their predecessors had used.

Liberal (Colbert) – Hired a decorator and went shopping with the taxpayers’ money. Chose the new, modern style furnishings complete with a custom refrigerator. Gave the previous furnishingsto his newly hired assistant, Jimmy Wynn, for use in his new office.

Lt Governor
School Superintendent

Desk                                        2,998.21
Serving Cart                           2,548.08
Custom Refrigerator             1,971.74
Conference Table                 4,267.82
End Tables(3)                       4,509.31
Executive Chair                       966.46
Conference Chairs (6)        3,002.16
Guest Chairs (2)                   1,837.29
Sofa                                         1,857.02
Board Room Seating(10)   3,823.50
Board Room Buffet             1,697.06
Board Room Cart                2,423.01
Shutters                                 6,375.00
Picture(1)/Plants(3)           1,500.00
Chrome Coat Rack                 315.00
Freight                                   1,175.95
Installation                          2,732.00
Design Fee                              850.00
New Wall Paper                  2,475.00
New Lighting                       3,193.00
   Total   $   0.00  

 Total    $  50,517.61

Second – Salary

Conservative (Patrick) – 2nd most powerful person
                                                    in the State.

Liberal (Colbert) – Oversees approximately
                                         1,000 employees


Lt Governor
School Superintendent

$  600 per month

$  16,250 per month

Third – Cell Phone

Conservative (Patrick) – The Senate does not 
                                                     provide cell phones.

Liberal (Colbert) – New equipment plus 
                                         monthly allowance.

Lt Governor
School Superintendent


Equipment                    540.91
Monthly Allowance       75.00

Fourth – Gov't Issued Credit Card

Conservative (Patrick) – The Senate does not 
                                                     issue credit cards.

Liberal (Colbert) – School district credit card.
 Charged for travel; taking board members, district employees, consultants and vendors out for meals; technology supplies.

Lt Governor
School Superintendent



School District MasterCard                                    
Chilosos’s Taco House                  20.75
Best Buy                                         324.95
Shady Grove                                   38.48
Schlotzsky’s                                     12.19
Reale’s Pizza                                   66.77
Courtyard by Marriott                769.88
Champions Restaurant                 24.65
Shade Houston                               56.25
Laurenzo’s Grille Dello                 44.62
Laurenzo’s Grille Dello                 53.19
Capital Visitor Parking                   8.00
Lola Houston                                 20.52
Maggiano’s Houston                    69.26
Chick-Fil-A Houston                    10.15
Rudy’s Country Store                     8.15
Reale’s Pizza                                   10.97
Green Mesquite BBQ                    16.33
Marriott Austin                             26.82
Marriott Austin                             25.82
Marriott Austin                           553.61
Babin’s Katy                                   42.68
Chick-Fil-A Houston                    13.85
Shady Grove                                   17.56
Schlotzsky’s                                    12.19
Capital Grill                                    11.14
Shade Houston                             44.97
Shade Houston                             37.48
Embassy Suites Austin               20.00
Total              0.00
      Total                    2,361.23
Is there really a difference in the way liberals and conservatives spend public dollars?

This simple experiment seems to show there is.

Do taxpayers work hard to pay their school district taxes because the superintendent “wants”  a custom refrigerator for his office?

Do taxpayers work hard to pay their school district taxes because the superintendent “wants” to use his school district credit card to dine out with his assistants?

Is a school superintendent ENTITLED to plush office furnishings and a tax funded expense account?

That is for you to decide.

But the real  multi-billion dollar question is:

 If the 600+ school districts which are suing the taxpayers for more money would budget as the Texas Senate did – fund “needs” and leave out the “wants” – would they have enough money to educate our kids?

They won't know unless they try.


 If you would like to let Lt Governor Patrick know how much you appreciate his respect for our hard earned tax dollars, you may contact his comment line at 512-463-5342 or  email:  

If you would like to let Superintendent Colbert know what you think of his spending habits with public funds, you may contact him at 713-696-0715 or email: 

Colleen Vera