Sunday, July 26, 2015

IS HCDE PLANNING TO SILENCE CRITICS WITH LEGAL ACTION...AGAIN?


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)
Email: achesnut@hcde-texas.org
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.
                                                  
Email: paul.bettencourt@senate.state.tx.us
Phone:  (713) 464-0282


Colleen Vere
colleen@TexasTrashTalk.com




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 



and


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.


Conservative
Liberal
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


Conservative
Liberal

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.

Conservative
Liberal
Lt Governor
School Superintendent


                                                                               0.00


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.

Conservative
Liberal
Lt Governor
School Superintendent

None

                                             


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.


Note:

 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:  LTGConstituent.Affairs@ltgov.state.tx.us  

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:  jcolbert@hcde-texas.org 

Colleen Vera
TexasTrashTalk.com




Saturday, April 18, 2015

Notice to Harris County Republicans



On 3/29/15 I filed a complaint with the  Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) Trustees over their USE OF OUR LOCAL TAX DOLLARS TO SUPPORT DEMOCRAT CAMPAIGNS.

The HCDE Board will be deliberating the issue at their board meeting on 4/21/15.
Agenda items (8A/9A)

A brief history

HCDE established a 501(c)(3) called The Education Foundation of Harris County (EFHC)  to “support” HCDE, and uses Harris County property tax funds  to supply  EFHC free:

  • Office space
  • Meeting facilities
  • Six figure salary to their CEO
  • Website support
  • IT services
  • Auditing services
  • Record storage
  • Grant writing services

EFHC Leadership includes:
  • a CEO paid with HCDE tax funds
  • HCDE Superintendent serving as Board Secretary
  • an HCDE  Board Trustee  serving as a liaison member

The Problem?

EFHC’s Board meets six times per year. Their meeting minutes are distributed via HCDE’s tax funded email system and stored by HCDE employees.  At three of those meetings held at HCDE facilities with HCDE Board and Administration participating, the minutes show Douglas Kleiner (EFHC President/CEO) allowed:
  • HCDE Board Member Diane Trautman to report on political campaigns involving HCDE Trustees and
  • Support the Democrat candidates for public office

Quotes from EFHC’s official meeting minutes:
9/26/13: …We need to make sure we have a competitive candidate to fill that slot and most importantly one who supports HCDE and its programs. Also, in 2014, Debbie Kerner is up for re-election, and we need to support her.
3/27/14: 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 Debbie Kerner, current HCDE board vice president and Melissa Noriega, former Houston city councilwoman and administrator at HISD. The opponents for both of these women support the abolishment of HCDE, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners.
5/22/14: …Trautman also noted that she was elected Board of Trustees Vice President, taking Debra Kerner’s place. She also reminded the Board that elections are this fall. Two candidates will be on the ballot for HCDE Trustee positions that she feels are most supportive of HCDE’s mission: Melissa Noriega and incumbent, Debra Kerner.
 View the documents: here 

Federal Law

EFHC has filed with the IRS as a 501(c)(3). The IRSwebsite reads:
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
Thus, EFHC is not in compliance with the U.S. Internal Revenue Code.

Texas Law

Texas Ethics Commission Opinions read:
Section 255.003 of the Election Code states that an officer or employee of a political subdivision may not knowingly spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising. “Spending” of public funds includes the use of political subdivision employees’ work time, the use of existing political subdivision equipment, and the use of facilities maintained by a political subdivision. Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 443 (2002) (EAO 443).
We also caution that government resources generally may not be used for campaign purposes. See Penal Code § 39.02.


An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising. 
 ”Political advertising” is a communication that advocates a particular outcome  in an election
The prohibition applies to any “officer or employee of a political subdivision.”  In  other  words,  if  a  school  district  employee  makes  a decision to use district resources in violation of the prohibition, the employee could be fined by the Ethics Commission or  held criminally liable.  School board members, as “officers”of a school district, are also subject to the prohibition.
 A  school  district  board  member  or  employee  would  violate  the  prohibition
by “spending or authorizing the spending of public funds” for political advertising.   
Also,  it  is  not  permissible  to  authorize  the  use  of  the paid time of the school district employees to create  or  distribute  political  advertising.  For  example,  school district staff may not copy, staple, or distribute political advertising on work time. 
Another  provision  of  the  Texas  Election  Code prohibits a school board member for employee from using or authorizing the use of an internal mail system to distribute political advertising. An internal mail system is a system operated by a school district to deliver written documents to its board members or employees. A violation of this prohibition could also lead to the imposition of fines by the Ethics Commission or to criminal prosecution. 
View supporting documents: here 

Not a Simple Mistake

A mistake is something happening one time. Someone beginning to speak in support of a candidate in a local election before being stopped by the CEO of a 501(c)(3) reminding the board that by law they can’t discuss candidates or campaigns.

But these minutes show the activity was not only routine, it is so acceptable at EFHC that it was included in their OFFICIAL MEETING MINUTES!  Two out of six meetings in 2014 means 33% of their meetings included political campaign activity. That is no simple mistake.

Action Needed

The political activity by the EFHC is a repeated and blatant violation of both the Internal Revenue Code and Texas Election Code. Because HCDE is supporting this activity with Harris County taxpayer funds I urge HCDE to immediately:

  • sever all ties between HCDE and EFHC including removal of EFHC and all EFHC documents from HCDE property and servers
  • initiate legal action to force EFHC to refund all public funds it received from HCDE since 9/26/2013
  • approve a public censure of HCDE Trustee Diane Trautman for using her position as EFHC liaison for political purposes
  • issue a public apology  to the Republican Party of Harris County for allowing the use of public funds to promote Democrat candidates for County School Trustee

Voice your opinion

You may voice your opinion to the HCDE Board via email:

                                                   Republicans

Angie Chesnut, President
Kay Smith, Vice President
Marvin Morris
Don Sumners
Michael Wolfe
                                                 Democrats

Erica Lee Carter
Diane Trautman

You may voice your opinion to the HCDE Board via phone message: 713-694-6300 

You may also speak in person during the Open Forum at the HCDE Board meeting

Location: HCDE Administration 
                Ronald W. Reagan Building 
                6300 Irvington Blvd. 
                Houston, TX 77022
                map






Colleen Vera