Friday, October 16, 2015

State Audit shows HCDE needs a Sunset Review

In 2013, Rep. Riddle asked the State Auditor’s Office to audit HCDE. The results were released in September of 2015.

The audit confirms the findings by Susan Carroll of the Houston Chronicle showing HCDE’s administration has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra employee stipends for years. But the employee stipends identified in the audit were even greater than Carroll found - $871,610 from 2012-2014 . Of the stipends tested by the auditors, 40% were paid without Board knowledge or approval.

The audit identified multiple issues with HCDE’s contract to run the Central Operations of the Texas Virtual School Network.

And a quote from the audit confirms what conservatives have been saying for years:

“The majority of property tax revenue was allocated for internal expenses related to the Department’s operations and technology support services.”
In other words: HCDE collects a property tax to support itself…not Harris County students.

But…look a little deeper… and you will see what this audit really confirmed …

That Sen Bettencourt and
Sen Garcia were right when
they sponsored SB1216 last session.

A review of HCDE’s programs
and functions by the Sunset
Commission is clearly needed.

To understand why, I’ll borrow a famous line from Paul Harvey’s old radio show…

"…and now for the rest of the story…”

This audit reviewed state funds HCDE received from 2012-2014 to operate three grant programs to make sure the funds were properly used for those programs.

1. Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) – which provides services for local families with children, birth to three years, who have disabilities and/or developmental delays.

2. Texas LEARNS – Statewide adult education administered by HCDE for the Texas Education Agency (TEA)

3. Central Operations of the Texas Virtual School Network (TXVSN) – Online courses for Texas students across the state.

First: Audit reported funds for ECI were properly used

But, what did the audit NOT report about ECI that a Sunset Review would?

HCDE was so incompetent in the ECI program, that in December 2014, the State transferred HCDE’s ECI clients to new ECI providers: MHMRA and Easter Seals.

Records show HCDE was first flagged by the State for ECI noncompliance issues in Feb of 2013 and given multiple opportunities to fix their problems. 

For example, in their first review, the State found that 49% of individualized plans for HCDE’s ECI clients “did not include measurable outcomes expected to be achieved for the child and family.”

After giving HCDE time to fix the problem, a follow up review by the State showed
HCDE’s noncompliance at 47% - only a 2 percentage point improvement.

(Read the series of letters from DARS to HCDE outlining the issues: here)

So, a financial audit found no problems with state ECI funds in 2012-2014. But, a Sunset Review would have identified HCDE’s inability to provide adequate ECI services in 2012-2014 which led to HCDE no longer serving as an ECI contractor in 2015.

A Sunset Review would also evaluate the appropriateness of HCDE charging Harris County taxpayers $132,911 in 2015 to clean up the mess HCDE had made with ECI.

Second: Audit reports funds for Texas LEARNS properly used

But what did the audit NOT report that a 2013 Sunset Review of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) did?

The 2013 Sunset Commission Report on TEA recommended changes to adult education to make it more productive.

“Transfer responsibility for adult education from TEA to the Texas Workforce Commission. This recommendation would ensure more effective oversight and more targeted use of Texas’ adult education funds by requiring TWC to administer the program... TWC should bring the grant administration function in-house as soon as practical after Harris County Department of Education’s contract expires in August 2013.”

So, a financial audit found no problems with HCDE’s use of state Texas LEARNS funds in 2012-2014. But, a Sunset Review did recommend that HCDE no longer contract as the statewide administrator of the program. And the Legislature followed the Commission’s advice. In 2015, HCDE no longer administers Texas LEARNS for TEA.

(Read the Full 2013 Sunset Commission Report on TEA (pages 21-27):here

Third: Audit found need for improvement in managing funds for TxVSN

The audit did find problems in 2012-2014 with the program that HCDE still administers across the State today - The Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN.) Examples from the audit:

  1. HCDE could NOT provide documentation for $360,906 charged to TxVSN for IT staff salary expenses 
  2. HCDE could NOT provide documentation for $491,531 charged to TxVSN for maintenance and support by HCDE staff for a server, storage, and an operating system. 
  3. HCDE could NOT provide documentation for $86,315 for building improvements to house TxVSN 
  4. HCDE overcharged the TxVSN contract $24,576 in 2013 for space allocated to TxVSN operations 
  5. HCDE charged $2,184 for non-travel-related food to TxVSN even though it is not an allowable expense item 
  6. HCDE Allocated $90,000 in 2013 specifically to expand an emergency alert system; however, that expansion was not performed. HCDE fully expended that $90,000 for purposes other than the purpose for which that funding was budgeted.

In short: The audit found issues with 25% of the funds HCDE received to run the Central Operations of the TxVSN in 2012 alone.

But, what did the audit NOT report that a Sunset Review would?

Just as the Sunset Commission did with Texas LEARNS, it would evaluate TxVSN to see if the current subcontracting scheme established by TEA follows the intent of the Legislature as well as provides the best use of funds and manpower to serve the students of Texas.

Unlike the State Auditor’s office, the Sunset Commission is open and transparent. The Commission not only asks for public input, it holds public hearings so all issues can be openly discussed.

Why would that matter? Here is an example:

The audit reported that HCDE:

  • did not allocate property tax revenue to…the Texas Virtual School Network.
  • charged $2,184 for non-travel-related food to TxVSN even though it is not an allowable expense item

But, with the public’s help, the Sunset Commission would look deeper and find that HCDE DID (AND STILL DOES) USE LOCAL PROPERTY TAX FUNDS TO SUPPORT TxVSN and to purchase food for TxVSN meetings.

Records show HCDE used tax funds allocated for “General Administration - Chief Information Officer” for Jim Schul (CIO) to travel across the State representing TxVSN... 

and to purchase food for TxVSN.

Jim Schul’s salary and his entire department budget is paid with Harris County property tax funds. 

Yet, HCDE is using him to work for TxVSN. 

His HCDE job description even includes: Provide Leadership and Direction for the Texas Virtual School Network.”

So, a financial audit found HCDE did not "allocate” property tax revenue to the TxVSN, but with public input, a Sunset Review would outline exactly how HCDE “redistributes” property tax funds to support not only TxVSN, but other non-Harris-County-specific programs such as Choice Partners Cooperative and Head Start as well.

HCDE "redistributes" tax funds to these programs by giving "free" services for "research and evaluation" as well as "communications and public information"... 

...through two other HCDE departments funded with over
$1 MILLION in local property taxes in 2015 alone. 

But more importantly for the taxpayers of Harris County, the Sunset Commission would evaluate HCDE’s total operation to determine if it operates the way the Legislature intended County School Trustees to function, as well as if the tax they collect is being used the way the Legislature intended – for the “maintenance of Harris County Public Free Schools.” 

The Sunset Commission would take into account Attorney General Opinions issued over the years, such as:
  • #JC-0055 which states: HCDE’s tax funds are distributed by the county department of education according to the provisions of section 18.14 of the Education Code”- which means directly to the ISDs of the Harris County.
  • #V-759 which states: “The county superintendent's duties are confined by statute to various matters pertaining to the public free school system in his county. " 

The Rest of the Story

HCDE is so afraid of a Sunset Review that they used county education funds to hire lobbyists, political consultants, law firms, PR specialists, and a host of other “consultants” to fight against SB1216.

In fact, HCDE is so afraid of the public knowing what their Board attorney did to earn $21,304.35 fighting against SB1216, HCDE went to the Texas Attorney General to block release of their attorney billing records related to SB1216.

What is HCDE fighting so hard to hide from the Sunset Commission?

A Sunset Review looks at the entire entity, its original purpose, performance, and duplication of services provided by other entities, etc. - all to evaluate the continued need for the entity.

What was HCDE’s Original Purpose?

HCDE was established in 1889 to operate all the public schools in Harris County. But they haven’t had that responsibility in over 50 years…so… they surely don’t want that discussed by the Sunset Commission.

What about HCDE’s Performance?

Two of the three programs reviewed by the state audit no longer exist at HCDE because of performance issues. .. so…they surely don’t want that discussed by the Sunset Commission.

What about HCDE’s Duplication of Services?

Some say HCDE uses local tax dollars to duplicate what our state tax dollars are supposed to provide through our regional Education Service Centers (ESC). 

 Even the third grant program just audited at HCDE, Central Operations of the Texas Virtual School Network, is outlined in Texas Education Code Sec. 30A.052 this way:

“The commissioner shall(2) contract with
 a regional education service center 
for the service center to operate the network.”

The Commissioner Rule 70.1001(5) defines TxVSN Central Operations as:

"The regional education service center
that carries out the day-to-day operations
of the TxVSN..."

Part of the Job Description of HCDE’s Chief Information Officer is to “provide leadership and direction for TxVSN.” 

The current job posting for the position of:

 Director of the TxVSN

 is not on an ESC site… is on HCDE’s website.

Looks like HCDE does duplicate the statewide work of the ESCs, but is supported with local property taxes…so…they surely don’t want that discussed by the Sunset Commission.

Makes sense to me now why HCDE fought so hard against SB1216. They are simply terrified of an objective review of their operations and performance before the Texas Legislature – the people who can close their doors once and for all.

Colleen Vera

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