Archive for September, 2010

Will Twitter Become a News Organization?

by on Sep.28, 2010, under In the News, What's New

A story written for the Radio Television Digital News Association, RTDNA:

Will Twitter Become a News Organization?
Sep 20 2010
By Lynn Walsh, Texas Watchdog

At a time when more Americans are spending time consuming news, Twitter, arguably the most popular social media site, has announced changes to the way information is viewed, shared and consumed on its site.

Soon, video can be viewed directly on the site; this includes clips, short movies and even live video. These changes, combined with the many examples of news breaking first on Twitter, raise the question: Will Twitter become a news outlet?

From the captured Japanese journalist who used Twitter to announce to the world that he was alive to the recent shootings at Discovery Channel, Twitter continues to break news to the world. MTV has hired a TJ (Twitter Jockey). Could Twitter journalists be next?

It is debatable whether Twitter will be a lasting site or if something new will take hold and dominate the social media world. What I do not think is debatable is whether or not social media and crowd sourcing is going to last. It will!

How will this change the way we, as journalists report the news? How will this change the future responsibilities we will have in a newsroom? What does this mean for how we break stories?

I do not have all the answers and I am not sure there is just one correct answer to any of those questions, but I do think there is a way that we, as journalists, can embrace the changes and adapt to whatever new technology brings our way.

Embrace it and use social media sites to your advantage. Social media is making interview subject, the general public and information more accessible. When people and information are more accessible, our stories can be better, more informative and make more of an impact. If you cannot find a phone number for someone, no worries – search Facebook, “tweet” them or connect with them on LinkedIn. Yes-this means you now have to maintain a presence on these sites, but why wouldn’t you? The benefits far outweigh the amount of time it takes to establish that presence.

Crowd source and do it often! Journalists are no longer privy to certain information about press conferences, major announcements from political candidates or celebrities or natural disaster updates like they used to be. So what if FEMA announces an update about a natural disaster before your station does? That is their job and the information is getting out there. Now, step up and forward the story: use social media to find people who are stranded, help spread details about locations of safe areas and dangerous areas, etc. Use crowd sourcing and information found online from viewers to help you do just that.

Be Flexible. As technology changes and as people consume news differently, our job as journalists is going to change. Expect it and enjoy it. Trying out new technologies is fun. Be the first to live tweet from a local city council meeting. Be the first to live stream from your phone while conducting an interview. Be the first to engage your audience online with question and answer sessions, etc. The first time your big interview is viewed may not be on the nightly newscast, be prepared for it and, most importantly, think of creative ways to keep the story relevant once it does air on television.

Will Twitter become a news organization? I am not sure it will, but what I do know is that we should embrace it. We should become Twitter journalists because we want to. There are people who want to see the news as it happens not hours later on television. There are people who want to help us as journalists, embrace them, use their information and thank them. It is Twitter and other social media sites that make it very easy. Maybe thank them too!

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Real News in a World of Celebrity Culture

by on Sep.28, 2010, under In the News, What's New

A story written for the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA):

Real News in a World of Celebrity Culture
Sep 27 2010
By Lynn Walsh, Texas Watchdog

Will Lindsay Lohan go back to jail? Or will Ms. Lohan will just be sent to rehab?

No one knows but most local television stations, and even the national news organizations, spend valuable news time covering Lohan’s latest stint in rehab and other celebrity gossip.

I realize our culture has an obsession with celebrity where-abouts, relationships, etc., but, with websites like Perez Hilton, television stations like E! and shows like TMZ and Access Hollywood, why are minutes of news shows being dedicated to the glitz and glam of Hollywood?

I will admit that I too follow pop culture and even DVR TMZ daily, but I question whether a local news station and national news organizations should air so many stories on celebrity culture.

Why? I feel it is a disservice to the viewers who tune into our stories every day.

Yes, people like celebrity culture and yes, a lot of people enjoy watching the latest celebrity gossip headlines on their televisions or computers. But that does not mean they are not interested in other issues going on in their community. It also does not mean they want to see celebrity news every time they turn on their TV.

While working in newsrooms I have heard colleagues say, “viewers do not care about politics,” or “viewers will not understand that financial story,” etc. I say make them understand, show them how politics and the financial world affects them every day.

How? Focus on what they care about: money, family, their homes, the schools their children attend, parks, their health, etc.

Think about why you care about the story or why your mother or father would be upset if a certain ordinance was approved by City Council. Think about what is changing when new laws go into effect. If a government organization is spending money in one area it normally means there will be cuts to another, what will happen then? Will services be lost? Will people lose their jobs? Or maybe there are not any cuts, what does that mean for next years budget or for taxes?

Do most people talk about the latest city council vote at the water cooler? Maybe not. But, is it really because they do not care or is it because they do not know? I think it is the later and while stories about local government or the spending of stimulus dollars may be more difficult, don’t you think they are also more informative?

I say leave the celebrity news to the celebrity-focused shows, blogs and stations. As journalists, we play an important role in people’s lives and the world; let’s not take it for granted. Let’s do the most with it and do our part to inform, engage and empower viewers.

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Group that found flaws in HISD’s finances honors district’s top financial officer

by on Sep.28, 2010, under What's New

A story written for Texas Watchdog:

Group that found flaws in HISD’s finances honors district’s top financial officer
Wed Sep 22 15:02:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh

A national education nonprofit that found financial and organizational problems in the Houston Independent School District’s $1 billion construction program is now recognizing HISD’s top financial administrator for her service to urban education.

The Council of the Great City Schools chose HISD’s chief financial officer, Melinda Garrett, for the Bill Wise Award this year. The award is given out annually to a school employee and was established in 2000.

In a July review of HISD’s building program, the council found that the program lacked an annual budget, had no set timelines for the completion of projects and lacked standard guidelines as to how projects would be established, evaluated and completed.

According to the report, financial reports to the HISD bond oversight committee were contradictory: A June quarterly report showed that the capital facilities program had a balance of $25.6 million, but another report dated June 22 showed the same buidling program was $37 million in the red. HISD has been unable to determine whether either figure was correct.

In a press release HISD said Garrett “is responsible for all financial operations of the district and provides oversight for all financial services.”

HISD Board President Greg Meyers said HISD taxpayers can rest easy with Garrett leading the way. In the press release, Meyers said, “The taxpayers of the Houston Independent School District can be very thankful that Melinda is keeping an eye on their money.”

Most of the money in the almost-$1.1 billion capital facilities program came directly from taxpayer-approved funds. It includes a $809 million bond package that voters approved in 2007.

In 2001 another member of HISD’s financial team won the same award, Leonard Strum. Garrett replaced Strum after he retired from HISD in 2001.

According to HISD, this is Garrett’s 26th year with HISD. She previously worked as elementary school teacher and at a private financial company auditing both governmental and private sector firms.

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HISD gets $30M for teacher bonuses, despite study that says bonuses don’t help

by on Sep.28, 2010, under What's New

A story written for Texas Watchdog:

HISD gets $30M for teacher bonuses, despite study that says bonuses don’t help
Thu Sep 23 20:30:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh

The Houston Independent School District will receive more than $30 million in federal funds to help pay for teacher bonuses, the district learned Thursday — two days after a national organization questioned the impact teacher bonuses have on overall performance.

According to a study released by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, offering cash incentives to teachers for improving student test scores does not produce a major difference in overall academic performance.

Thursday, two days after the report came out, HISD announced it will receive a $31.5 million federal grant to help the district with its goal of having an effective teacher in every classroom.

The money will be used over a five-year period. According to HISD, almost half of it will fund ASPIRE, HISD’s performance pay program for teachers and principals.

At a press conference Thursday HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said the district’s own internal reviews of its bonus programs show that bonuses work.

“We have done our own studies where we have looked at teachers who have received ASPIRE awards and compared them to those who have not, and they are seeing results,” Grier said. “That does not mean that we will not study it or that we will not make tweaks, as this board has done and continues to do, that will strengthen and improve our program.”

Bonuses of up to $50,000 were available to some teachers involved in the Nashville study. No matter the amount of the bonus, the national research center found that classroom performance did not improve just because a teacher was eligible for a cash bonus.

HISD was one of 62 school districts across the country to receive one of the grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

The study focused on teachers in Nashville, Tenn., public schools and the effect financial performance incentives have on them. The study is being described by experts as the first scientific and rigorous study produced on performance pay in the U.S.

Do you think performance pay is the right way for HISD to reach its goal of an effective teacher in every classroom? Let us know. Message us on Twitter at @TexasWatchdog or @LWalsh, or contact Lynn@TexasWatchdog.org.

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HISD magnet programs to undergo performance reviews

by on Sep.28, 2010, under Video, What's New

A story produced for Texas Watchdog:

HISD magnet programs to undergo performance reviews
Thu Sep 23 18:33:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh

Magnet programs across the Houston Independent School District will soon receive a full performance review that is expected to be complete by the end of the year, according to a presentation given to school district trustees Thursday.

In August, HISD trustees approved an outside review of all of HISD’s magnet programs. The review will be conducted by an outside group, Magnet Schools of America, and will not cost more than $275,000.

The review will be divided into two phases, according to HISD. Phase one will focus on community and district feedback; phase two will focus on individual magnet programs.

HISD has scheduled the parent and community forums for Oct. 11-15, with four sessions in the evening and two daytime sessions. Location and time details have not yet been announced. Magnet Schools of America will visit individual magnet programs Oct. 25-29.

Magnet programs in HISD have come under fire before. In April, trustees debated whether or not apply for federal funding to bring more magnet programs to HISD. Then and now, magnet schools remain a hot issue in the district between board members, parents and HISD administrators.

Before the presentation started, trustees and HISD Superintendent Terry Grier began to criticize the current ways in which magnet programs operate within HISD.

“There are lots of comments about the magnet program review taking away choice, but we are looking at providing more choice, but quality choice,” said HISD’s chief academic officer, Chuck Morris.

Trustee Larry Marshall said open enrollment, where parents can chose to send their child to a school outside the zone in which they live, is just the beginning. “This is kind of like the first shot over the bow, and this board better get ready,” Marshall said. “Somewhere down the line open enrollment has to be revisited.”

When students chose to attend a magnet program out of their zone, students living within the magnet program zone get blocked out. Grier said every year his office receives complaints from parents because their child cannot attend their home school and are forced to attend a school that is farther away.

HISD trustee Mike Lunceford said he wants to see the terms used to describe magnet schools defined more clearly. “We have to define what terms mean. What does it mean to be ‘exceptional’? What does ‘quality’ mean?” Lunceford said.

At the board workshop meeting Thursday, Grier said he was concerned with the way magnet programs are currently being funding. “There is little rhyme or reason about who (magnet schools) gets what money,” Grier said. View his entire comments in the clip below.

Magnet schools in HISD currently range from stand-alone schools to school-within-a-school programs. Morris said some magnet schools call themselves magnets but have never received board approval to do so.

According to HISD, a preliminary report is expected Dec. 1, and the evaluations are expected to be complete sometime in late December.

Magnet Schools of America is a private nonprofit that was originally based in Houston before moving to Washington, D.C., in 2000.

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HISD’s $1 billion capital facilities program hampered by lack of planning, no annual budget, communication problems

by on Sep.28, 2010, under Investigations, What's New

A story written for Texas Watchdog:

HISD’s $1 billion capital facilities program hampered by lack of planning, no annual budget, communication problems
Wed Sep 15 16:24:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh

The Houston Independent School District’s $1 billion fund for major building projects has been operating with substantial financial errors and without annual budgets, standard contract forms and budget evaluations, according to a recent report by a national education nonprofit.

The district’s capital facilities program lacked an annual budget, had no set timelines for the completion of project and lacked standard guidelines as to how projects would be established, evaluated and completed, according to the July review by the Council of the Great City Schools requested by Superintendent Terry Grier. There was no tracking of amendments to projects that enlarges their scope and price tag, and district staff had “no understanding of the impact” of such changes on costs.

“We did not have a master plan. We did not have a master schedule,” said Issa Dadoush, who joined the district as general manager of construction and facilities in April.

The district’s process of buying services and goods also raised concerns for some district staff interviewed by the reviewers. There is a “need for greater transparency to ensure that the process is open, fair and equitable,” the report says.

The almost $1.1 billion capital facilities program includes the proceeds from an $808.6 million bond package that voters approved in 2007. It also consists of a $150 million pay-as-you-go district program and other capital funds.
Capitol

Dadoush said there are more than 20 current projects that are in the “early to late design phases that have a potential for exceeding proposed budgets.”

“There was no control in place on how the project budgets were set up,” Dadoush said. “Has the money been spent? No. But can we go back and look at how the money is to be spent? Yes. The question now is where will the excess money come from? If the money is not there then the projects will go back to the drawing board.”

The report describes an environment in which one hand didn’t know what the other was doing. For example, the district’s chief financial officer would often be unaware of financial estimates by lower-level capital program staff.

One HISD manager likened the district’s approach to scheduling projects to “‘all the horses were let go at once,’ resulting in a somewhat chaotic environment,” the report says.

Saavedra doubts shortfall

The report also describes substantial financial reporting errors in June and July status reports presented to the district’s bond oversight committee.

In July, a $16 million project was estimated as being in the red by $15 million. District staff are trying to find a true figure.

A June quarterly report showed that the capital facilities program had a balance of $25.6 million, but another report dated June 22 showed the same capital facilities program was in the red $37 million. HISD was unable to determine if either figure was correct.

Former HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said he doubts there really is a shortfall.

“The bond program had adequate money and excess funding. It is hard for me to believe that this shortfall would exist unless something really went wrong in the last couple of months,” said Saavedra, who stepped down in 2009 and was responsible for outlining the funding process for the 2007 bond program.

“There are a lot of errors in the numbers, and we are working internally to fix the problem,” Dadoush said, adding that the council’s report is a draft. “We are recognizing we have a problem, and now we are doing a worksheet for every single project that we have so we can verify the budget for each project.”

Sen. Mario Gallegos, who has served on the Senate’s education committee, criticized Grier for not taking quicker action.

“The report shows what I have always known: that is there is lack of communication and planning,” Gallegos, D-Houston, said. “Why isn’t the bond program a part of the strategic plan? That is the first thing I would have done as a superintendent. These are things that should have already been done.”

Dadoush said budget details for each construction project will be presented to trustees Oct. 7. The next step, he said, is to create a “comprehensive five-year construction plan that is solid and accurate,” which would cover 2007 through 2013. The five-year plan would be approved by HISD trustees and updated annually.

As for current projects, Dadoush said they would continue even though there are some inefficiencies.

“We cannot do a complete shutdown,” he said. “If someone tells me there is something going on that is unethical, we will shut it down. But, if it is inefficient, it will continue. We will continue and just make changes as we move forward.”

The council also found that HISD had:

* Failed to consistently prepare an annual report on the Facilities to Standards program.
* No standard contract forms for vendors.
* A clunky way of managing data in which three different systems were used but unable to “talk” to each other, creating inefficiency and greater potential for mistakes.
* No evaluations of contractors for future reference.
* No internal inspectors to evaluate construction projects.
* No evaluation of budgets, cost projections or reporting mechanisms by the auditors working for HISD’s inspector general.

HISD is continuing to look at the recommendations from the Council of the Great City Schools and has partially implemented one of them by moving the bond office under Dadoush’s department and combining the construction department and the facilities department into one single department. The council also suggested moving employees who work with rental and real estate matters into this group.

“We are not there,” Dadoush said. “On a scale from of one to 10, we are not even at a five. We are going out at a two. Hopefully there will be continuous improvement.”

Contact Lynn Walsh at 713-228-2850 or lynn@texaswatchdog.org. On Twitter, @lwalsh. Follow the news from HISD on Twitter, #HISD..

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Build a Wall or Invest in an App?

by on Sep.14, 2010, under In the News, What's New

A story written for the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA):

Build a Wall or Invest in an App?

Sep 14 2010
By Lynn Walsh, Texas Watchdog

How will newspapers and journalism organizations make money in the future? It is a question journalist, investors and readers ask themselves every day. Possible solutions are thrown around everyday and maybe one of the most popular is the use of a pay wall.

A pay wall for the New York Times will begin in January 2011. How will it work? Readers will be able to view a certain number of articles per month for free on the website, but after the “free threshold” is broken, readers will have to pay for a subscription to the website to view any more articles during that particular month.

Will it work? That has yet to be seen but here is my opinion:

I, like most journalist and news fanatics, view a lot of news from a lot of different sources. I subscribe to RSS feeds from newspapers, bloggers, magazines, online puplications, etc. My news and information does not normally come from a single source; normally it comes from whichever news organization has the top story in a Google search.

In January 2011, IF I happen to reach my “free article threshold” on the New York Times website, I mostly likely will just search for the same information from a different source. The key word though is “if.” I do not think I have read more than one article a week from the New York Times. I would probably never even pass the “free article threshold.”

And I think that is just one reason why the pay wall is not going to work. In the age of the Internet, readers and viewers have grown to expect that content will be free. Whether right or wrong it is the norm. For websites like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers that carry a variety of content, I do not think a pay wall will work.

I do think websites that write for more of a niche market, like Mashable and ESPN may be able to. These sites cater to a crowd that expects news on subjects they care about immediately and daily. Readers subscribe to and read their feeds daily – even hourly – and do it for leisure.

So what is the alternative to a pay wall? In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said that applications for devices like mobile phones and iPad’s could help news organizations make money off of their content.

In the interview, Wales argues that since buying applications has become almost a “one-click process,” it allows consumers to make “impulse buys.” Readers and viewers no longer have to enter credit card information or fill out a form; that information is already stored in an iTunes account or an Amazon account, so when you do buy something all you get is the bill.

I think Wales has a great point and it may be a better solution then a pay wall for news organizations across the country. Just look at music downloading: less than five years ago it seemed like everyone was downloading music for FREE. After one free file-sharing site was shut down another appeared. Now, we actually pay for music (if you would have told me this five years ago I would not have believed you.)

Why are people paying for it now and refused to before? I think it all traces back to the ease of use. You no longer have to wait to be by a computer to buy a song or an album-you can do it from your phone, e-reader, etc. and all with one click.

Applications for mobile devices are very similar. You see a friend with a new app that you must have, but, it is a $1.99, what do you do? Well, your friend will probably talk about how amazing it is for 10 minutes and keeps using it in front of you, so most of the time you break down and buy it. Since your credit card information is connected to your iTunes account it doesn’t feel like a purchase and you may not even remember doing it until you get the bill from Apple.

With the ease of use, I think applications may be just one solution to the money crunch facing the news organization. Will the pay wall work? I cannot wait to see! And I think both pay walls and applications are just the beginning of solutions the news organization will develop and use to keep the web of information spinning.

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HISD weighs bans on gifts, communication with vendors prior to contract awards

by on Sep.14, 2010, under Video, What's New

A story written for Texas Watchdog:

HISD weighs bans on gifts, communication with vendors prior to contract awards
Tue Sep 14 16:48:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh

Houston Independent School District employees would be barred from accepting any gift of more than token value from current or prospective HISD vendors under a proposed change to the district’s conflict-of-interest policy.
It trustees approve the change, all employees would be required to sign a conflict-of-interest statement twice a year saying they had not violated the policy, a requirement that is currently only imposed on high-level administrators.

The ethics proposal would prohibit employees from accepting “any gift, favor, service, entertainment or anything of more than token value.”
present

It’s one of two proposed changes to HISD board of education policy relating to accountability and ethics that trustees are set to vote on Thursday at the September HISD board meeting.

Trustees are also considering prohibiting employees who work closely with district contracting from communicating with bidders beginning at the time the district requests proposals.

This “code of silence” would ban any communication “regarding a request for proposal (RFP), bid or other competitive solicitation” between any company or individual seeking an award from Houston ISD and certain individuals in the district.

According to HISD, the individuals prohibited from communicating with potential bidders include any “board member, the superintendent of schools, and any senior staff member, principal, department head, director, manager, or other district representative who has influence in the evaluation or selection process.”

“This policy shows the public that we are being completely transparent,” HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett said. “We (HISD) are not going off in some back room and signing contracts.”

In May, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier called the district’s contracting process into question.

“I have seen a procurement department made up of independent folks rate bids from a variety of different companies across the district to do a lot of different work,” Grier said. “And then I’ve seen staff — just for whatever reason — pull names off of a list and put other names back on a list, (with) no rhyme or reason except, quite frankly, influence where influence has no business coming from.” View his entire comments in the video below.

Grier said the goal of the two policies is to inform vendors trying to do business with HISD that the Houston district operates differently than some other districts.

“In school districts across the country, vendors will come into a district and offer sport jerseys to district employees in exchange for computer contracts. Don’t think it doesn’t happen because it does,” Grier said. “HISD will not allow for this type of behavior, so we are banning all gifts.”

The proposed new conflict-of-interest policy defines “items of token value,” which are permitted, as “coffee mugs, key chains, caps, and the like.”

When teachers and other employees register for conferences and receive a bag with pens and other supplies, they are allowed to take such items, Grier said.

The proposed conflict-of-interest policy does not consider plaques or other commemorative items gifts, but any meals from a single person or vendor that exceed $100 in value in a single calendar year are prohibited. Any meals over $50 but less than $100 in one calendar year can be accepted, but would need to be disclosed on the biannual statements.

In 2008, HISD employees and the district were at the center of a federal investigation following allegations of employees accepting gifts, meals and entertainment from vendors associated with a federal technology program, E-Rate. Three former technology employees allegedly accepted meals, birthday parties and cash from E-Rate vendors that were doing business with HISD at the time.

All three former HISD employees signed conflict-of-interest statements with HISD that said they did not receive any gifts or meals over $100 while they were allegedly accepting the gifts and meals from vendors. The three former employees also did not report receiving any meals between $50 and $100 in value.

If an employee is not sure whether accepting an item from a vendor is allowed, the proposed policy requires the employee to request written clarification from a committee that would make recommendations to the superintendent and the board of trustees. HISD has not outlined how the committee would be selected.

The individuals subject to the “code of silence” would be notified when the quiet period is to begin for each contract process. The period of no communication would continue until HISD trustees have approved the bid or awarded the contract.

According to HISD, if a vendor broke the rules by contacting a board member or employee during the quiet period, that company would be banned from doing business with HISD for at least two years.

Because the proposals would change board policy, HISD trustees will have to vote and approve the proposed new policies twice before they would go into effect.

Contact Lynn Walsh at at 713-228-2850 or lynn@texaswatchdog.org. Follow news about the Houston Independent School District on Twitter, #HISD.

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HISD forwarded Key Middle School investigation to DA

by on Sep.14, 2010, under Investigations, What's New

A story written for Texas Watchdog:

HISD forwarded Key Middle School investigation to DA
Fri Sep 10 16:56:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh

The Houston Independent School District forwarded an investigation of a Houston middle school to the Harris County District Attorney’s office in the spring, a district spokesman said Friday, but so far has not heard whether the DA will pursue any case.

The report details allegations of testing improprieties and missing assets from Key Middle School.

“We informed (the) DA,” HISD spokesman Norm Uhl said via e-mail. “(We) turned our report over to them when it was complete on April 19.”

In early April, Grier said the DA had not requested a copy of the report when asked whether he planned to forward it to them. But the DA’s office said complaints and cases the office investigates begin with someone bringing the issue to them, not the other way around.
Key Middle School surveillance video

Texas Watchdog learned of the Key Middle School investigation being submitted to the DA’s office while reporting on the recent sentencing of former HISD accounting coordinator Lydia M. Kinchen, who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $100,000 from the Houston district and taxpayers.

In January HISD Superintendent Terry Grier held a press conference to announce HISD was going to investigate Key Middle School. An anonymous tip led district officials to examine surveillance video from both Key and Kashmere High School, according to HISD. The surveillance video showed people moving computers and other equipment in and out of the buildings and at times into vehicles.

HISD hired the law firm Martin Disiere Jefferson & Wisdom to conduct a private investigation at Key, which found multiple examples of price gouging students on snacks, unauthorized fundraisers aimed at students and thousands of dollars of missing equipment. HISD fired six of the employees accused of wrongdoing, including former Key Principle Mable Caleb, at an April board meeting.

Contact Lynn Walsh at 713-228-2850 or lynn@texaswatchdog.org. On Twitter: @lwalsh.

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HISD takes hard stance in case of employee theft, but no legal remedy pursued against E-Rate employees

by on Sep.14, 2010, under What's New

A story written for Texas Watchdog:

HISD takes hard stance in case of employee theft, but no legal remedy pursued against E-Rate employees
Fri Sep 10 16:19:00 2010 CST
By Lynn Walsh

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier and Board President Greg Meyers are speaking out against the actions of a former HISD employee, who was sentenced to prison after stealing taxpayer funds.

Grier and Meyers attended the sentencing of former HISD accounting coordinator Lydia M. Kinchen to encourage the judge “to sentence Kinchen to the maximum punishment permissible by law,” according to a district press release. Kinchen was sentenced on Wednesday to eight years in prison for stealing more than $100,000 while working for HISD, according to the Houston Chronicle.

But the district leaders’ presence in the courtroom and sharp words for Kinchen contrast with another recent case of employee wrongdoing, in which workers have not been pursued in the courts.

Kinchen stole the money in a period from November 2005 to October 2006, the same time period other HISD employees were accepting personal checks, meals, sporting event tickets and a birthday party from vendors in the federal technology program E-Rate.

HISD’s E-Rate funding was frozen in 2006 after allegations of the improper gifts led to a lawsuit filed by the Federal Communications Commission against the Houston district, which lost more than $105 million in federal technology funding.

The $850,000 settlement and the hiring of an E-Rate compliance officer put the bill at more than $1 million dollars to get past the E-rate scandal, and none of the employees have been charged with any crime.

“I want to be sure to articulate that behavior like this is not accepted at HISD,” Meyers said. “We have been very outspoken, and if anything like this does happen again you can be assured we will work hard to take the toughest legal stand.”

But HISD tried to keep the implicated employees’ identities secret, refusing a verbal request from Texas Watchdog. The district only complied after a public information request and a ruling from the Texas attorney general, whose office said the names were public under state open records law.

Texas Watchdog asked Meyers why the E-Rate employees’ wrongdoing was approached differently.

“I don’t think it is anything different,” Meyers said. “E-Rate was prior to me being on the board, but the feds are involved, and anything that can be legally pursued once they (the feds) are done, we as a board will do.”

Grier did not return a call for comment.

Do you think HISD is doing enough to punish employees for wrongdoing? Let us know what you think. Contact Lynn Walsh. E-mail lynn@texaswatchdog.org or call 713-228-2850. On Twitter: @LWalsh.

Follow the latest HISD news on Twitter by searching for #HISD and following @TexasWatchdog and @LWalsh.

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