Largely lost in the loud, raucous debate last week over what the Houston Independent School District should do with 10 failing schools, a concern was raised about the HISD proposal that would have handed the schools to a charter school group the district’s union president described as a “real estate scam.”
Houston Federation of Teachers chief, Zeph Capo, suggested that an Energized For STEM Academy school chief is profiting from rented buildings paid for by tax dollars.
“This type of set up? It’s nothing but a real estate scam,” Capo said. “This is nothing but a real estate venture. You’re using kids and their families as the dollar figure that you get from the state and the district to pay the loan on properties that you could potentially put in your pocket.”
A top issue, according to Capo, is Lois Bullock who runs the school. He pointed to a 2009 disclosure of lease payments from one of the charter’s related organizations to a for-profit company owned by Bullock.
“We’ve requested the documents needed to find our way through this web of nonprofits. We need to review the lease arrangements,” Capo said. “There are too many serious, unanswered questions about each of these two companies.”
The president of the charter school group, NAACP Houston Branch president James Douglas, strongly denied any wrongdoing.
“One of the things I will tell you is that if we get this contract, I am going to be the individual who is going to be overseeing this project,” he said.
Also on the three-person board is former HISD trustee Paula Harris.
“Paula will be running the board,” Douglas said.
She was surrounded by a cloud of questions during her time as a trustee when her close friend Nicole West, a campaign supporter, and godmother to her children, was given lucrative school contracts.
From a 2011 Texas Watchdog investigation:
Need schools painted or fences installed? HISD hired Nicole West’s firm Westco. Need security cameras and burglar alarms installed at schools? It hired Westco. Need drapes dry cleaned for a school auditorium? It paid Westco to do it.
Need elementary school students tutored in reading? HISD paid Nicole West to tutor them. Need a high school decorated for a rededication ceremony? It paid Nicole West.
Need an ambulance on standby for a high school football game? It hired another of West’s firms, a small, private ambulance service.
And when the nation’s seventh-largest school district wanted to hire a private investigations firm to track down truant high-schoolers, it didn’t pick any of the big PI firms in Houston, some of whom have dozens of investigators and have been in business for decades. It instead hired a small firm, only a few years old, owned and run by Nicole West. With two licensed investigators today, the firm’s current legal address with the state is West’s residence in Pearland.
Harris did not return a call left for comment.
The handover of the schools to the charter school group may now be moot — or at least delayed. The HISD school board withdrew the deal amidst a school board meeting last week marked by shouts of anger and police officers detaining some attendees.
And the day after Capo raising his concerns about Energized For STEM Academy, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he wanted HISD to “push the pause button” on handing over the schools to the charter schools.
He said the school system — the seventh largest in the country — should request a one-year waiver from the Texas Education Agency. The TEA had set a deadline for April 30 to come up with a plan to fix the failing schools.
“Considering Hurricane Harvey’s impact on our students and campuses eight-months ago, this is not the time to add to the stress of students, parents, teachers and those served by HISD,” Turner said. “I am committing myself to playing a leadership role to find and execute the best path forward.”
Douglas said he wanted the project because he wants to improve the schools.
“My belief is, because I’ve been very critical of HISD over the course of the last 25 years or so,” he said. “I can’t continue to put aside HISD from doing what they’re supposed to do and turn down the opportunity to do the job myself.”
Texas’ largest school district missed an April 30 deadline to submit plans to the TEA detailing how it would hand operations of those 10 schools to a third-party group, according to Houston ISD spokesman Tracy Clemons. If approved by the TEA, such a plan would have triggered a two-year grace period and protected the district from state takeover and the 10 schools from closure.
Now, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath must decide how to proceed. His options, as prescribed by law, are limited. Morath can either appoint a board of managers to takeover the elected school board, or he can order schools closed.
Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan declined a request for comment, and Houston ISD trustees were in a closed executive session that lasted from 6 p.m. until late into Monday night.
A decision from the TEA could be months away.
Energized for STEM Academy will continue to run its high school and middle school, both located in Houston.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.