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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Columns

Audits into HISD uncover need for restructuring


The Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center (2006), which houses the Houston Independent School District administrative offices, in Houston, Texas. David Ramirez Molina I Wikimedia Commons

Auditors found problems, citing “weak or nonexistent policies,” for the biggest school construction program in Texas history. Houston voters approved almost $2 billion in school construction in 2012. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A failing system with bad management and poor funding is perhaps the best description of the HISD. Without better leadership and organization, they are on the road to failure.

KPMG, a third-party auditing firm, attributed an increase in construction costs as one of the major reasons behind HISD’s inability to stick to its budget in its new construction program.

The auditor also cited “weak or nonexistent policies” as being a large contributor to how HISD went over budget by $200-plus million. This construction program, which is the largest in the history of Texas, began with a near-$2 billion budget in 2012.

This does not surprise me. I have already written and discussed some of the antics of HISD in the past. The people currently running HISD are just not doing a good enough job. The school board decided against addressing the audit in a special meeting, but some of it’s board members have still been vocal.

“There was a multitude of things. You can’t say, ‘Were they prepared?’ because there’s multitude of things that happened along the way that were unforeseen,” Michael Lunceford, a member of the Board of Education, said.

This is yet another sign that HISD officials would rather save face than accept the fact that they did not properly prepare for construction and rising prices.

The auditors report said the estimates used to draw the budget relied on a 2007 building program that focused heavily on elementary schools. The new construction project in 2012 would rebuild and renovate mostly middle and high schools, and it cost 16 to 25 percent more.

KPMG was hired by the HISD board after an internal watchdog suggested there was some mismanagement.

At least someone was willing to come forward to try to correct the mistake. The people who will ultimately feel the biggest blow to this in some form or the other is the students and taxpayers.

The watchdog’s claim clashed with then-Superintendent Terry Grier’s assertion that rising construction costs alone were why HISD needs more money.

While the auditors agreed, they also argued that HISD did not have proper policies to take care of critical steps in the building program to properly manage the $2 billion.

KPMG cited five main issues as being cost drivers:

1. Incomplete project assumptions and differing conditions

2. Weak or nonexistent policies and procedures regarding budget development

3. Lack of conceptual planning.

4. Misaligned programmatic specifics and project advisory team’s expectations

5. Inconsistent construction bid evaluations.

This started as a $2 billion project, but HISD didn’t take the proper steps to ensure the that some of the most basic steps of construction and planning where done properly. The accountability among those in charge is non-existent.

How can this happen? How can we have such a large school district with so many moving parts, and come up this short in the largest construction program in Texas’ history?

While Richard Patton, the chief auditor, said that there probably was no reason to suspect fraud, he did suggest the HISD administration was not holding contractors accountable for their prices.

“We probably haven’t been playing hardball in the negotiations like we should have,” Patton said.

Meanwhile, Grier said he personally hasn’t seen any mismanagement. This statement, while not very comforting, illuminates the extent to which new leadership is needed in HISD.

The response from Grier is a blatant slap in the face to taxpayers. It is impossible for him not to see the correlation.

Fortunately, some needed change arrived in the form of the unanimously selected Superintendent Richard Carranza. The HISD school board trustees came together to elect the San Francisco public school superintendent.

Hopefully, Carranza is the light at the end of the tunnel preventing HISD from running toward ruination.

Opinion Columnist Praneeth Kambhampati is a biomedical sciences sophomore and can be reached at [email protected]

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