BISD continues appeal in Austin

Chris Tritico

Beaumont Independent School District Superintendent Timothy Chargois and BISD Board of Trustees president Gwen Ambres traveled to Austin on Friday, June 6, to appeal a Texas Education Agency decision to lower the local school district’s standing to “Accreditation – Probation.” The reduction in accreditation status paves the way for the TEA to institute a Board of Managers to replace the currently-serving Board of Trustees. TEA Commissioner Michael Williams has already announced intent to remove the current Board of Trustees and Superintendent Chargois, claiming the BISD leaders failed to run the school district in a fiscally responsible manner and that those same leaders failed to protect BISD from administrators who pilfered taxpayer funds for their own personal gain.

The hearing began at 9:10 a.m. and continued until just after 1 p.m. in front of hearing officer/ TEA deputy commissioner Lizzette Reynolds. BISD attorneys from Houston represented the school district’s position that the current leadership should be given a chance to correct the numerous issues spelled out in a scathing audit and investigative reports from the Legislative Budget Board and the Texas Education Agency. Among the lawyers sitting with Chargois and Ambres were Chris Tritico and Ron Rainey.

Representing the TEA in support of ousting the current BISD superintendent and school board was TEA senior counsel Christopher Jones, with supporting testimony from TEA representatives Susan Marek from Program Monitoring and Intervention and Lisa Dawn-Fisher from the Associate Commissioner’s Office of School Finance.

In opening testimony from Jones of the TEA, the state took the position that “(BISD) has had plenty of notice for a long time that they have had many problems. Their strategy has been to deny that those problems existed, and that is the same strategy used even today.” It was his assertion that BISD administration not be allowed any more chances to fix a mess that they themselves created.

Jones spoke of the district’s contracted finance team from WCL Enterprises, led by financial consultant William Lenhart, who found “numerous scary things” in his own review of BISD’s fiscal accountability.

“The district cannot credibly deny that it has these significant problems,” Jones stated. “Largely, the allegations that I’ve laid out have not been denied.” Those allegations included not providing free and appropriate education to special needs students and not controlling the expenditure of taxpayer money in a sound and legal manner.

“The consequences to this district could be severe,” Jones summed up in support of lowering BISD’s accreditation status. “We think these interventions are necessary.

“Ultimately, this district should be accountable for its actions.”

Tritico retorted on behalf of BISD administration and the majority on the Board of Trustees that TEA Commissioner Williams overstepped his bounds when deciding to remove the school district’s rulers — no matter how bad things are in the district. According to Tritico, other school districts “have worse problems. Fairness dictates that this district have the opportunity to improve.”

The TEA’s Jones called witness Susan Marek to the stand first, asking if she thought lowering BISD’s accreditation status and placing a special education monitor in BISD was a sufficient  punishment for the actions that have taken place under this administration’s watch.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘sufficient.’ … I think it’s the first step,” she said, in that a monitor should be placed in BISD to combat non-compliance issues in the school district’s special education program.

TEA School Finance Commissioner Lisa Dawn- Fisher testified that BISD either needed to employ an internal auditor or implement internal policies that prevent waste and fraud.

“BISD has neither,” she said. “We found very little evidence of internal controls – or even policies related to internal controls.”

The lack of controls, according to Fisher, allowed an environment of “waste, fraud and abuse to occur.”

“On multiple occasions,” BISD was warned of its lack of fiscal controls, Fisher said, and noted that BISD administration could not justify bond expenditures, failed to monitor cost-plus contracts such as the one held with district electrician Calvin Walker, and paid vendors in violation of district policy. Furthermore, she said, communication from the Legislative Budget Board cited “problems with procurement, the way their business office was staffed, a huge lack of internal controls and they indicated the board was dysfunctional in its ability to oversee the district” before also referencing other warnings given to the district via FBI intervention on business office embezzlement. To date, she stressed, no sufficient action has been taken by BISD administration to correct the problems they were warned about months prior to TEA’s own investigation.

“They have been unwilling or unable to make corrections on their own,” Fisher asserted. “As we sit here today, (Friday, June 6) the audit that was due to the agency at the end of January still has not been submitted. BISD can expect to fail the School FIRST rating for the 2013-14 school year.”

Fisher said she sees no indication that BISD is changing its modus operandi and points to past fiscal irresponsibility to back up her opinion.

“This district does have a history of overspending,” she said, adding the LBB review of the district “found thousands of budget amendments within a single school year.”

“They are spending more money than the budget brings in. … They have substantially overspent their resources,” she said. “The financial operations were so sloppy no one really knew what was going on there.”

TEA attorney Jones addressed BISD’s objection that no internal system could combat collusion by employees to defraud the district, with Fisher testifying that BISD finance director Devin McCraney’s embezzlement began occurring long before BISD comptroller Sharika Allison became involved in the conspiracy.

Fisher said that BISD had five separate vendor lists – and they should only have had one —  and found that the school district had not been submitting W-9 or 1099 forms to contracted vendors to ensure proper tax was paid.

Jones said BISD’s financial controls were “persnickety” at best. Fisher agreed and added that BISD assistant superintendent for secondary administration Patricia Adams Collins Lambert, while the principal of Central High School, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to two of her son’s “printing” companies.

“She was approving these payments to, essentially, her own son’s companies, which was against BISD policy,” she added. And that’s just what the TEA investigation team could decipher from the few records they could get from the school district.

“They did not have all the records in place to produce to us,” Fisher said. “There were documents they could not find; we were never able to get adequate and complete documentation upon request. …”

“When we have a district that can’t get a handle on its financial operation, we have great concerns about their …financial integrity,” Fisher added. “The duration of these inefficiencies have been noted for years – and have continued for years.”

BISD contract attorney Rainey said that BISD has been punished enough for whatever they may or may not have done.

“They’re retroactively applying a sanction for something they’ve already been punished for,” Rainy contended. “You can’t do that. You have to provide them the opportunity to fix it.

“They’re (the TEA are) doing indirectly what they cannot do directly,” he pushed.

Cathy Mincberg, a BISD vendor from the Center for Reform of School Systems, said that, “Two months was not enough time to fix problems at BISD, according to the list that I saw.”

Tritico then called BISD Board President Gwen Ambres to the witness seat. Ambres said that she traveled to Austin prior to the TEA report with three ministers, NAACP representative Paul Jones, and another board member to talk with the TEA commissioner about the woes at BISD, making a return trip to hand-deliver a plan for righting the BISD ship at a later date.

“We’re going by a structured process,” she said under threat of perjury. “We have initiated the action.

“There’s been no new (negative) findings,” Ambres said. “We’re moving forward. We feel very confident — not just because we wish it, but because we have it on paper how we plan to move forward with the recommendations.

“At least give us time to implement the strategies that we put in place. We’re asking for time. We are in unchartered waters. I think we have a plan in place that we can go forward on the right track. We’ve learned some things.”

TEA’s Jones was unmoved by Ambres’ statements, and further argued that BISD needs new management.

“The commissioner always has the authority to put somebody different in place,” Jones said, “before the district is irreparably damaged.”

Tritico said it is BISD administration’s argument that in regards to the time allotted for change to occur, “it was not enough time to improve. What we have shown … in a very short period of time, this district was able to jump on these issues.

“You can’t tie their hands behind their back and then come back and say they didn’t improve. This board is working through the issues.

“If the commissioner thinks we need help, put in two monitors.”

TEA deputy commissioner Lizzette Reynolds said all the testimony and document submission would be taken into review, and a decision would be rendered at future undetermined date.