The Houston Independent School District, already embroiled in a bribery scandal involving its former chief operating officer, said on Friday it had decided to terminate a contract with a supplier as part of a conflict of interest investigation potential involving the company and an employee.

HISD confirmed the investigation after the Houston Chronicle began questioning district officials about a potential conflict of interest involving District Administrator Reginald Bush and BlazinBrook Management LLC, a company that contracts with the school district to provide tutoring services.

Bush is a former principal of Kashmere High School who recently served as one of the district’s 32 school support officers. His name was among the directors of a BlazinBrook board of directors in a June 2016 filing with the Texas Secretary of State.

The district issued a statement to The Chronicle acknowledging that it had previously been made aware of allegations of a potential conflict of interest involving a supplier and an employee. He did not name the employee or the company under surveillance. He also did not indicate when or how the district became aware of the alleged conflict.

“After learning of the allegations, the district opened an investigation by an external company,” the statement said. “As a result of the ongoing investigation, no further comments will be provided at this time. At HISD, we take the procurement process and awarding of supplier contracts seriously while maintaining high expectations for suppliers and staff.

On Friday afternoon, HISD sent the Chronicle an updated statement that added, “In addition, the district sent a notice of termination of its contract with the vendor. “

District administrators approved a contract with BlazinBrook, which describes itself as a professional consulting firm, for tutoring services in October 2017.

The Texas Education Agency confirmed to The Chronicle that it had received a complaint about the company, but declined to give further details, saying in a statement: “As this is an ongoing matter, TEA cannot no further comment. “

Bush forwarded an email requesting comment from the district press office. Further attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.

Patrick Brooks, the owner of BlazinBrook, told a reporter last week that he started the business in 1990.

“I am the sole owner of this business,” he said in a brief phone call. Brooks did not say if he had done business with Bush. “I know more than one Reggie Bush,” he said. He did not respond to a follow-up email showing him the case with the Secretary of State’s office.

Confirmation of the investigation came two days before federal prosecutors announced an indictment against the former district operations director, who is accused of participating in a bribery scheme that saw HISD overcharging $ 7 million from a company hired to perform grounds maintenance and landscaping at several schools. Four other former district employees and former Education Council chairwoman Rhonda Skillern-Jones have signed plea agreements with prosecutors in the case. Former COO Brian Busby and entrepreneur Anthony Hutchison face an indictment of 26 counts.

Revised procurement procedures

In comments related to Busby’s indictment on Thursday, Superintendent Millard House II said he had ordered reviews of the district’s internal team and contracting and supplier systems as well as a reviewing procurement procedures before even knowing about the charges against the former senior official. .

“I knew this job was going to be tough,” House said. “We have 50 failing schools that we need to transform. We need to overhaul our special education services, and we need to rebuild some of our schools. To do these things, I need thousands of exceptional educators to join this district, and we must regain the trust of parents and taxpayers in Houston.

Records show that BlazinBrook Management was awarded a contract for tutoring services at the board meeting on October 12, 2017. The approval was part of an agenda item that included an assortment of vendors. with contracts worth over $ 100,000.

A filing with the Better Business Bureau shows that the company has been in business for at least 11 years.

Invoices obtained as part of Texas Public Information show the company provided a total of $ 500,718 over the past year in tutoring services to Burrus Elementary School, Cornelius Elementary School, Kashmere High School, at Key Middle School and McGowen Elementary School. The invoices show that the company provided private lessons in areas such as math and English.

As of mid-December 2018, the district has paid BlazinBrook just over $ 1 million, according to HISD’s online check register, including a payment of $ 21,760 on Thursday.

Bush was appointed principal of Kashmere High in June 2018 after serving as principal of Kashmere Gardens Elementary School for three years, according to the district. Records show Bush became an academic support officer – a role responsible for supporting and supervising principals at several schools in June.

District spends around $ 10-11 million annually on tutoring services, paying $ 11.2 million in FY2021, records show.

The company’s contract with HISD was scheduled to expire in January 2023.

Potential breaches

HISD policies prohibit school district employees, such as administrators, from engaging in outside activities that could impair their judgment.

“No superintendent, manager of a business or any other person holding any office or employment under such board shall be directly or indirectly interested in any purchase, sale, commercial work or contract the expense, price or consideration of which is paid from school funds. of the said district ”, states the policy.

The policy also states that “any person violating this provision will be discharged from the services”.

Bush did not list any work with outside organizations in the semi-annual disclosure statements covering the periods from September 2014 to February 2016, according to a copy of his personnel file obtained through an open files request.

Houston ISD policy also requires the district to refer any unresolved questions or problematic recommendations to a conflict of interest review committee for consideration of possible violations.

Business ethics experts and other public education officials told The Chronicle that such disclosure loopholes could lead to serious penalties, which could impact not only Bush but other employees as well. played a role in the case.

Other concerns have to do with the perspective of a school district that serves the public. Educators must base their decisions on what is best for schools and students.

“They have to make sure and do their best to make sure that whatever their responsibility, this organization gets the best value for the money,” said Homer Erekson, dean of the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University. , who specializes in conflicts of interest and ethics violations.

Conflicts of interest, or even the appearance of a conflict, can damage public confidence in a government entity such as a school district, said Bob Stein, professor of political science at Rice University.

“It erodes public trust,” Stein said. “It goes to the heart of democracy: people trust government to do the right thing, to select entrepreneurs and to do its best for the students or the government. “

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