Jan. 8, 2005, 1:30AM

Teacher tried to report test cheating, union says

HISD allegedly wouldn't grant her immunity; now an office on oversight is being created


A Key Middle School teacher tried to report cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test last spring but gave up when the Houston school district's top lawyer refused to grant her immunity from punishment, the teachers' union president said Friday.

Key is one of 25 Houston Independent School District campuses under investigation because of uncharacteristically high scores on the TAKS.

HISD Superintendent Abe Saavedra announced Thursday that he would create an Office of Inspector General to scrutinize those scores to determine whether they resulted from legitimate academic improvement or cheating. The move was prompted by newspaper reports highlighting suspicious test performance at nearly 400 schools statewide.

The Key Middle School teacher told union representatives last year that a school administrator gave her and her colleagues advance copies of the 2004 test for their students to use as practice exams, said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. The teachers had believed the materials, which they found in their mailboxes, were copies of the prior year's exam, which Texas teachers routinely use to prepare their students for the TAKS, Fallon said.

"The teachers were given the test and didn't realize what they'd been given," she said. They didn't realize what had happened until test day, Fallon said.

But when a union representative approached chief HISD attorney Elneita Hutchins-Taylor and offered to have the teacher give a statement in return for immunity, Hutchins-Taylor declined, Fallon said.

"They wouldn't give us a guarantee for the whistleblower," she said. "As far as I know, nothing was done."

Hutchins-Taylor did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday. HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said district officials would not discuss the ongoing investigation.

Key, in northeast Houston, recently received an "acceptable" state rating on the strength of last year's passing rates on the test. The school, where 97 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, was one of 21 HISD campuses tagged as "low-performing" the last time the state rated schools in 2002.

Allegations elsewhere

HISD administrators have been accused in another case of not taking teachers' allegations of cheating seriously. Former Wesley Elementary teacher Donna Garner voiced concerns about cheating at her school during a school board meeting in 2003. District officials initiated an investigation at the time but failed to follow through until November, when Hutchins-Taylor suggested hiring an outside law firm to investigate.

On Thursday, Saavedra acknowledged the district dropped the ball on the Wesley investigation but stopped short of blaming his predecessor, recently retired Superintendent Kaye Stripling.

"It's unacceptable that we have not had quick responses," Saavedra said. "This thing should have been investigated a long time ago."

Saavedra has vowed to root out potential cheating on standardized tests, in part by protecting teachers who come forward with information.

One proposal is to set up a special cheating hotline to operate during testing. Reports from that hotline would go directly to the inspector general.

Fallon has endorsed Saavedra's plan for addressing the allegations and said she believes it will encourage more teachers to report wrongdoing.

Obligation to speak up

Even without the promise of protection, the Key teacher still had a duty to report her suspicions, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. The teacher could have notified the TEA directly but still would have been required to give her name, Rat-cliffe said.

"Any person who fails to report such a violation may be penalized," Ratcliffe said. Those penalties could include the suspension or revocation of the teacher's certification, she said.

Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley has scheduled a Monday press conference to discuss the cheating allegations and possible improvements for the state's test security system.

KHOU-Channel 11 contributed information for the origination of this report.



 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


Jan. 12, 2005, 6:11AM

State will look at district's food program during review

HISD says audit will show it doesn't overstate number of meals it serves


State investigators will be scrutinizing HISD's breakfast program later this month amid allegations that the school district may be overstating the number of meals eaten as a way to boost revenue.

"We're going to find out that the vast majority of the breakfasts being served in the classroom are not being touched by the children," said Orell Fitzsimmons, a union organizer and longtime critic of Aramark Corp., the private company that has managed the Houston Independent School District's cafeterias since 1997. "The millions of dollars they're claiming to the federal government are breakfasts that were never eaten."

The routine, weeklong audit should clear up any questions about the breakfast program, said Beverly Boyd, a Texas Department of Agriculture spokeswoman.

The review begins Jan. 24 and is done every five years at school districts that participate in the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs.

HISD and Aramark officials repeatedly have denied wrongdoing as reimbursements from the federally subsidized meals program have grown by 50 percent to $69 million since 2000.

District officials did not respond to a request Monday for financial documents that would show how HISD has profited from its food services operation.

About 80 percent of Houston's 209,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The district is reimbursed $1.25 for every free breakfast and 95 cents for reduced-price breakfasts, Boyd said.

School officials attribute much of the increase in reimbursements to Aramark's Breakfast in the Classroom program, which serves students at their desks, whether they ask for it or not. Forty HISD schools participate in the program.

Last year, Aramark earned about $5 million from the HISD contract.

HISD and Aramark officials say there is no evidence to support the allegations leveled by Fitzsimmons, who represents 900 school district employees as local field director for the Service Employees International Union.

"The allegations are unfounded and not fact-based," Kate Moran, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia-based company, wrote in an e-mail. "We strive to minimize waste and to assist in creating an environment conducive to learning."

HISD officials said they are certain only 6 percent of the breakfasts served in classrooms go untouched.

Teachers are required to report the number of eaten breakfasts every day, said Reginald Moore, HISD's chief operations officer. That figure is used to determine how much the school district bills the government, he said. Untouched meals that get thrown away are not counted, he said.

"The reimbursement only comes from meals consumed," Moore said. "We have a lot of good mechanisms for monitoring in place."

HISD reviews the meal tallies supplied by teachers to make sure the correct figures are reported to the government, he said.

Should the review team find that the number of eaten meals was overcounted, HISD could be asked to repay the money to the government, Boyd said.

Fitzsimmons said he has routinely seen waste that exceeds the district's 6 percent claim.

"All you have to do is ask a food service manager how much is being thrown out, and she'll say, 'Most,' " he said. "I count the breakfasts that aren't touched. I'm in the classroom watching the kids eat, and I'm looking at the form that's sent back that says all 30 of them ate."

Fitzsimmons, whose union membership has dwindled since Aramark took over HISD's cafeterias, acknowledges that he never liked the idea of privatizing the district's food service operations.

"Yes, I'm a union organizer, but it's still going on today," he said of the alleged overcounting. "The truth is out there to see. Blame the messenger if you want to."

Aramark runs cafeterias for 420 school districts nationally. Moran said she doesn't know how many use the Breakfast in the Classroom program.



  Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle


Jan. 12, 2005, 10:19PM


Job creation announcement rings hollow to some ears


Gov. Rick Perry came to League City last week to announce that the Texas Enterprise Fund would give BP America up to $750,000 to create 150 jobs as it spins off its chemicals business.

But some of the new jobs may not be so new, giving critics of the fund ammo in the debate over whether the fund is being used wisely.

"I'd like to know why they're giving them money," said W.E. "Sonny" Sanders, international representative for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union in Texas City, which oversees five local BP contracts. "These are just relocated and renamed jobs."

That's not how BP sees it.

One-third of the new workers will come from BP's offices in Chicago, according to Dennis Seith, senior vice president of BP's North America operations. Fifty will be hired locally. The remaining 50 already work for BP and live in the area.

The agreement says that BP's yet unnamed spinoff will receive $5,000 for each new job created at its facilities, he said. The new company is expected to have assets of $9 billion.

It will be a new company, Seith said.

"There is a market for people in Texas, and you want people in Texas to get hired," he said. "We were pretty clear about that upfront."

If BP decided to put the new olefins and derivatives commercial group in Chicago, the site of its North American headquarters, it would have moved its Houston-based employees to Chicago, he said. And the rest would have been hired from the Chicago area.

The energy company, which already has a strong local presence, can use the money on anything it wants.

But Kathy Walt, Perry's press secretary, said the Texas Enterprise Fund won't count jobs that are transferred from one part of Texas to another.

And deputy press secretary Robert Black said that if the agreement doesn't already contain a stipulation that the new jobs can't be existing BP employees already working in Texas, it will when the final version is signed.

"Transferring from one town to another doesn't create jobs," Black said.

Seith said he believes BP will end up creating at least 150 jobs, and it will have to submit the details to the state before it gets any money from the fund.

"I don't want to do anything the state isn't comfortable with," he said. "They won't pay us if they believe they're not new jobs."

"The state is in total control of this," Seith said.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Seith, who made the decision to open the regional office in Houston. He spent much of his youth in Houston and went to Texas A&M University.

Shot in the arm

At his news conference in front of 200 League City business leaders, Perry touted BP's decision to move part of its chemical group into the bedroom community's new five-story waterfront office building as a financial shot in the arm. The jobs are well-paying, he said, with an average salary of $112,000.

Texas took advantage of what Site Selection magazine calls the state's "not-so-secret-weapon:" the $295 million Texas Enterprise Fund to fight for jobs. The Legislature gave Perry the money during the last session to spend on economic development, and he's looking for another round of funding this session.

State and local money

"BP is creating a new name with the stroke of a pen," Sanders said. "They haven't spent a dime in creating a new position."

Any company could do that by spinning off its assets and then getting a job-creation grant, he said.

"I understand BP going after the money," Sanders said. "What I don't get is the state of Texas giving them a dime and thinking that they're getting any new jobs out of this."

League City is also giving BP a grant equal to the amount the company would have to pay in taxes on business equipment over the next three years, plus an additional 50 percent per year in the fourth and fifth years. The grant is in place of a tax abatement, which would have taken too long to arrange.

The grant was not contingent on where the jobs were coming from, said Doug Frazior, economic development coordinator for League City.

"This sounds like it's a classic case of getting paid for doing what you're going to do anyway," said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a nonprofit economic development research organization in Washington, D.C.

Logical location

If you had to drop a technical center for a petrochemical industry somewhere, Houston would be at the top of the list, he said. And it doesn't hurt that Houston is the biggest petroleum cluster in the United States. A subsidy to an individual company in a vibrant cluster makes no sense, LeRoy said.

It would be smarter for the community to invest in the petrochemical industry by funding more university degrees or supporting research, LeRoy said.

That would increase the number of engineers and patents in the community, and taxpayers would benefit, he said. And if BP decides to leave tomorrow, the area still retains the investment and skills.

"That's much more effective than writing checks for jobs that already exist," LeRoy said.


 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle