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Houston’s School Construction Bond Program Facing Multiple Problems

The program is facing a $211 million budget shortfall, violations on job orders and communities feeling betrayed.

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The Houston Independent School District is managing the largest school construction program in state history.

It's worth nearly $2 billion.

But three years after voters approved it in 2012, it's running into major problems.

They include: a $211 million budget shortfall; violations on certain job orders and several school communities feeling betrayed.

Public outcry over the bond program colored much of last week's HISD school board meeting.

"If y'all give us, y'all word and y'all promise us something, I expect to finish 2019 in a new building," said Zack Stewart, a student at Jack Yates High School in Third Ward.

He's worried that his school won't get a new campus as promised. HISD said an email the original plan to spend $59 million for new construction is still going forward.

Other communities are also feeling betrayed

Mario Martinez said that it was a mistake to support the bond for Davis High in North Houston.

"Davis isn't getting rebuilt, not getting renovated – repairs. The $47 million is still there, but because, supposedly, inflation eroded that amount and now brought it down to a lot less, well, someone made a big mistake," Martinez said.

HISD has said that the problem is inflation: It's increased more than they expected.

Now there's a shortfall of $211 million.

Deputy Superintendent Ken Huewitt said that they’re working on a solution. For example, the district can take out other debt – technically called maintenance tax notes – to cover the gap.

But there are even more problems.

HISD auditors recently found that some construction job orders didn't follow state law.

The board is supposed to OK contracts over $500,000. But auditors found several instances where single projects were broken into multiple orders to keep the value below the legal cap.

Trustee Juliet Stipeche has called for an internal audit and also wants to hire outside auditors to take a look.

"If there are any major problems that come out, folks have to be held accountable and in all honesty, heads have to roll," Stipeche said.

For his part, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has promised to put the program back on track before he leaves in March.

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