In a rare move earlier this week, the administration of the North East Independent School District asked trustees to suspend the normal procurement process required for large purchases by using an emergency exception normally reserved for natural disasters in order to purchase an undisclosed safety product or service.
The administration did not disclose what the expenditure, totaling more than $2.5 million, would be, and board members were not told before they voted on bypassing the procurement process — which they approved — during a special meeting Monday.
The majority of the funding for the expenditure comes from a Texas Education Agency grant intended to help districts upgrade facilities to comply with proposed rule changes that require more stringent safety measures, which include two-way emergency radios, automatic locks on all exterior doors and bulletproof glass in all ground floor windows, among other enhancements. Another $200,000 or so will come from the district’s budget.
School officials justified the extreme measure in board documents and in comments by a school safety and security director, saying there is “the possibility of an unforeseen violent incident occurring at a district campus or facility.”
“Therefore, it is necessary for NEISD to ensure against the possible failure of any safety measure or system geared toward reducing the potential loss of life from such a violent incident.”
Superintendent Sean Maika told board members that the move was necessary to comply with proposed rule changes from the TEA that increase the safety and security requirements for school districts . He said the undisclosed product had already been identified for purchase and was on backorder, requiring the district to forego the process of reviewing competing bids and “get in line,” in order to meet an August deadline. He added that Paul Duran, the district’s senior director of safety and security, identified the unnamed item as “the best product.”
“This is the way we need to go,” Maika said.
“Delays posed by the procurement process … will prevent … or substantially impair the student safety or other essential school activities because vendors who can provide those goods and services and support necessary to complete the work would not likely be available the longer the district takes to commence the work,” Duran, a former secret service agent, told board members.
The move is a break from the standard procurement process used by NEISD and other districts for any purchase $50,000 or more.
The procurement process is generally how school districts identify which product is the best, by using a number of criteria laid out in law, including the vendor’s price, quality, reputation, the vendor’s past relationship with the district and more. Multiple vendors are considered to ensure the district is getting the best deal. Exceptions are rare, and are generally used during emergencies or natural disasters that require prompt action to continue operations.
Tracy Ginsburg, the executive director of the Texas Association of School Business Officials (TASBO), said that procurement policies are in place to ensure tax dollars are spent in an efficient way.
“The procurement requirement requires you to kind of draw up your specifications, identify what your needs are and ensure that you’re spending taxpayer dollars in the best manner possible,” she said.
Some board members had concerns about the move but all those present ultimately voted to suspend the procurement process.
“I’m not feeling very comfortable about this frankly,” Trustee Diane Sciba Villarreal said. “I’m not used to saying yes to things where it’s a nebulous idea.”
“I don’t think it looks good to our public if the board members don’t even know what we’re signing off on,” she added.
Northside Independent School District, the largest school district in San Antonio, received $4.2 million from the same grant, according to TEA records.
In an emailed statement, the purchasing department for NISD said that the standard procurement process would be followed when expending the grant.
“Request for Proposals (RFP) and purchasing cooperatives will be utilized to ensure purchases will be made with awarded vendors as well,” the email said. “Any bid opportunities will be advertised in the HartBeat Newspaper and online through our e-procurement portal, Bonfire.”
Barry Perez, an NISD spokesman, said the funds are slated to be used for external door alarms for all campuses.
In the last several months, the Texas School Safety Center found issues at four campuses out of 20 audited, with the issues resolved on the same day they were found, according to presentations made at the March and April board meetings. The safety audits focus on the safety and security of exterior doors, and were implemented in the wake of the Uvalde shooting last year, where an open door played a key role in allowing the intruder on campus.
According to the law, an emergency exception to procurement exists for contracts for repair or replacement if school equipment, a facility, a part of a school facility or personal property is destroyed, severely damaged, or as a result of an unforeseen catastrophe undergoes major operational or structural failure.
In those circumstances, according to a presentation compiled by a law firm, the board must determine that the delay posed by competitive procurement would substantially prevent or substantially impair the conduct of classes or other school activities.
Aubrey Chancellor, a spokeswoman for NEISD, said in a statement that the district was viewing the safety concerns as an emergency matter.
“We are considering overall safety an emergency situation, where changes/improvements need to be able to be made in a timely fashion, especially if there are items we may need to purchase that are on backorder or when dealing with companies that specialize in specific items, as they will be booked by other school districts, as well,” she said in the email.
TASBO has lobbied in recent years that exceptions to the procurement laws be expanded to include emergency orders, like those declared during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the requirements are in place for a reason, Ginsburg said.
“Procurement requirements force a district to kind of stop and define their needs, and go out to bid,” she said. “Otherwise, I would worry that districts would be making purchasing decisions based upon emotion rather than fact.”
The measure passed by NEISD authorized the superintendent or designee to make emergency procurements “reasonably necessary to respond to the 2022-2025 School Safety Standards Formula Grant to address the specific needs related to this grant.”
Chancellor said that given the sensitive nature of the topic, the purchase would not be disclosed publicly. She also said that board members would be made aware of the specific purchase during a closed session at the May school board meeting.
Maika told board members the reason for the action being so opaque was to ensure safety.
“As we’ve discussed many times before, we don’t talk safety out here in the public because it poses a safety risk in and of itself,” he said. “We certainly never want to tell a potential perpetrator where a weakness may stem in one of our facilities.”
The leader apologized for not holding a closed session to inform the board members on the details of the planned purchase.
“That’s my error, I just missed it quite frankly … because we just found out really about this last week,” he said. “So I just want to own all that up on the front side.”
The grant funds were allocated to districts in January, according to TEA records.
Maika told board members that they would be kept up to date on the process and that other than the suspension of the procurement process, normal procedures would be adhered to for the administration of the grant.
Trustee Sandy Hughey said she trusted the administration to make the decision.
“I think the issue of our students’ and teachers’ safety has got to be the priority, as we’re seeing more and more instances happening,” she said. “I can’t imagine not putting that safety as an absolute priority. If this would prevent anything, something horrific from happening. How could we not support?”
This article has been updated to clarify the findings of the Texas School Safety Center’s audits of NEISD.