School board member T.A. Sims is questioning a proposal to award a $55 million construction contract to the company run by fellow trustee Matthew Avila.
Sims said he was caught off guard by the Fort Worth district staff’s recommendation to hire Thos. S. Byrne Construction Services, which is owned by Avila’s father, John. Matthew Avila is the company’s chief executive officer.
“It should have been brought to the board [before Tuesday],” Sims said. “The board should have discussed it earlier. That’s the way I feel it should have been done.”
Avila said he will abstain from board action to hire Byrne “in abundance of caution and to further reduce the appearance of any conflict or impropriety.”
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He also said he will not be part of any decision-making related to construction to take place at the district’s two academies and Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary School, all in Sims’ district.
The district’s building program has been plagued by construction and financial problems over the years.
From 1999 through 2005, bond money was used for projects that hadn’t been presented to voters, shoddy work was done on schools, and a crooked Fort Worth employee and a contractor were sent to prison for stealing millions. Nearly $16 million was thought to have been lost to waste, fraud and abuse, the Star-Telegram reported in a series of stories based on court documents, audits and an FBI investigation.
But this time, school officials said they are making sure laws are followed.
“While we are cognizant of things that may have had happened in the past, we have also ensured that we are not going to allow that to occur,” Interim Superintendent Pat Linares said. “We will not allow any type of favoritism to occur.”
Some trustees, including Ashley Paz, are comfortable with the decision to hire Avila’s firm. “He’s been very forthright and transparent,” she said.
But at least one taxpayer watchdog group wonders why the district is even considering awarding a contract to someone with board ties.
“With all the trouble that has come before, why go there?” said Andrew Wheat, research director at Texans for Public Justice, an Austin nonprofit that tracks legislative issues and campaign expenditures by state and local politicians.
“It would seem to me that it would probably be best for the school board if they chose another contractor,” Wheat said.
Agenda item pulled
Last September, the board approved a method for hiring construction companies that puts a priority on qualifications and experience, rather than awarding the contract to a firm that submits the lowest bid, Linares said.
Byrne handily beat seven other firms based on an evaluation by a committee of district officials and employees of AECOM Inc., the Los Angeles-based company hired by the district to oversee the bond program.
Trustees were expected to vote to enter into a contract for pre-construction services at its May 12 meeting. But Sims yanked the item from the agenda.
“I wish we had talked about it earlier,” Sims said. “I agree that Matthew’s honest and I agree that his company is a good company. But it being in my district, I feel I have the responsibility to ask some of the questions.”
Sims acknowledged that he faced a similar predicament when he was on the board in 2002. He was criticized for endorsing a local contractor who had served time in federal prison. Some questioned whether Leonard Briscoe Sr., a former Fort Worth city councilman and Texas legislator, got the job because of ties to Sims.
Tuesday’s meeting will be a good opportunity for questions, Trustee Ann Sutherland said.
She said she is “concerned about the possibility of impartiality in a situation where a board member is responsible for the well-being of the school district and its staff.”
Internal controls collapsed during the construction scandal from 1999 to 2005. Some contractors were overpaid or paid for work that would have been nearly impossible for them to have done. Contractors also submitted double bills for materials. District employees did work that contractors were paid to do. Large projects were broken into smaller jobs, avoiding the need for approval or review from higher officials.
In 2003, a contractor did private jobs at the home of a top-level school employee who was overseeing the bond program and a board member, according to court records.
It was also common practice for individual board members to select which contractors were allowed to do business in their single-member districts.
The district has put a stop to that, Linares said.
“We cannot — absolutely will not — allow anybody to choose their own contractors,” Linares said.
“We have a procurement process that we will follow and have followed to the letter of the law ... and we would not allow anybody, staff member or board member, to dictate which companies get a contract,” she said.
Isaac Manning, who is chairman of a citizens’ oversight committee formed to keep tabs on bond expenditures, said he supports the selection of Byrne.
The construction project is expected to involve a construction team of Byrne and Turner Construction Co., which has more than 5,200 employees in North America, Manning pointed out.
‘This is not a Byrne-only deal,” Manning said. “This is a team of Turner and Byrne together, which is incredibly strong.”
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705