In a heated discussion Tuesday night, five trustees shot down a staff recommendation to award a contract to a leading Fort Worth construction firm because a fellow school board member is an executive of the company.
At issue was a contract for pre-construction services for Thos. S. Byrne Construction Services. Trustee Matthew Avila is a CEO of the company, which his father, retired Brig. Gen. John Avila, owns.
Trustees T.A. Sims, Tobi Jackson, Ann Sutherland, Judy Needham and Christene Moss said they were worried that awarding the contract would tarnish the school district.
“It has the appearance of nepotism,” Sims said.
Needham said, “This is the most distasteful thing I have voted on in 19 years.”
Avila and Trustee Cinto Ramos abstained.
Ramos said he abstained because a relative works for a construction company that competed for the contract. Voting in favor were board President Norman Robbins and Trustee Ashley Paz.
“I think it has been set up in a way that would protect the school district, keep [Avila] completely out of any kind of discussion,” Robbins said.
After the vote, Avila urged board members to improve communication to fend off similar situations.
“The issue I want to raise is about communication, and this group has some room for improvement when it comes to communication and I would encourage all of us to be talking sooner rather than later, raising questions and concerns about items sooner rather than later,” Avila said.
The contract was for a fraction of the $490 million bond program approved by voters in November 2012. The deal was to prepare for renovations at the historic Terrell Elementary School, formerly the site of the county’s first school for African-Americans.
The renovations will convert the campus into two choice schools, a Visual and Performing Arts school and a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy. Also to be renovated is Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary School.
On March 9, Avila sent an email to board members indicating his company’s intent to compete for a construction package that included the academies and renovations at Van Zandt-Guinn.
All told, that package is worth an estimated $55 million to the winning contractor. Construction was expected to start next year.
Had he known trustees would oppose it, he would have told his management team to refrain from competing for the contract, he said Tuesday.
“It could have saved a whole lot of folks a lot of effort and heartache if you had come to me and said, ‘This is going to be a problem,’” Avila told trustees. “We could have withdrawn from this process, and we wouldn’t be here.”
Before the vote, some community members had objected to the arrangement.
Bert Williams, a member of the district’s citizens bond committee, said approving the contract, although not necessarily illegal, could have violated the district’s nepotism policy, which prohibits relatives of trustees from working for the school district.
“We’re having a big problem with this,” Williams told the board. “A lot of people have called me about this.”
John Proctor, a local contractor, said an African-American company should complete the renovations. He leads an African-American contractors group that was formed in November, he said.
“It’s very important when you make a decision that you have some empathy,” Proctor said Tuesday. Terrell was “a black school. It’s in a black district.”
In his March email, Avila had indicated that he would abstain from any vote involving the company and would not be part of construction if the company were hired.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705