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HISD tech chief under investigation for vendor issues, alleged racial remarks

October 9, 2018

Houston ISD’s chief technology officer has been “temporarily relieved” of his duties since Aug. 3, continuing to draw a $219,680 salary while officials investigate allegations that he ignored concerns about flaws in a now-abandoned student information system, made inappropriate racial remarks to colleagues and intimidated an employee during an internal investigation, according to internal memoranda and a complaint obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

A letter sent to CTO Lenny Schad by interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan on Aug. 3 ordered him to work from home until an investigation is completed.

Allegations against Schad first were reported to internal investigators on July 3, and focus primarily on his work with a vendor called Infinite Campus, a Minnesota-based education software company. Trustees voted in 2016 to give that group $3.7 million for phase one of a project that would create a new student information system to serve as “the core of the educational ecosystem,” according to board minutes. The system originally was to launch in the 2017-2018 school year, but it never reached that point. Trustees voted 8-0, with one abstention, to terminate the contract on Aug. 9.

Records show the district already had paid the firm at least $1.75 million between Sept. 2016 and Feb. 2018.

Christopher Tritico, a Houston attorney representing Schad, said he and his client fully participated in Houston ISD’s investigation and answered all investigators’ questions and concerns.

“It’s our expectation and belief once they complete their investigation, Mr. Schad will be completely exonerated from all these allegations,” Tritico said Tuesday.

Despite allegations about his work on the canceled student information system, HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said trustees were told that Schad was ordered to work from home in connection with his personal conduct, not his work with Infinite Campus.

Houston ISD Spokeswoman Lorena Cozzari declined comment Tuesday because the investigation is a personnel matter.

In an Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint filed on July 3, Student Support Services Officer Susan Kaler alleged that Shad made inappropriate jokes about black employees in his office, calling each of them “Kevin” even though that was not their name, adding “y’all look the same to me.” In a meeting with colleagues of Indian decent, he allegedly asked if they were “feather or dot Indians.” He also allegedly referred to Kaler using a pejorative term for women.

After investigators began looking into the allegations, Lathan wrote that she received a report that Schad had approached another employee about the investigation, which made that person feel intimidated.

“I specifically directed you not to discuss the investigation with anyone,” Lathan wrote. “Based on the seriousness of these allegations, you will be temporarily relieved of your duties while the investigation is completed and/or until a decision is reached as to how the allegations will be resolved.”

Kaler’s complaint also alleged that Schad advocated for Infinite Campus after employees from her department and the technology department warned him for months that the firm was unable to provide a reporting platform that could send mandatory data to the Texas Education Agency.

Failure to report accurate information to the state agency can impact funding, TEA Spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said Tuesday. Incorrect attendance data can impact school funding, incorrect student demographic data can impact a school and district’s accountability ratings, and incorrect data about special programs can endanger federal and state funding for such things as special education and career-and-technical education.

Kaler alleged that Schad told Lathan’s cabinet on June 4 that the launch of Infinite Campus’ system was “too far along” to cancel. Kaler said that when she asked him about the comment the next day, Schad told her and HISD Chief of Staff Silvia Saenz Trinh that his earlier statement was inaccurate. He allegedly said it was too late to cancel the new student system’s launch because there were “too many new people on cabinet and he didn’t want them to make that decision.” Kaler wrote that Trinh expressed frustration about the inaccurate information Schad allegedly gave to other cabinet members.

Kaler said she and others in her department decided to contact other districts that had contracted with Infinite Campus. She said officials with Leander ISD had been in contact with Schad in an effort to “work out kinks” with the program.

Leander ISD Spokesman Corey Ryan said the district had worked with Houston ISD on its student-information-system project provided through Infinite Campus. Ultimately, trustees in that district also voted unanimously to break their contract with the educational technology company on Aug. 23, according to board meeting minutes.

“Our board broke the contract and did so because of implementation problems,” Ryan said Wednesday. “We needed to move on. We needed a solution and couldn’t implement theirs.”

Leander ISD ended up paying about $58,000 to Infinite Campus before breaking the contract, Ryan said.

Infinite Campus did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

HISD Trustee Sergio Lira said he could not comment on specific allegations about Schad or Infinite Campus, but said it appeared the new system was not prepared to handle the task of managing roughly 214,000 students’ data. Lira was not on the board when the original contract was signed.

“I think it was the right thing to pull that contract. They were not equipped to start on Day One with 214,000 students’ data, and it was just too risky,” Lira said. “Even if we take a loss, we have to minimize the loss.”

Schad came to Houston ISD in 2012 after serving as chief technology officer in Katy ISD for 9 years. Before that, he led the technology departments for the 1991 Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations, the 1992 Republican National Convention and created technology departments for joint ventures and global organizations, according to Houston Chronicle archives.

In Houston ISD, he oversaw the rollout of the district’s PowerUp laptop program in 2014, which provides laptops to every student in 44 of Houston ISD’s high schools. The program continues to provide laptops to nearly all the district’s high school students, which are returned at the end of the year and refurbished before going out to other students the following fall.

He recently was named the 2018 Chief Information Officer of the Year by the Houston CIO Leadership Association.

Reporter Jacob Carpenter contributed to this story.

shelby.webb@chron.com

twitter.com/shelbywebb

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