Bidding process raises debate on BISD board

By a 4-3 vote, Brownsville Independent School District trustees awarded the contract for board legal services to an Austin law firm that specializes in school law and that scored second in the board’s competitive bidding process for the work.

The decision came Tuesday night at the board’s regular monthly meeting after the firm that placed first and was awarded the bid declined to perform special education work and pulled out of contract negotiations.

As a result, the board awarded the legal services contract, excluding special education matters, to the second-ranked O’Hanlon, Demerath & Castillo law firm for $240,000 per year, and special education legal work to Baltazar Salazar, the board’s current attorney, for $60,000 per year for a total district legal bill of $300,000 per year.

At the end of presentations May 18 by firms and lawyers that submitted requests for qualifications for the BISD legal contract, Walsh, Gallegos, Trevino, Russell & Kyle ranked first and O’Hanlon Demerath ranked second. The board awarded the bid to Walsh Gallegos and authorized negotiations for a contract. Both firms are among the largest school law firms in Texas. Salazar ranked near the bottom among the four law firms and two individual lawyers that submitted RFQs.

It emerged at Tuesday’s meeting that special education legal services had been a sticking point.

Trustee Drue Brown said she had raised concerns from the beginning that the board’s competitive bidding process was “flawed, biased and tainted.” She said she regretted the board had not followed a 15-page set of guidelines from the Texas Association of School Boards, which say that “a board may procure the services of an attorney or law firm by any means the board deems appropriate to ensure the district is getting the best value” and that the board can use a formal or informal process to do so.

Trustee Jessica Gonzalez said Walsh Gallegos did not decline to provide legal services but “came to the board in good faith, twice in one day. … That’s how negotiations work, you add stuff and you take stuff away,” she said.

Trustee Prisci Roca Tipton said Walsh Gallegos withdrew its request for proposal.

Trustee Daniella Lopez Valdez said she regards the board’s RFQ process as “very fair” and said “it’s essential that we continue to follow the RFQ process that we agreed to as a board … to remain transparent to our community and ultimately to make the best decisions for our district.” She said she felt the decision to separate out the special education work “was decided amongst only a few.”

After an initial vote failed because of wording, Brown again made the motion to award the contract to O’Hanlon Demerath and special education to Salazar.

She, Gonzalez, and Trustees Minerva Pena and Denise Garza voted in favor, while Tipton, board President Eddie Garcia, and Lopez Valdez voted against.

In Texas, school boards have the power to hire and fire superintendents, and board attorneys.

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Walsh Gallegos gets BISD legal bid; Firm, district to negotiate contract