The Ysleta Independent School District awarded Trustee Shane Haggerty’s company a roughly $40,000 contract this week to organize a virtual robotics and engineering competition.

Though some school board members expressed concern about the optics of giving him the contract, they ultimately did so by a 5-1 vote on Wednesday, with Trustee Kathryn Lucero voting against it. Haggerty abstained.

Shane Haggerty

“I don’t know that just because it’s legal it makes it ethically right,” Lucero said prior to the vote.

Though a handful of trustees inquired about the amount Haggerty would directly receive through the contract, he did not provide an estimate of his individual compensation or detail how much of the contract covers the cost of materials. District staff said that is not something they are privy to for any vendor with whom they enter into a contract.

Haggerty has not responded to El Paso Matters’ requests for comment left on his cell phone. He told KTSM-TV that he had filed all the required disclosures and asked the board to approve the contract, even though it wasn’t required by district policy.

Per the contract, YISD will pay Five Star Innovation $55 per student who registers for the competition, which is open to fourth to sixth grade students in the gifted and talented program. YISD spokesperson Daniel Martinez said the district is inviting 686 students to attend. If all attend the multi-day competition, that would be a payment of approximately $37,700. The contract runs from Jan. 7 through May 25, 2021, according to a schedule Martinez provided.

Haggerty is the co-founder and chief innovation officer of Five Star Innovation, which organizes robotics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) competitions and workshops for students, as well as teacher professional development opportunities. It partners with Fort Bliss for competitions, according to its website.

Haggerty served as a trustee from 2010 to 2017. In May, the YISD Board of Trustees unanimously appointed Haggerty to fill the vacancy left by Trustee Richard Couder’s resignation.

The company has received previous contracts from YISD in the two years since he left the board, Superintendent Xavier De La Torre told trustees. Five Star Innovation’s website notes it has also worked with the Canutillo Independent School District.

Xavier De La Torre

“To Shane’s credit, he knew that the sum of this contract did not require a board action and he insisted it come before the board and he come forward in full transparency and be candid about what he’s prepared to offer our students,” De La Torre said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

Per district policy, a superintendent can approve sole-source contracts under $100,000. Anything above that requires board approval.

It is unknown how many contracts De La Torre has approved for Five Star Innovation, or any other companies affiliated with Haggerty. Haggerty is a licensed insurance agent for Barrett Insurance Services, which does business with YISD, according to a conflict of interest disclosure he filed with the district.

A conflict disclosure statement he submitted at the time of his May appointment notes he had a previous contract to give robotics workshops to gifted and talented students at various campuses. That contract ended March 31, 2020, the form states, though no company name is provided.

YISD initially approached another company, Adventures in Learning, about hosting a virtual robotics event, but their cost was too high, Louisa Aguirre-Baeza, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said at Wednesday’s meeting. Adventures in Learning would have charged $200 to $300 per student, she said.

Five Star Innovation’s contract “is on the lower end of what we typically invest to make these events happen for students,” De La Torre told trustees.

It’s unclear how YISD settled on Five Star Innovation, and whether other companies were contacted. De La Torre was not available for an interview, according to Martinez, the district spokesperson.

The Texas Local Government Code requires trustees to submit a conflict of interest affidavit if they have a “substantial interest” in a company that does business with their district. It also prohibits school board members with a “substantial interest” from voting on contracts for their company. There are no provisions barring a trustee’s company from being a district vendor and receiving district contracts.

Kathryn Lucero

Though allowable under state law, Lucero questioned whether it’s good policy for trustees to receive district money.

“$40,000 equates to the public as a salary and I have a deep concern with that,” Lucero said at the meeting. Per Texas law, school board members are not paid.

Lucero told El Paso Matters she wants to work with incoming state Rep. Claudia Ordaz-Perez, D-El Paso, this upcoming legislative session to amend the Local Government Code so school board members cannot be vendors for their districts during their tenure. Such a change would make that code more in line with the Texas Education Code, she said, as that law bars school board members from accepting employment with the district until at least a year after their membership of the board ends.

“I believe that it’s important for us as elected officials to have the highest ethical standard when it comes to our public, and I believe this (the Local Government Code) provides an opportunity to circumvent policies that we already have on the books,” Lucero said.

She said she would also like to change YISD board policy so any contracts involving a current or previous trustee must come before the full board for approval regardless of the amount. She expressed disappointment that Haggerty and De La Torre even brought the contract to the board for approval, and said she was surprised she was the only trustee to vote against it.

“I just don’t want the perception to be that a trustee has an advantage over others, especially now during times of COVID where people need the work, our community needs the work, and there are vendors out there to potentially do this service as they might be doing for other districts,” Lucero said.

Cruz Ochoa

Board President Cruz Ochoa told El Paso Matters he doesn’t believe there is an appearance of impropriety associated with awarding Hagerty’s company the contract. Everything was done “above board” in consultation with YISD’s legal department, he said.

“I see it from my perspective as a service that the school needs and it went through the same protocols and same rules and regulations that every contractor had,” Ochoa said.

“The COVID crisis has created a big handicap for the schools as far as online training, particularly for GT (gifted and talented) students,” Ochoa said. The online robotics competition “will alleviate and provide the necessary tools to keep the students engaged at a higher level,” he said.

Ochoa said he couldn’t speculate on whether the board would have awarded Five Star Innovation a contract had there not been a pandemic.

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.