The Austin Chronicle

Dukes Up Between Dawnna and AISD Board?

By Richard Whittaker, December 16, 2016, News

Dawnna Dukes may be leaving public office, but her supporters aren't taking the exit so easily. In a letter published in the Dec. 2 issue of East Austin community paper The Austin Villager, Lottie Spaulding accused AISD Trustee Paul Saldaña of a longstanding vendetta against the outgoing Democrat­ic state representative, who says she'll resign Jan. 10 due to health issues. (Dukes also has an investigation into allegations of abuse of office pending with the State Auditor's Office.) "Over the past year many have asked who is after Dawnna Dukes," the letter wonders. Saldaña, it concludes – then goes on to accuse the school trustee of using AISD's Historically Underutilized Business program against Dukes.

Unlike the city of Austin, AISD has not run a full HUB program. The district employs an external contractor to serve as a consultant, with the goal of increasing participation of minority- and women-owned businesses (MBE/WBE) in district external contracts. That HUB contractor is currently Dukes' consulting firm, DM Dukes & Associates. In the letter, Spaulding accuses Saldaña of being a vindictive former business partner-turned-rival, who used his position – he was a consultant to the district before becoming a trustee in 2014 – to undermine Dukes' relationship with AISD. She went on to accuse him of "torturous interference with a binding contract" and potential conflict of interest, and asked the board to meet with Dukes to discuss her contract.

Questioned about the letter, Saldaña seemed baffled to be painted by someone he's never met as Machiavellian. Most of the letter "is simply incorrect and not factual," he said. The only assertion he conceded was that he worked as a subcontractor to Dukes in 2004 when she bid for the district's HUB program. He said Dukes had originally approached him, though, and that her bid at that time was ultimately unsuccessful.

Dukes' role in AISD's HUB program has been long and complicated. In 2012, the previous contractor, Austin-based nonprofit CMPI, declined to rebid after criticism that they had failed to deliver any real improvements in MBE/WBE participation. The district looked for a replacement and got Dukes. A 2015 report by NERA Economic Consulting found the program still ineffectual, partly because there were no real deliverables written into the consultancy contract (see "AISD Discriminates Against Minor­ity- and Women-Owned Businesses," Dec. 18, 2015). Trust­ees, including but not solely Saldaña, questioned then whether the program needed to be brought in-house when the contract expires in 2017. In February, the board finally instructed staff to develop an in-house program to replace the current system. In Aug­ust, trustees approved funding for a HUB office, hiring city HUB Assistant Director Debra Dibble Boone as its program director.

However, unknown to the board, in June AISD's Director of Construction Management Robert Hengst approved a two-year extension to Dukes' contract. Saldaña said that board members did not find out about the extension until October, and then grilled the administration at the Nov. 16 meeting about why they were not informed, and whether the now-redundant deal could be canceled. Board President Kendall Pace said the board has now received word from the administration that, after that hearing, a letter has been sent to Dukes, informing her that the contract will end in January, as originally scheduled.

Saldaña has been publicly critical of the Dukes deal – though he stressed that the decision to establish an in-house program was made jointly by the board. More­over, during the November election, Repub­lic­an challenger Gabriel Nila said Dukes' failure to move the dial on MBE/WBE participation was "a shining example of why Dukes does not care about her community," and presented his own "Nila plan" for the district.

It's another dustup for Dukes, who also at present moment faces criticism from her fellow Democrats for the timing of her House exit. Chito Vela, who will run to replace her, attacked Dukes in late November for not leaving office early – rather than on day one of the upcoming legislative session. Since Gov. Greg Abbott could set the special election for up to 45 days after that date, any potential run-off would delay her successor from taking office until after the March 10 deadline to file new bills, making them virtually irrelevant in their first term.

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