HOUSTON -- A prominent Spring Branch music teacher is on administrative leave while the district investigates allegations that he mistreated students while disciplining them.
This comes just after the teacher was disciplined following a financial review, and at the same time as a Spring Branch Independent School District police investigation into whether there are any criminal financial violations.
Bingiee Shiu was Teacher of the Year at Memorial High school last year. The orchestra director donated that $900 award to his students. Many consider Shiu a gifted teacher. But unhappy parents had first complained to the principal or district about classroom behavior and finance questions in April.
They contacted 11 News in September, when they felt they were not getting timely responses. Several supportive parents are not bothered by Shiu’s unorthodox methods, but other parents, the Spring Branch ISD and the state of Texas are bothered.
Memorial High School's orchestra is award winning and highly regarded. The group has been state champions, repeatedly rated 1st division UIL, with plenty of all state and star pupils. They have performed from Chicago's Orchestra Hall to New York's Carnegie Hall.
The New York visit wasn't just fun and games. Last year, auditioning for Sinfonia, the school's prestigious top orchestra meant students had to commit by signature to trip. In fact the director, Shui sent an e-mail to parents and students estimating the cost to be about "$2,000 per person."
He acknowledged "that's a very expensive trip" but "most worthwhile" and students must “commit to the NYC trip if you are chosen for Sinfonia.” No commitment meant no seat in this public school orchestra.
Pat was among the parents who would only speak to us anonymously, saying it seemed wrong.
“You are essentially buying your place to be in the top orchestra,” Pat said.
Was it “pay for play”? 11 News put that question to Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe. She was concerned.
“These are supposed to be free public schools and if you gotta pay $1,800 or $2,000 to essentially be part of this orchestra then is it really still a free public school?” she asked.
There was another issue. Turns out when Shiu went to Carnegie, so did his wife and two sons. Who paid for it? Parents and the booster club did. The tab was over $5,000. Pat said that was “without the knowledge of the majority of [the] booster club and without the knowledge of the parents in general,” referring to the parents who paid for the trip.
In response to rising questions, Shiu sent out this email:
"Did I pay for my family to go to NYC? The answer is no. This is the instruction I have been following ever since I came to Memorial when the Ork [Orchestra] parents said they wanted to cover the costs of my family participating in the trips."
He said the payments were offered because his family was a "good role model."
That was 16 years ago and 16 years worth of trips. The annual travel photos were often posted on the orchestra’s website. It included small in state trips alternating with big ones to New York, Chicago, Disney's Epcot Center, and even a cruise ship to Cozumel.
That angers Pat who is a working mom.
“It's upsetting to me because we were required to pay so many fees and pay such a large amount of money to put our own children on these trips, when in fact, a percentage was going to fund his own family vacation,” she said.
So far, the only person who appears to have known clearly the directors' family was being underwritten was the club treasurer who did not return calls.
In fact, SBISD commissioned an independent auditor to review the orchestra finances. The auditor found money that should've gone to the District Activity Account, which is regulated by SBISD, was being sent to the booster club account, overseen by volunteer parents.
It reportedly happened for years. It’s called co-mingling of funds and is a violation of standard accounting procedures.
From there, the club's treasurer signed blank checks and turned them over to Shiu, who then paid for things such as the New York City trip for a total of $176,000.
“Pre-signing checks. That's not a good idea.” Ratcliffe said.
Something else concerned her: allegations of mistreating students.
“This sounds like it’s really pushing the edge on multiple fronts,” she said.
“[Students] would have to stand in front of [the] entire class, male and females, and in front of the teacher and put their backs to everyone and bend over and spell out the alphabet in the air with their butts in front of everyone,” Pat complained. “It's borderline sexual harassment.”
Parents say the discipline was for routine infractions, such as forgetting an instrument or talking in class. The punishments were not routine and also included having students hold their instruments over their head, until they were allowed to put them down, or having to crawl around the orchestra room, the parents said.
“Well it's humiliating for the child and that shouldn't be the point of school,” Ratcliffe said.
Shiu declined to speak with 11 News. He does have a lot of folks speaking for him, students and parents. Several teens wore T-shirts to school Tuesday to show their support.
Shiu's attorney issued a statement saying Mr. Shui "will follow district accounting guidelines ... in the future." He also agreed to reimburse the $5,000 for his wife’s and son's expenses for the 2010 NYC trip. As for the two current investigations: he indicates he is confident he will be exonerated.
SBISD also declined an on-camera interview. It issued a statement saying "several financial guidelines and policies had not been followed." Regarding the “pay for play” and the family trips the district said it “does not approve of these practices” and that "corrective" or "appropriate action has been taken with the director."
It’s unclear if Mr. Shiu will be asked to repay the previous 15 years of trips. In the meantime, there's debate over how much his wife helped on these orchestra trips and if she had asked, if she might have been considered a compensated chaperone.