Tarrant DA declines to sue Birdville school district

Posted Friday, Mar. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The Tarrant County District Attorney's office has determined that the Birdville school district did not violate state open meetings laws when deciding what would be included in the May 11 bond election.

A Citizens group -- Keep Richland Open -- upset that their neighborhood grade school would close as part of the $183.2 million bond package, filed a complaint last week alleging that the school board violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by making decisions about items that would be part of the bond during workshops and not at regularly scheduled board meetings.

Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Ann Diamond told the group in a letter that her office is declining their invitation to sue the district and effectively stop the bond election.

"The Open Meetings Act does not criminalize every alleged error in meeting posting, minute detail, or procedure," Diamond wrote. "Your allegations that the Open Meetings were defective in posting language and/or minute detail do not come within any of the provisions providing criminal penalties ..."

Gerrit K. Spieker, a spokesman for the group, wrote in an e-mail that he had not read the district attorney's letter and had no comment.

In his complaint filed March 13 the group said the school board trustees were not listening to their concerns over closing Richland Elementary, one of two elementary campuses in Richland Hills. Keep Richland Open members also claimed that Birdville officials did not meet with the Richland Hills City Council.

The bond package calls for consolidating four elementary schools. Richland Elementary would close and merge with the larger Birdville campus in Haltom City, and W.T. Francisco students would attend Smith Elementary, also in Haltom City. Birdville and Smith would be rebuilt as part of the bond package. School district officials say they need to close Richland because the school is old and because its student population is dwindling.

Keep Richland Open opposed the plan, saying students would be in overcrowded classrooms and would have to be bused out of their neighborhood. They also questioned why a new school couldn't be built on the site of the old building.

Their complaint also alleged that when trustees voted to call the bond election Feb. 28, they did not discuss which projects to include before the vote. During the Jan. 15 and Feb. 11 meetings, the board chose to accept outright some citizen's bond committee recommendations, the complaint stated.

They wanted the district attorney's office, along with the Texas Attorney General, to investigate how the bond election was set and to declare that the election order from Feb. 28 was improperly executed.

But James B. Morgan, an attorney who represents the school board, told Spieker in a March 6 letter that the citizen's bond committee held numerous meetings to discuss the bond and that the board also held workshops to discuss what would be included.

However, no decisions were made until the Feb. 28 meeting, when trustees approved calling the bond election, he wrote.

Mark Thomas, a school district spokesman, also wrote in an e-mail to the Star-Telegram Friday that the allegations that the school board had not met with city officials were "completely untrue." There were several meetings between the school board, city officials and council members, he said.

Thomas also wrote that the two older elementary schools would be replaced with "high energy efficient" buildings that are more cost-effective to maintain.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696

Twitter: @fwstliz

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