Fort Worth school trustee censured

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Fort Worth school district Trustee Ann Sutherland said that she disagrees with all the accusations that led to a rare public vote to censure her.

In statements posted on her website and education blog late Tuesday, Sutherland objected to the reprimand, labeling most of the accusations as “false” and noting that she first received a copy of the resolution at 8 p.m. Tuesday, three hours after the Fort Worth school board meeting began.

“There were no facts, just assertions,” Sutherland wrote. “This makes it very hard to rebut, but I disagreed with all of them — including the fact that I threatened principals. As carefully as any board member I have studied each board agenda, answered questions and comments from members of the community and investigated issues brought to my attention.”

In a unanimous vote, trustees voted 6-0 to approve a nine-point resolution to censure Sutherland for violating the duties of her office, accusing her of a number of violations of the district’s policies on board member behavior and its code of ethics.

Ashley Paz, one of the board’s new members, abstained from voting and Sutherland did not cast a vote.

“This censure was passed tonight as a last possible measure to urge Dr. Ann Sutherland to follow board policy,” Board President Judy Needham said after the vote. “In the past three years, she has harmed the district and demoralized staff by her many deeds and statements. ...”

A censure vote carries no sanction and is “fairly rare,” Barbara Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Boards, wrote in an email to the Star-Telegram.

‘This district needs reform’

The accusations against Sutherland include that she micromanaged and harassed campus administrators, “openly calling staff liars, inept” and questioning their abilities “in a disrespectful manner,” sometimes using “profanity and vulgar language.”

The four-page document also says Sutherland accused the district’s chief financial officer of violating the law and for disclosing confidential information and violating of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Sutherland responded to each accusation on her blog, saying that she did not micromanage or harass employees and never disclosed confidential information. She said she called attention to the chief financial officer “violating the requirements for budget presentations in 2012.”

In an interview after the board’s vote, Sutherland said she has no intention of changing her approach as a trustee.

“I think I can be a little more graceful in my comments, but I’m not going to stop the work. I was elected on a reform platform,” Sutherland said. “This district needs reform.”

Vocal critic

Sutherland, first elected to the board in 2010, is an outspoken member who was one of the most vocal critics of former Superintendent Melody Johnson.

Sutherland, who has a doctorate, often comments on education and school district matters on her website and blog and in news outlets. She represents the board’s District 6, which includes South Hills and Southwest high schools. Her term ends in 2015.

She has been criticized by her peers for her frequent filing of public-information requests. One of the accusations in the censure resolution says that Sutherland violated district policy “when requesting information from the district causing great expense and time to the district.”

In her statement, Sutherland wrote that she has submitted a public information request about every two weeks during the three years she has been on the board. Staffers have criticized the cost of her requests, including one that cost $4,000 to produce.

“Most of my work has centered on class size, services to school sites and the control of our finances,” she wrote. “The information I requested has revealed a number of significant problems which have been addressed as a result of my inquiry and subsequent research.”

‘The consummate professional’

Sutherland has said the impetus behind the vote may be related to the school district’s investigation of former Arlington Heights High School Assistant Principal Joseph Palazzolo, who is working out the details of a settlement in a whistle-blower lawsuit with the district.

The resolution also accuse Sutherland of breaching her fiduciary duties by “waiting until the eve of trial to disclose opinion testimony that would be harmful to the district, thus needlessly harming the district.”

In her statement, Sutherland wrote: “FALSE. This was a misunderstanding which they (trustees) knew when making the motion; apparently accuracy was not important.”

Needham said after the censure was issued that the board hopes Sutherland “will join us in being a team player and policy maker in following board policy and working on behalf of our children.”

But earlier during Tuesday’s meeting, some speakers commented in behalf of Sutherland. One said Sutherland asks good questions. Another asked the board to reconsider or table the vote.

Beth Llewellyn McLaughlin, a Wedgwood resident and retired Southwest High teacher, said Sutherland has been an effective voice for her constituents and educators in southwest Fort Worth. She said Sutherland is accessible and knowledgeable and does her homework.

“In my interactions she has been the consummate professional,” McLaughlin said. “She does not reveal confidential board business. She has no hidden agenda.”

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326 Twitter: @jessamybrown

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