Censured board member won’t give up the fight

Posted Monday, Jul. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Trustee Ann Sutherland has two more years on the Fort Worth school board before she comes up for re-election, and she knows it’s not going to be a smooth ride.

Sutherland was censured by her peers at last week’s board meeting, a rare move that is more of a public reprimand than official sanction. Trustees accused Sutherland of violating several school district policies and the board’s code of ethics.

All the accusations against her are false, Sutherland insists, and she describes the whole thing as “ridiculous.” She noted that she didn’t get a copy of the allegations until three hours into the June 25 meeting, and nothing was backed up with details.

Now, Sutherland says she feels isolated and marginalized on the board. The censure, coupled with the ouster of like-minded colleagues Juan Rangel and Carlos Vasquez in the recent election, leaves Sutherland on somewhat of a political island.

“It remains to be seen how the board relationships will play out. I have a lot of experience working with people that I disagree with,” Sutherland said. “Working with people that you don’t trust will be harder than working with people you do trust. And I certainly can’t trust the people who snuck this up at 8:05 p.m.”

School board President Judy Needham said Friday that trustees talked to Sutherland a couple of times about their concerns. The censure vote was “a last possible measure” to get Sutherland to follow policy.

“She was warned about a censure and didn't seem to care. Hopefully she will treat staff with more respect,” Needham said in an email to the Star-Telegram.

Sutherland said a couple months ago, Trustees Tobi Jackson and Christene Moss asked to meet with her about her behavior, and talked about the amount of time she was spending in administrators’ offices to get information and the number of public information requests she has filed.

Sutherland says she told them she has filed one request about every two weeks during her three-year tenure but does not frequently visit staffers.

Jackson, whose District 2 is in east Fort Worth, said she volunteered to speak with Sutherland and warn her that the board was considering a censure vote.

“I didn’t want this to happen because I didn’t think it would be good for her, nor would it help board relations and our image in the community. None of us wanted to do it. None of us enjoyed it, but we’ve done everything else,” Jackson said. “Nobody’s mad at Dr. Sutherland. We just want to be the most efficient board we can be. In doing so we have to work together. No one can be the Lone Ranger.”

‘We want to move forward’

The accusations against Sutherland include that she micromanaged and harassed campus administrators, disclosed confidential information, takes too much staff time and expense to handle her public information requests, attempts to discuss non-agenda items in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act and doesn’t respect decisions made by the majority of the board.

Needham declined Friday to provide more specifics about the nine allegations.

“We believe our statement was clear and concise, and now we want to move forward as a team of nine in the best interest of the children of Fort Worth ISD,” Needham’s email said.

Among the board policies Sutherland is accused of violating are rules that trustees “should not have individual agendas separate and apart from the shared vision” and that trustees “respect the need to function as a team in government and overseeing the management of the district.”

But for some that sounds a lot like keep your mouth shut.

Peggy Venable, state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity: Texas, said a censure vote, since it carries no sanctions, is simply an attempt to silence critics and/or set them up for defeat in an election.

“We voters are better served with school board members acting independent of the body and challenging the board and/or the superintendent when they believe it is in the taxpayers’ best interest,” Venable said in a phone interview. “We do not elect school board members to be rubber stamps for the ISD administration or to vote as a gang. We need and want independence and transparency.”

Recently elected Trustee Ashley Paz, who abstained from the censure vote, said she plans to form her own opinions on issues and not become part of a voting bloc.

“I’m going to make my own decisions and I really like all of the trustees and I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Sutherland and also for Judy Needham,” Paz said. “It would not be doing justice to anyone to side with people just for the sake of siding with people.”

Fighting for better schools

A former math teacher, Sutherland has a doctorate from the University of California’s Berkeley graduate school of education in public policy and analysis, and worked in the California Legislature for 13 years, including four years as a budget analyst.

Sutherland was elected in 2010, garnering 68 percent of the vote against incumbent Chris Hatch. She represents District 6, which includes Southwest and South Hills high schools.

At Fort Worth school board meetings in recent weeks, she has asked pointed questions about district budget and finances, student academic performance, classroom overcrowding and central administration staffing levels and pay. She writes an online blog about Fort Worth schools and regularly tweets about national education topics.

Sutherland said she will try to be more polite to her colleagues, and she plans to seek a second term in 2015 and expects to be re-elected.

“I chose to fight as hard as I could for better schools. I’m not surprised that people who don’t want to fight and just follow the superintendent got mad,” she said. “I am disappointed, but I am going to continue to do what I was elected to do.”

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

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