FORT WORTH -- A grassroots effort is growing to promote civility among the divided members of the Fort Worth school board.
But some on the board believe that the group's real purpose is to target trustees who are often at odds with Superintendent Melody Johnson and other board members.
The group, called Put Our Students First, includes residents, civic leaders and parents who say they are frustrated with public infighting on the board, said attorney Ed Lasater, one of the organizers. He and other group supporters plan to attend tonight's school board meeting and others to address their concerns.
Lasater denied that the group is going after Trustees Juan Rangel, Ann Sutherland and Carlos Vasquez, the three most vocal opponents of Johnson. He said the group wants trustees to act in a professional manner, end personal attacks and put away personal agendas.
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For examples, he pointed to harsh e-mails sent by Trustee Judy Needham to Sutherland this winter and to a meeting this month in which Vasquez suggested that the superintendent should take a buyout.
"It's about the whole board," Lasater said. "It's not that the board needs to agree on everything, but let's not be personal and let's be civil."
Lasater insisted that the group does not have a policy or political agenda.
"Everyone is concerned because they care about the kids," Lasater said.
But Vasquez said he is concerned that the group's real motivation is to silence outspoken trustees.
"They're talking about me and how rude I was to the superintendent, but as a trustee, she's our employee and I can call her attention to things," Vasquez said. "That's our job. These people want us to run the public's business behind closed doors, which is not what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to talk about these things in public."
Sutherland expressed concerns similar to Vasquez's and said the group should focus on student achievement, not board politics. "The existence of such a group and attacks on three of us gives rise to the question as to how much cooperation there will be on the board," Sutherland said.
Rangel said that he doesn't know the group's intentions but that much of the mounting tension on the board stems from debating difficult financial cuts. "I don't think we lack decorum or civility. I think we have deep issues that go to the heart of the argument," Rangel said. "It's fine for them to criticize us or anybody. But we have bigger fish to fry other than whether or not we can be civil."
Needham said she is committed to being civil to her fellow trustees and thinks the board has made improvements in recent weeks. "Some on the board have agendas to get rid of [the superintendent] and some want to keep her," said Needham, who supports Johnson. "I think it's wonderful that this group is coming to see how the school board operates and that they care about children."
Parent Francisco Hernandez, an attorney who lives in Rangel's district, said he signed on with the group because of the district's lack of focus on students at school board meetings.
"You can't have everyone going along to the same beat, sure, but the staff is not getting support from the entire board from the superintendent down to principals," Hernandez said. "If there was any truth that we were out to target any particular trustee, we would lose all credibility immediately, and rightly so."
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700