School board members say they will review an ethics and conflict-of-interest policy that was rescinded four months after it was unanimously approved by trustees.
Board President Tobi Jackson said she hopes to place the item on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting. The matter could also be discussed in a meeting of the Board Policy Committee, which crafted the six-page policy that has become a point of contention among trustees.
Jackson, who had declined to comment earlier this week when the Star-Telegram published a story about the policy being rescinded, said the topic is important and deserves further discussion.
“On Tuesday, we will begin the process of building a strong ethics policy that allows our trustees to exemplify excellence in our actions and extends to the end product — which is excellence in education for all students,” Jackson said.
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She declined to comment further until the agenda item is set, including the reasoning behind the policy being rescinded.
The board voted to approve the policy — it was listed on the consent agenda — on April 25, after numerous revisions were made. The policy replaced a generic, one-paragraph policy that had been in place since 2007. The new policy outlined strict rules regarding campaign contributions from entities that are “financially interested in the outcome of a contract,” guidelines on what constitutes a conflict of interest for board members and their family and limitations on gifts for board members.
But four months later, on Aug. 15, at a special meeting to approve the calling of a $750 million bond package — which was approved by voters on Tuesday — the board quietly voted to rescind the policy.
That vote, too, was on a consent agenda and some board members said they didn’t realize they voted to rescind the policy and want it reinstated.
The Aug. 15 item was listed as: “Approve First Reading and Waive Second Reading - Revision to Board Policy BBFA (LOCAL) ‘Ethics-Conflict of Interest Disclosure.’”
Superintendent Kent Scribner didn’t make a recommendation on the Aug. 15 agenda item, saying it was a board decision.
At least one trustee said she wanted the April policy reviewed so trustees could better understand it.
“My purpose of supporting it for return to committee was to return it for review, not to kill it,” said Ann Sutherland, a trustee who serves on the policy committee. She said questions arose informally about the impact of the new policy and there was disagreement about its language.
“The best thing to do was to send it back to committee and have these issues discussed and resolved,” Sutherland said.
Trustee Ashley Paz, who chairs the committee, said she was not told that it was being sent back to committee and trustees didn’t tell her they had issues with the policy.
“No one has communicated anything to the policy committee about revising the policy,” Paz said. “Still, to this day, I don’t know why the policy was repealed.”
In a Star-Telegram story published Tuesday, Paz said it should have been clear what trustees were voting on at the Aug. 15 meeting.
“The perfect time to slip in something into the agenda when you don’t want anyone to know about it is when everyone is focused on something else,” Paz said.
Paz said that as the policy committee began crafting the new policy last winter using the Houston school district’s policy as a template, she kept trustees informed of revisions and updates. Emails obtained by the Star-Telegram through an open records request document aspects of the process.
“Tomorrow the board policy meeting will review the following policies,” Paz wrote in a March 20 email to board members. “We will review the policies and listen to best practices that have been identified from other school districts. Please contact me directly if you have any questions.”
Several policies were attached to the email, including one called “BBFA (Local).”
Despite the confusion that surrounds the matter, Paz said she is confident that once reinstated, the policy will still focus on transparency and accountability.
‘What was the problem?’
For example, if a contractor invites a trustee to a luxury suite to watch a major sporting event and then two months later a vote on hiring that contractor comes before the board, the trustee should disclose the gift and disqualify himself from the vote. That’s the type of conflict-of-interest the policy aimed to prevent.
“I think it is the expectation that we fix this,” Paz said of plans to revisit the issue.
Sutherland said she wants to review the full process described in the policy. In June, she asked for additional information about the policy via an email to school district staff.
“My question is what was the problem? I don’t understand what the problem was?” said Sutherland, referencing the policy that had been in place since 2007. “Why did this happen? What was the change that this policy sought to address?”
Sutherland also questioned how the new policy would be better than the existing system of checks and balances that includes campaign finance reports. Still, she said the issue could have been more transparent with discussion at the Aug. 15 meeting.
“I think it was handled poorly by the board, including me,” Sutherland said.
This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.