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Fort Worth school board president says relationship with Linebarger firm ‘not an issue’

Hours before the Fort Worth school board voted to approve the first reading of a new ethics policy Tuesday night, board President Tobi Jackson scoffed at suggestions that the rescinding of a policy in August was connected to the law firm the district uses for delinquent tax collection.

“This is not an issue,” Jackson told the Star-Telegram. “What is an issue is our children and moving the needle for them.”

The school board voted in May 2016 to extend a contract with the firm of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson through 2021. Jackson is executive director of the nonprofit Fort Worth SPARC, or Strengthening After-school Programs through Advocacy, Resources and Collaboration. SPARC’s board president at the time, Barbara Williams, was a partner with Linebarger.

Jackson voted in favor of the contract, saying it was not a conflict of interest and has a letter from an attorney backing her.

Tobi Jackson
Trustee Tobi Jackson has served as president of the school board for two years. Rodger Mallison

“I studied every vote that I’ve made and I’ve attended every board meeting for eight years,” Jackson said. “I stand with my voting record and I stand with my integrity intact.”

Jackson said Williams resigned from the SPARC board on Dec. 1.

“It has nothing to do with this policy and there is not conflict,” Jackson said.

Williams told the Star-Telegram in an email that it was time to step down.

“I serve on the boards of two other non-profits plus I have taken on additional duties with my work. ... It is time for the new president to lead with renewed vision and energy.”

Her email also said that she “did not ask the FWISD Board to rescind, or review, or pull, or anything else, the ethics policy.”

Tuesday’s meeting marked the third time in recent months that an ethics policy has gone before the board. A six-page policy was approved in April, then rescinded in August, but some board members say they were unaware what they were voting on.

During a public comment period Tuesday night, the issue drew several critics of the latest policy who offered the board their own set of recommendations. Six people spoke against the draft policy.

After the Star-Telegram reported last month about the board’s decision to rescind the policy, a special board policy committee was created to draft yet another policy.

Trustee Christene Moss, who chaired that committee, promised transparency and was critical of how the local policy was handled in the past.

“The policy brought forth in April should not have been on the consent agenda,” she said recently. “The policy we brought in August should not have been on the consent agenda.”

Jackson said Tuesday that she put the item on the August consent agenda at the request of trustees. She said the April policy was never implemented and that board members were not trained on how to follow it.

Newly approved policy

After Tuesday’s 6-3 vote, a $2,000 limit on campaign contributions from vendors is back in the ethics policy plus possible public censure for trustees who fail to comply with the rules.

Trustees T.A. Sims, Ann Sutherland and Norm Robbins voted against the measure.

Trustees are also obligated to report loans or debts more than $100. Disclosures are due on the dates of the annual campaign finance reports made to the district. Failure to comply can be addressed in a public school board meeting and could include censure.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” Trustee Anael Luebanos said after the vote. “Our job is to focus on the students.”

The vote is an approval of a first reading of the policy. A second reading will be voted on in a future meeting.

The amendment was the second one that trustees voted on Tuesday. Minutes before Luebanos made his motion, Robbins moved to add the wording from the April policy but was voted down.

Robbins called the ethics policy controversy “a fiasco” and asked the board to act in the best interest of the community and students.

The ethics policy has been mired in confusion and controversy that has touched on how and with whom the district does business.

Tuesday’s draft was not part of the meeting’s consent agenda. Instead, it was listed as the last action item and included a one-page document that was edited by Heather Castillo, an attorney hired by board members.

‘A huge distraction’

In April, school trustees approved a six-page policy that stated trustees must disclose campaign contributions or loans and recuse themselves from voting on contracts, agreements or “any other District transaction with an entity financially interested in the outcome of a Board proceeding, including nonprofit organizations, if the entity and its related officers, key employees, and/or other authorized representatives or agents have provided campaign contributions or loans to the Board member during the preceding 12 month period in excess of $2,000.”

The April policy also placed rules on gifts greater than $50 to trustees or their family members.

But on Aug. 15, the 4-month-old policy was rescinded after it was included in the consent agenda. Robbins and Trustee Ashley Paz have stated they didn’t intend to vote to rescind the policy because they were focused on items related to a $750 million bond package. Robbins and Paz said they were unaware the ethics policy had been placed on the consent agenda for that meeting.

District records show that four trustees were present at an Aug. 9 planning meeting in which the entire agenda was reviewed. Those trustees were Jackson, Jacinto Ramos, Luebanos and Sims.

Agenda planning meetings, held in a conference room at the district offices, typically include district staff, including the superintendent.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

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