Fort Worth

Ethics policy fallout: ‘What in the hell is going on?’ one Fort Worth trustee asks

FWISD’s tale of two ethics policies goes to committee

Four people questioned how the FWISD school board handled the ethics policy during the open comment portion of the Nov. 14 meeting. Later in the meeting, two more people scolded the board for rescinding the 4-month-old policy. (Video by Max Faulkn
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Four people questioned how the FWISD school board handled the ethics policy during the open comment portion of the Nov. 14 meeting. Later in the meeting, two more people scolded the board for rescinding the 4-month-old policy. (Video by Max Faulkn

For those keeping score of Fort Worth school board politics, there are now two versions of an ethics policy, two committees tasked with drafting a new set of guidelines and a new attorney representing trustees.

On Tuesday, the Fort Worth school district trustees moved to create a Special Policy Committee that is charged with creating a new ethics policy by Dec. 12.

The new committee is made of the same trustees and staff who are on the existing Board Policy Committee. That committee, which created the policy that was approved by the board in April — then rescinded in August — has a meeting scheduled for Thursday.

Trustee Ann Sutherland, who is on both committees, said she plans to attend the Special Policy Committee and not the Board Policy Committee.

The school board’s musical chairs left Trustee Ashley Paz asking: “What in the hell is going on?”

Paz chairs the Board Policy Committee and in a Star-Telegram article on Nov. 6, suggested the board was duped into rescinding the policy that was created in April.

The six-page policy approved in April had 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.

In August, the school board voted to rescind the policy as part of a consent agenda. Later, some trustees discovered they had unwittingly rescinded and started to push for it to be reinstated.

Just exactly why the board is taking a dueling committee approach is not clear.

No meeting has been set for the Special Policy Committee.

“If there is a meeting of the Special Committee, I’m told it would need to be posted as a meeting of the Special Committee,” Clint Bond, a spokesman for the school district, said in an email.

Paz said the Board Policy Committee meeting is where the ethics policy will be discussed.

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Board member Ann Sutherland recently stated at a panel discussion that the district is exploring outsourcing breakfast and lunch services. Rodger Mallison Star-Telegram archives

Sutherland said she expects a new policy will be drafted, but where that policy will come from is unclear.

“Despite the disorder and the evident lack of commitment to quality, I do believe we will be coming up with an ethics policy that reflects major parts of the proposal made by the policy committee — but after review of some of the items which have raised questions in my mind,” Sutherland said.

Board attorney gets $250 an hour

Another development that raised questions from the public was the presence of an attorney who was representing the board — separate and apart from attorneys who represent the school district. Sutherland said she recommended hiring attorney Heather Castillo so the board can have independent oversight from the school district. She said she suggested Castillo after talking to two trustees and several members of the community.

Castillo is a partner with the Mansfield-based law firm Lesor Crass, which has long experience representing public schools.

“By law, all employees except that auditor report to the superintendent,” Sutherland said. “There are certain situations where the interests of the superintendent and the board diverge. For example, the superintendent is responsible for the development of the agenda which is subsequently approved by the board president.”

Sutherland said the placement of the ethics policy on the consent agenda for two meetings is reason to have an independent attorney.

“Because the agenda is developed by staff, and board members have only a superficial capacity to review it, there are instances when there are items places on the agenda without sufficient oversight,” Sutherland said.

Castillo’s law firm bills the district based on an hourly contract — with school district funds. The district is expected to be billed $250 an hour for four hours of Castillo’s work Tuesday, school officials said.

“Her firm represented us, the board, during negotiations with former superintendent Walter Dansby,” Sutherland said. “My hope is that the attorney will represent us in all issues that involved board issues and managing the district.”

A spokeswoman with the Texas Association of School Boards said it’s not unusual for large districts to have a board attorney.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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

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