Education

Fort Worth school district’s tale of two ethics policies goes to committee – again

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

A specially created committee is now tasked with drafting a new ethics and conflict-of-interest policy for Fort Worth school trustees by Dec. 12, after a unanimous vote Tuesday that followed a somewhat contentious discussion that delved into the Texas Opens Meetings Act and Robert’s Rules of Order.

The Fort Worth school district’s on-and-off-again ethics policy was officially sent to a newly created board policy committee made up of the existing committee members. That move came after attempts by Trustee Ashley Paz to expunge an Aug. 15 vote that rescinded the previous 4-month-old ethics and conflict-of-interest policy.

“There were unintended consequences determined with the original policy,” said board President Tobi Jackson, who placed the item on Tuesday’s agenda after the recent controversy. She said one issue is that the policy, which was modeled after a Houston school district policy, needed to reflect the needs of Fort Worth schools instead of Houston schools. Another is that trustees need to be trained on how to make reports so they comply with the policy.

Fort Worth’s ethics policy became the center of controversy after some school board members discovered recently that they had unwittingly helped rescind it on Aug. 15, the day the board also voted to call a $750 million bond election.

The board originally voted to approve the policy 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 families and limitations on gifts for board members.

Jackson said she placed the ethics policy on the Aug. 15 agenda in response to questions from some school board members. Tuesday’s agenda included an item that read: “Approve the creation of a special board committee to review and update board policy BBFA (LOCAL).”

Using Robert’s Rule of Order, Paz attempted to rescind and expunge the Aug. 15 vote. Paz’s motion concerned the minutes of the Aug. 15 meeting and included the consent agenda from that meeting.

But an attorney for the school district said it was not an allowable move because it didn’t comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act. Trustees and the attorney recessed into executive session to discuss the matter for a few minutes. Later, they returned and resumed the meeting.

“I do not think you have an agenda item that allows for that vote,” said Heather Castillo, a school district attorney, who added that the public needs ample notice.

After an appeal by Paz, the board ended up approving the Aug. 15 minutes 8-0. Trustee Ann Sutherland was not present for the vote.

An attempt by Paz to add community members to the newly created policy committee also failed. Discussion on the latter attempt broke down briefly when Paz and Castillo disagreed about whether she could make such a motion.

“I’m sorry, that is completely asinine,” said Paz shortly before it was determined she could make the motion after all.

Paz said after the meeting she was trying to make the committee actually be special by adding community voices.

Jackson said the new committee is made up of the same members because they already have background on the issue. In the meantime, trustees are also bound by existing state ethics and conflict-of-interest rules, Jackson said.

The board actions came after trustees took some scolding from several residents for changing the policy in the first place. Four people, including former Fort Worth lawmaker Lon Burnam, questioned how the school board handled the ethic policy during the open comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. Later in the meeting, two more people scolded the board.

Heather Leaf, a concerned parent, said the policy change should never have been listed under the consent agenda.

“You have compromised your reputation,” Leaf told trustees, adding that they should reinstate the stricter policy.

“Act with integrity,” Leaf said.

Kris Savage, a Fort Worth resident, also asked that the stricter policy be reinstated and questioned the optics of eliminating an ethics policy as the district embarks on a bond program.

“I think this is really an awful time to be without an ethics policy,” Savage said.

Superintendent Kent Scribner told the Star-Telegram before Tuesday’s meeting that he believes trustees are committed to establishing a strong ethics policy.

“I have every expectation that the board will implement a meaningful policy moving forward,” Scribner said.

It is unclear how the special committee’s activities would be different from the current Board Policy Committee, which includes four trustees — Paz, Ann Sutherland, Christene Moss and T.A. Sims — and several staff members.

The special committee appears to include more staff members because two school district attorneys are named as part of the new committee. Paz, who serves as the committee chair, said attorneys have always been included in the process. She said the committee works with the staff, which offers advice on issues before the committee.

The policy issue was listed as an action item on the agenda. Possible actions included approving the creation of a special committee to review the policy, declining the special committee and updating the board policy, or remanding the issue for further study.

Paz said this special committee appears to have an option to use outside counsel for additional advice.

“I will probably not being doing that,” Paz told the Star-Telegram before the meeting. “Our in-house counsel is capable of doing the job and they have all of the institutional knowledge.”

Paz said there is no reason to bring an outside attorney and pay extra money.

“Our FWISD attorneys are more than capable of doing the job,” Paz said. “I prefer to use our own attorneys.”

Before the Tuesday meeting, the ethics policy was already included on the agenda for an upcoming Board Policy Committee meeting. That meeting is set for Thursday evening and includes a review of the policy review process and discussion of the ethics policy.

“We will listen to issues with the April 25 policy,” Paz said, adding that some trustees want a side-by-side comparison of the two policies.

“The previous policy was not comprehensive at all,” Paz said, referring to the one-paragraph policy that existed before April 25 and that was reinstated in August.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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

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