A draft ethics policy continued to evolve Thursday as a Fort Worth school board special committee tinkered with the latest document, but there was no final agreement ahead of a meeting next week of the full board.
The proposed policy had started as a two-page document penned by staff. By Thursday, it was a one-page policy edited by the board’s attorney, Heather Castillo.
With a Tuesday deadline looming to present a policy to the full board, the four-person committee — Trustees Christene Moss, Ashley Paz, T.A. Sims and Ann Sutherland — have not reached a consensus on exactly what the policy should include. Moss, Sims and Sutherland supported the latest draft, while Paz said it isn’t strong enough.
“We are going to review this and work out what we need to work out,” said Moss, who chairs the special committee.
The question looming in recent months is how much money — as campaign contributions or other gifts — can be donated to school board members.
Until a new policy is adopted, the board is using a generic, one-paragraph state policy that had been in place since 2007 instead of a six-page policy that was crafted by a board committee and approved in April.
The April policy was rescinded in August, although some trustees say they were unclear what they were voting on at the time. No one, including school board President Tobi Jackson, has clearly stated the reasons why the policy was rescinded.
Thursday’s meeting drew a small but vocal crowd of six people who have been monitoring the issue as it unfolds. They are not pleased with the latest draft and said they are crafting recommendations they hope trustees will consider.
“What the committee has proposed is a joke,” said Veronica Villegas, a parent with students in the district.
The now-dead April policy
The April policy stated that 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. The policy also requires trustees to self-report conflicts of interest in a disclosure report.
Villegas said those rules reflect strong checks and balances. She and several other parents want clearly-defined definitions for terms such as “conflict of interest.” They also want clearly-outlined disclosures for campaign contributions by vendors or outside organizations.
“I don’t know what happened between May and August,” Villegas said, explaining that she favored the April policy. She criticized a move by the committee to lean on state law for ethics rules.
“Then why do we have a local policy,” she said, adding that there are many rules in local school policy that build on state law. “That argument holds zero water with me.”
Moss said that many districts don’t push for local policy that is stricter than state law.
“If you follow the state law, you stay out of trouble,” she said during the committee meeting.
The latest draft policy
The latest draft policy doesn’t spell out local rules for either campaign contributions or gifts. Instead, the committee is signaling it wants to use state law for that. The one-page draft, titled, “Ethics Conflict of Interest Disclosures BBFA (LOCAL),” doesn’t define “conflict of interest” and “duty of loyalty.”
The policy reflects efforts by the committee to outline conflict of interest that arises when the district does business with family members of school board members.
Under state law, trustees must disclose a conflict when their parents or children do business with the district, but not a brother or brother-in-law. The staff-written draft looks at adding siblings and grandparents to that rule. The rescinded April version went as far as including great-grandparents.
The staff-written draft also has a script requirement that states: “At regularly scheduled Board Meetings, the Board President shall remind Board Members of the legal conflict of interest requirements and shall request disclosure for any matters under consideration in that day’s agenda. Furthermore, the Board Member shall excuse himself or herself and abstain from all discussion and votes pertaining to the contract.”
Paz, who helped craft the April policy, said the draft is a tool that “tells us what state laws are applicable” and described it as the “bare minimum.”
This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.