Fort Worth

Board’s handling of ethics policy called a ‘mockery’ by concerned citizens

The Fort Worth school district is looking at outsourcing breakfast and lunch food services.
The Fort Worth school district is looking at outsourcing breakfast and lunch food services. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

A controversial ethics policy was approved by the Fort Worth school board Monday night, but not before a handful of people criticized trustees for a lack of transparency.

The board voted 6-2 to approve the policy, which replaces a policy that had been approved in April, then rescinded in August for reasons that remain unclear. Trustees Ashley Paz and Norman Robbins voted against the new policy.

Board members also approved making final offers for vacant land owned by a Jewish congregation and a bank in southwest Fort Worth for the construction of a new pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade campus in the Tanglewood Elementary attendance zone.

The meeting drew several residents who wanted the board to make the policy stricter. Some held signs that read: “#ethicsmatter #accountability #transparency.”

Seven people criticized trustees during the public comment portion of the meeting. After the vote, several people expressed their dismay.

“The board, FWISD board, made a mockery of parents, teachers and taxpayers when they failed to reinstate the ethics policy,” said Zeb Pent, spokesman for the group Stand for Fort Worth. “They have shown that rules don’t apply to elected officials, only private citizens.”

The new policy includes a $2,000 limit on campaign contributions from vendors, plus possible public censure for trustees who fail to comply with the rules. It also requires that board members disclose any loans or debts in excess of $100 to district vendors.

‘Such a big issue’

But critics wanted trustees to vote against the second reading of the policy so it could be further adjusted with input from the community. They questioned campaign contributions to trustees by businesses that do business with the district and singled out the law firm the district uses for delinquent tax collection.

“We wanted stronger wording,” said Jennifer Frank, who said she wanted a policy that was stricter on how trustees deal with district business vendors.

Breinn Runnels Richter told the board to include the residents at the table and questioned if trustees realized “how bad the optics look” on the policy issue.

“Are you really looking out for the best interest of the kids?” she asked the board.

The draft presented on Monday includes a sample affidavit for disclosing any loans or debts in excess of $100.

Paz said before the meeting that the disclosure statement should provide additional information.

“I think this has been such a big issue that it deserves our due diligence to ensure that we get it right this time around,” Paz said. “We have a good working draft for this policy, and with a bit more clarification, I believe that it will be a robust policy that provides the necessary protections for our taxpayers.”

A motion by Paz to remand the policy to staff for further work failed with a 6-2 vote.

‘Hope to reach an agreement’

The school district is making purchase offers on four potential sites for a new elementary school. Final offers will be sent to Congregation Ahavath Sholom to buy vacant land west of its current school. The district is also sending final letters to First Command Bank to purchase 5.4 acres that are contiguous with the congregation’s land.

The board voted 7-0 to approve the offers after trustees met in closed session to discuss them.

“We are going to make final offers and see how it’s received,” Superintendent Kent Scribner said.

Steven S. Brown, an attorney with Congregation Ahavath Sholom, declined to comment on the offer last week. But he said the congregation had planned to use that property for an assisted living community.

This issue was also discussed in an email to members of the congregation. The email states that no one from the congregation has seen any proposed final offer.

The district also wants to purchase 1.66 acres where a Frost Bank was previously located and the land of the nearby Jewish Federation Building, which is about a third of an acre.

“We will continue to negotiate and hope to reach an agreement,” school board member Judy Needham said.

Needham told the Star-Telegram the district needs a minimum of 7 acres for the new school and that the three tracts total 11.6 acres. The property is bounded by Briarhaven Road, Kingsridge Road, Firstcomm Plaza and Overton Plaza in southwest Fort Worth. She said they hope to break ground in the summer.

The estimated $28 million Tanglewood project was part of a record $750 million bond program approved by voters in November. The bond program allocated $16 million for the purchase of land for schools.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram.

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

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