Bud Kennedy

The Fort Worth schools need a tough ethics policy. But can trustees pass one?

School trustees are expected to vote on the proposed budget. School trustees Ann Sutherland, Tobi Jackson and Ashley Paz sit on the nine-member board.
School trustees are expected to vote on the proposed budget. School trustees Ann Sutherland, Tobi Jackson and Ashley Paz sit on the nine-member board. rmallison@star-telegram.com

Only one local board or council oversees $800 million of our money.

Only one local board or council is responsible for 10,000 public employees.

Only one local board or council runs an agency that has been the target of two theft and fraud investigations in modern history, revealing more than $10 million lost and resulting in two federal convictions, one state conviction and a suicide.

If there is one elected panel that should never even consider softening ethics rules, it should be the Fort Worth schools’ board of trustees.

Yet trustees will go into their Tuesday meeting with their reputation in tatters and their leaders divided.

In April, trustees passed a strong ethics policy patterned after one that ended contractor gifts and campaign donation hanky-panky in Houston.

Yet in August, they quietly ditched that policy, approving an agenda item so arcane that most trustees say they had no idea it repealed the ethics code.

Now protected only by the flimsy fig leaf of state contracting law, trustees will decide Tuesday whether to try and write a whole new ethics policy.

President Tobi Jackson’s proposal would create a new ethics policy committee, assigning four trustees but adding six employees to write more rules.

South side trustee Ashley Paz is the chair of the current policy committee. She helped recommend the tougher rules and just wants them restored.

“My goal is to bring that back up,” she said last week after a North Richland Hills-based political consultant’s blog revealed the ethics flip-flop.

Vice President Ann Sutherland, who represents southwest Fort Worth, said she also questions the need for a new committee and why staffers would be involved.

On the other hand, she also said she is “a little bit resentful” of the idea that big campaign gifts come from vendors.

(The money reports are on the district website. You can look them up. For example, Jackson’s primary donors have been downtown business leaders. Paz’s have been Democratic activists, and Sutherland’s have been a mixed bag of Republicans and teachers’ groups.)

Sutherland added that she has “very serious problems” with staff members having a vote or any direct say-so over policy.

We elect trustees.

We don’t elect the staff.

We expect our trustees to set policy.

Both Paz and Sutherland said they don’t understand how the August agenda item erasing the ethics policy wound up on the mostly ceremonial “consent agenda,” reserved for items that can be passed without attention or discussion.

Jackson has declined to explain, but said last week “100 percent of us are committed to a strong ethics policy and we will address this.”

She said Fort Worth will “hold our trustees to the strongest ethical standard. We are going to set the example.”

Starting this week.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.

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