FWISD’s ethics fiasco raises question of doing favors for friends

Tobi Jackson, who represents District 2, has served as president of the school board for two years.
Tobi Jackson, who represents District 2, has served as president of the school board for two years. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Fort Worth’s school board is set to share the latest version of its ethics policy this Tuesday.

The special committee working on it shared a first draft on Thursday.

The board’s ethics policy needs to be overhauled, and we’re concerned that the process is being rushed.

But the issue is bigger than a single policy. It’s the culture of a school board that’s supposed to be focused on setting the vision for nearly 100,000 students.

The success of our students is our future.

And the handling of its ethics policy illustrates there is much room for the board to improve.

The new policy will be No. 3 for the board of trustees just this year.

The original policy was one paragraph. The second was more robust at six pages and was approved in April. It was removed by the board without explanation on a 7-1 vote in August.

The third will replace the policy board members say they unknowingly voted to remove.

Unfortunately, the board is rooted in an era many public agencies worked through decades ago with respect to ethics and relationships with those who stand to gain from the Fort Worth school district.

From parents with kids in Fort Worth schools to homeowners who pay tens of thousands in property taxes, all of us have a stake in the quality of our K-12 education system.

New businesses won’t relocate if the schools are bad. Others will leave for the suburbs and other areas across the state.

Instead of focusing first on student achievement, this board has been distracted by what should be a minimum standard — a credible, robust ethics policy.

Despite repeated requests, the board and President Tobi Jackson have still not explained why the policy was removed in August.

Jackson has the authority to place items on the consent agenda, which is a long list of items board members usually adopt without discussion. It is where the ethics policy vote landed in August with a vague description and a request that only one vote be taken to remove it. Two votes are usually required.

The vote to remove the ethics policy came during the same meeting that the board voted to support a historic $750 million bond to fund new schools and improvements.

Don’t forget: That $750 million is money we voted to allocate from our property taxes to the Fort Worth schools in November (unless property values drop, our property taxes will remain unchanged).

And that $750 million? It’s got to be collected.

Delinquent collections are overseen by a law firm that profits from weak ethics laws which allow companies to curry influence with bodies that award multi-million dollar contracts for work. Some of that work is paid for through bond money.

This law firm — Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson — has been caught with its hands in the wrong cookie jar several times both in Texas and beyond.

The firm has a long-term deal with the district to collect its unpaid property taxes.

Linebarger also has ties to Jackson, who in addition to being the school board president serves as executive director of the nonprofit Fort Worth SPARC. The president of the board at SPARC, which aims to strengthen after-school programming, is a partner at Linebarger.

This relationship raises questions. Now back to that ethics policy.

If the Star-Telegram’s Diane Smith had not reported on the ethics policy being removed, we’re not sure there would be any progress toward its reinstatement.

If the board operates without a robust ethics policy, we would create an unhealthy environment with respect to relationships between board members and those who stand to gain from doing business with the district.

In fact, Trustee Christene Moss, who serves as chair of the committee that’s tasked with developing the third ethics policy, recently told Smith: “I am not sure what will quiet the controversy. In my experience, there is always a hidden agenda. I am just in support of students.”

Beyond the tax collection issue, creating a firewall to prevent conflicts from influencing the board’s financial decisions is crucial. This board will oversee contracts for $750 million in work approved by the recent bond election.

Those of you who have called Fort Worth home for some time may remember the disastrous bond program in 1999. A billing scandal cost the district $16 million and sent a contractor and a school district administrator to prison. In 2007, a $26 million bond was managed responsibly.

We are deeply concerned the board cannot see why the need for a robust ethics policy is so critical.

The board’s focus should be on setting a vision that enables school district employees to focus on the success of the 86,000 students it serves.

A new ethics policy can’t change culture. But it can tip the scales back to placing students at the center of the conversation.