After sparking confusion and criticism by adopting, then abandoning, a strong new ethics policy within the space of a few months, Fort Worth’s school board finally put in place another new set of conflict-of-interest standards.
But not everyone is satisfied with the final policy issued in December, and questions still remain about how, when, and why the board dropped its original reforms.
In April of last year, FWISD’s board of education approved a comprehensive ethics and conflict-of-interest policy for its members, replacing the one-paragraph policy in place since 2007. That six-page policy update set stringent rules and limits regarding campaign contributions and gifts from vendors, along with guidelines on conflicts of interest for trustees and their family members.
Trustees adopted the policy on April 25 as part of the board’s consent agenda, a list of items passed without discussion because they are considered noncontroversial.
Less than four months later, the board voted to repeal the new policy – again as an item on its consent agenda. But some trustees questioned why board president Tobi Jackson scheduled the August repeal vote with no discussion – or at all. They said they were blindsided and wouldn’t have knowingly voted to rescind the strong standards they’d just adopted.
Trustee Ashely Paz, who chairs the board’s policy committee, said she wasn’t told about the vote or any problems with new ethics policy, and she had no idea why it was rescinded.
Jackson responded that the April policy had “unintended consequences” – one of which was that it limited trustees’ ability to raise needed campaign cash from vendors, Jackson reportedly said.
Trustees and residents questioned the timing of the repeal vote as well: during the August 15 special meeting called to put a $750-million bond package on the November ballot.
“The perfect time to slip in something into the agenda when you don’t want anyone to know about it is when everyone is focused on something else,” Paz said.
The unprecedented bond proposition – it topped 2013’s by over a quarter-billion dollars – passed, raising even more concerns among residents that board members would be spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars with vendors who might also be donors without adequate checks and balances.
“I think this is really an awful time to be without an ethics policy,” Fort Worth resident Kris Savage said.
Public backlash prompted Jackson to put ethics reform back on the board’s agenda. At its November 14 meeting, the board created a special policy committee and tasked it with drafting another set of guidelines to be reviewed in December. Paz proposed including community members on the new policy committee but was voted down.
Committee members Paz, Christene Moss, T.A. Sims, and Ann Sutherland hashed out a two-page compromise policy that the board finally approved at a contentious special meeting held December 18.
The new policy, issued December 22, extends disclosure requirements to include trustees’ second-degree relatives, limits board members’ campaign contributions from current or prospective vendors to $2,000 a year, and requires trustees to disclose any loans or debt over $100 owed to any vendors or vendors’ lobbyists.
The board adopted the policy by a 6-2 vote, with Paz and Norman Robbins voting “no.” They wanted to add back items from the stricter April version, incuding definitions of “duty of loyalty,” “vendor,” and “lobbying activity;” consequences for board members who fail to disclose conflicts; and repercussions for vendors.
Their proposals to strengthen the policy, which the rest of the board rejected, mirrored what many residents said they wanted. “I don’t know what happened between May and August,” district parent Veronica Villegas said.
As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s editorial board noted:
“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.”
When school bureaucrats engage in cronyism and public corruption, they ultimately rob valuable resources from classrooms, students, and teachers. With three-quarters of a billion of their dollars on the line, it’s up to Fort Worth parents, taxpayers, and voters to hold their elected public education officials accountable, and to decide whether the school board’s new ethics policy is robust enough to prevent corruption.