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Community residents call for stronger Fort Worth school board conflict-of-interest policy

Fort Worth city council.JPG
Cristian ArguetaSoto
/
Fort Worth Report
The Fort Worth ISD school board listens to residents during an Aug. 30, 2022, meeting.

Trustees file only one disclosure in 12 years.

Editor’s note: This is part one of a series exploring conflict of interest in Fort Worth ISD.

Twelve years have passed since a Fort Worth ISD trustee last filed a conflict-of-interest disclosure. And that disclosure said little besides the name of the trustee: board president Tobi Jackson.

A conflict of interest policy is essential to a school board operating ethically, experts agree. The lack of disclosures filed by Fort Worth ISD should be troubling to taxpayers, they say, because a perception of conflict can erode trust too.

The history of the conflict-of-interest policy in the district and lack of disclosures is concerning, parent Breinn Richter said.

“I don’t see how, if you’re in a leadership position, you can sleep at night when you’re sending a message that ethics don’t matter,” Richter said. “Meanwhile, you expect your superintendent to act with integrity, right? You expect your teachers and your administrators to act with integrity. So, what are you implicitly giving people permission to do? What message are they sending?”

Everyone should understand both what conflict of interest is and how it plays into the decisions the school board makes, Miriam Ezzani, associate professor of education leadership at Texas Christian University, said.

“Conflict of interest, in a nutshell, means that they would benefit privately from actions that are made as a board member,” Ezzani said. “And, if they know that they’re going to benefit privately, then they need to claim it.”

New, then old again

Trustees adopted a much more comprehensive policy based on Houston ISD’s in April 2017. Less than a year later, the board switched to its current policy. That rescinded policy, adopted in 2017, had a more structured definition of conflict of interest.

The abandoned Fort Worth policy defined a conflict as “any circumstance that could cast doubt on a board member’s ability to act with total objectivity with regard to the district’s interests. A board member’s loyalty to the district must be free from any conflicting interests.”

It went on to state the implications from the appearance of conflict of interest is as important “as the implication of a real conflict. If an outside independent party might question the intent of a transaction or relationship, such transaction or relationship is deemed to impact the appearance of a conflict and therefore, should be avoided.”

Perception matters and should be taken into account in government conflicts, John Pelissero, senior scholar in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said. It’s not just about preventing conflicts, but what could look like a conflict as well.

“Because the perception of something not being proper, is as corrosive to trust that the public has in a school district board or any other local government as would be kind of the overt actions that are clearly a conflict of interest,” Pelissero said.

Additionally, the policy stressed disclosure. Any conflict set forth in the policy, which includes employment or volunteer leadership service, was subject to disclosure, recusal and abstention requirements.

Under the previous policy modeled after Houston ISD, gifts to trustees by people who could seek out contracts or other agreements with the district over $50 were prohibited. This included entertainment, sports tickets, travel, food and lodging.

Trustees relaxed the policy in December 2017. When it was changed, Tobi Jackson had taken over as board president.

The board put together an ethics committee to review the policy before adopting what currently is in place, which she called the strongest ethics committee at that time in North Texas, Jackson said. The committee included trustees Ahsley Paz, Ann Sutherland, Christene Moss, T.A. Sims and several staff members, according to the Star-Telegram.

Trustee Anael Luebanos made a similar statement to Jackson’s: The district has one of the strongest policies in a large district in North Texas.

“We put into place a hard cap on donations from vendors and prospective vendors, and we required disclosure of debts owed to vendors or prospective vendors or their agents or representatives,” he said in a written statement. “We did this to help strengthen confidence in our board and in our procedures.”

Pelissero said a policy that relies on the elected officials to file the statements is a weak disclosure policy.

The affidavit must be filed with the official recordkeeper of the district.

The policy strikes him as fairly simple and rigorous, Pelissero said. The affidavit requirement stands out to him, he said, because in a lot of government entities only a recusal during the vote is required. He also said it requires the officeholder to be honest.

The lack of disclosures filed doesn’t necessarily raise a red flag. It could just mean the district is acting in an ethical fashion, Pelissero said. But, he added, he does not know the history of the district enough to say if it’s a red flag.

Regarding gifts, the district defers to the legally recommended policy, which can be found under accounting policies in the board policy manual.

Trustees do not have to report a gift under $250 in value.

The district’s annual financial management report is supposed to include those disclosures.

In its 2022 report, the district did not report any gifts.

If the board wanted the most rigorous standard, Pelissero said it would require disclosure of any gifts. He said he thinks the $250 reporting requirement would probably capture gifts that would be of concern to the public.

Some parents told the Report they’re still unsure of what happened back in 2017 with the changing of policies.

Richter, the parent, said the policy passed in April of that year felt like a victory. She was glad to see the school board adopt a more robust policy.

Another parent thinks no one received answers on what happened in 2017. Barbara Clark-Galupi does know she’s a fan of policies that can be enforced, which she said is not currently the case.

Even if trustees are abstaining from votes, there are no disclosures filed.

Kelly Decker is another parent in the district who is concerned about the transparency of the school board in not filing more disclosures. She said it’s important to know who is driving policies and the public should have access to that information.

“If it were about the kids, why was there board time spent undoing a 4-month-old ethics policy? Why spend the time creating a gaping hole in accountability as to who funds their elections and keeps them in their seats if you are so focused on the kids?” she said.

School board members occasionally abstain from votes on items during meetings, but even then the conflict isn’t always clear to the public. At least one trustee said the way board members go about abstaining needs to be discussed publicly.

Oftentimes, items that have a conflict of interest are part of the consent agenda. That means when the vote happens it isn’t clear who is abstaining and why. School board member Michael Ryan would like to see the board pull those items out and people can say if they’re abstaining and why, he said.

Recusing from those votes also does not address the issue of why only one disclosure statement has been filed in 12 years.

Failing to file disclosures or abstaining from votes can result in a class A misdemeanor, according to the Texas Association of School Boards. That’s probably the highest punishment that would be put in place for failure to file, Pelissero said.

“The real risk, if you will, is that the public will lose confidence in trustees that don’t file a conflict of interest statement, and wonder why they are refusing to do so,” Pelissero said. “Which can undermine trust in a school district’s board.”

What is a good policy?

Fort Worth ISD’s ethics policy differs from other nearby districts. Dallas ISD has a more thorough policy, providing more definitions of conflicts and penalties for not filing disclosures.

But Arlington ISD has a one-line policy.

Disclosures also previously had deadlines. Trustees had until Jan. 15 and July 15 of each year to file disclosures.

Policies that rely on public officials to file these conflicts on their own can lead to underreporting, Ezzani, the TCU professor, said. If that happens, there are ethical implications for trustees.

“They could completely lose the trust of their constituents,” Ezzani said. “If it comes out that they made a decision that benefited them personally, I think people are going to lose trust in you.”

A good conflict-of-interest policy is clear and specific, she said, it makes clear to trustees what constitutes as a conflict.

Some bribery is obvious, she said. Someone offering anything to a board member expecting a vote going a certain way to come out of the gift is clearly bribery.

But some conflicts are not so obvious, but should still be reported. Gifts that have monetary value — like game tickets or lunch, Ezzani said. At the least, she said, trustees should ask themselves if they should accept the gift and what the implications of accepting it are.

Trustee CJ Evans,as an attorney, would not oppose a more thorough policy, she said. A more detailed policy would help protect the trustees from getting into hot water for not having an affidavit signed.

“You want to focus on getting the kids’ grades up and the reading levels up and our math scores up, and if somebody accidentally gets in hot water, because they forgot to sign an affidavit about a company that they own 10% or more in, we don’t want that, nobody wants that,” Evans said. “You know, we just want what’s best for the district.”

For Ezzani, reporting conflicts gives the school board members more transparency. If the public sees the report and finds an issue with the conflict, board members can go back and decline the gift.

“A gift could be something as small as a T-shirt or a mug. Those are pretty nominal,” Ezzani said. “I wouldn’t look at anything like that as bribery and sometimes people just give you things to say thank you for your service. But, I think, if it has greater than a minimal dollar value, then somehow you ascertain that a significant dollar value like tickets to a ball game or travel expenses or an event ticket. Then I think you have to think twice about it, because that’s a little bit much.”

While there are conflict-of-interest guidelines for staff, Ezzani said, a teacher getting a Christmas gift from a student is different from trustees accepting substantial gifts because they’re making decisions about curriculum and vendors.

Even being friends or related to a vendor being considered should be reported. Otherwise, people can perceive that as nepotism or the trustee getting money under the table for a vote.

“The work that you’re doing is not about serving yourself or trying to stand out or trying to gain power or notoriety,” Ezzani said. “You’re really there to make decisions that are going to be best for the students and the families that the district is supposed to be serving.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to fix a quote from Barbara Clark-Galupi.

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily Toreador at Texas Tech University. To contact her, email kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org.