Community Residents Call for Tougher Fort Worth School Board Conflict of Interest Policy

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a series on conflicts of interest at the ISD in Fort Worth.

It has been twelve years since the Fort Worth ISD trustee last filed a conflict of interest disclosure. And that disclosure didn’t say much other than the name of the trustee: Board President Toby Jackson.

Experts agree that a conflict of interest policy is necessary for the ethical operation of the school board. The lack of disclosure filed by Fort Worth ISD should worry taxpayers, they said, because perceptions of conflict could also undermine confidence.

According to parent Brainn Richter, the county’s history of conflict of interest politics and lack of disclosure is a concern.

“I don’t understand how, if you’re in a leadership position, you can sleep at night sending the message that ethics don’t matter,” Richter said. “Meanwhile, you expect your superintendent to act honestly, 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 what a conflict of interest is and how it affects school board decisions, said Miriam Ezzani, assistant professor of leadership in education at Texas Christian University.

“In short, a conflict of interest means that they will personally benefit from actions taken as a member of the board of directors,” Ezzani said. “And if they know that they will receive a personal benefit, they need to claim it.”

New then old again

In April 2017, the trustees adopted a much more comprehensive policy based on the Houston ISD. Less than a year later, the board of directors switched to their current policy. This repealed policy, adopted in 2017, contained a more structured definition of conflicts of interest.

Fort Worth’s opt-out policy defined conflict as “any circumstance that may call into question the ability of a board member to act with complete objectivity in relation to the interests of the county. The loyalty of a board member to the district must be free from any conflicting interests.”

It went on to say that the consequences of the appearance of a conflict of interest are just as important “as the consequences of an actual conflict. If an outside independent party can question the intent of a transaction or relationship, such transaction or relationship is considered to contribute to the appearance of conflict and should therefore be avoided.”

Perception matters and must be taken into account in government conflicts, said John Pelissero, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. It’s not just about conflict prevention, it’s also about what might look like conflict.

“Because the perception that something is wrong is just as damaging to the public’s trust in the school district council or any other local government as open action that clearly constitutes a conflict of interest,” Pelissero said.

In addition, the policy emphasizes disclosure. Any conflict set forth in the policy that involves employment or volunteer service is subject to disclosure, recusal and abstinence.

Under a previous policy modeled after the Houston ISD, gifts to trustees from people who may have entered into contracts or other agreements with the county were prohibited in excess of $50. This included entertainment, sports tickets, travel, food and lodging.

The trustees relaxed the policy in December 2017. When it was changed, Toby Jackson took over as president of the board of directors.

The board formed an ethics committee to review the policy before accepting what is currently in effect, Jackson said, and she called it the strongest ethics committee at the time in North Texas. The committee includes trustees Ahsley Paz, Ann Sutherland, Kristin Moss, T. A. Sims and several staff members, Star-Telegram reports.

Trustee Anael Luebanos made a similar statement to Jackson’s: The county has one of the strongest politicians in the greater North Texas county.

“We have imposed a hard limit on donations from suppliers and potential suppliers, and we have required the disclosure of debts owed to suppliers or potential suppliers or their agents or representatives,” he said in a written statement. “We did this to build confidence in our board of directors and our procedures.”

Pelissero said a policy based on elected officials filing applications is a weak disclosure policy.

The affidavit must be filed with the county’s official registrar.

According to Pelissero, this policy seems to him rather simple and strict. The requirement of an affidavit stands out to him, he said, because in many government offices, only self-withdrawal is required during voting. He also said that it requires the official to be honest.

Failure to file disclosures is not necessarily a red flag. This may simply mean that the county is acting ethically, Pelissero said. But, he added, he doesn’t know enough about the area’s history to tell if it’s a red flag.

With regard to gifts, the District has a statutory recommended policy, which can be found in the Accounting Policies section of the Board Policy Manual.

Trustees are not required to report gifts of less than $250.

The District’s annual financial management report is expected to include these disclosures.

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

If the board wants the strictest standards, it will require the disclosure of any gifts, Pelissero said. He said he thought the $250 reporting requirement would likely allow for gifts that would cause public concern.

Some parents told Report that they still do not know what happened in 2017 with the policy change.

Richter, a parent, said the policy adopted in April of that year seemed like a victory. She was glad to see the school board adopt a tougher policy.

Another parent believes that no one received answers about what happened in 2017. Barbara Clarke-Galupi knows she’s a supporter of enforceable policies, but she says that’s not the case at the moment.

Even if the trustees abstain from voting, disclosure is not filed.

Kelly Decker is another district parent concerned about school board transparency not disclosing more information. She said it’s important to know who makes the policy and the public should have access to that information.

“If it was about children, then why did the board of directors take the time to cancel the 4-month ethics policy? Why waste time creating a gaping accountability hole as to who funds their elections and keeps them in their seats when you are so focused on the kids?” she said.

Student Council members sometimes abstain from voting on issues during meetings, but even then the conflict is not always understood by the public. At least one trustee said the way board members abstain from voting needs to be discussed publicly.

Often items that have a conflict of interest are part of the consensus agenda. This means that when a vote occurs, it is not clear who abstains or why. School board member Michael Ryan would like the board to pull these items so people can say if they are abstaining and why, he said.

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

According to the Texas School Board Association, failure to report or abstain from voting can result in a Class A misdemeanor. According to Pelissero, this is probably the most severe penalty for failure to file documents.

“The real risk, if you will, is that the public will lose confidence in trustees who do not file a conflict of interest declaration and wonder why they refuse to do so,” Pelissero said. “Which could undermine the credibility of the school district council.”

What is a good policy?

Fort Worth ISD’s ethics policy differs from that of other nearby areas. Dallas ISD has a more thorough policy, providing more conflict definitions and penalties for non-disclosure.

But Arlington ISD has a one-line policy.

Disclosure also previously had deadlines. The trustees had until January 15 and July 15 of each year to file disclosures.

Policies that rely on government officials to record these conflicts themselves could lead to underreporting, said Ezzani, a professor at TCU. If this happens, there will be ethical implications for the trustees.

“They can completely lose the trust of their constituents,” Ezzani said. “If it turns out that they made a decision that is beneficial to them personally, I think people will lose confidence in you.”

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

Some bribery is evident, she said. Anyone who offers something to a board member with the expectation that a vote will be obtained in some way as a result of the gift is clearly bribery.

But some conflicts are not so obvious, but they still should be reported. According to Ezzani, gifts that have monetary value, such as tickets to games or meals. At the very least, she says, trustees should ask themselves if they should accept the gift and what are the consequences of accepting it.

Guardian CJ Evans, as a lawyer, won’t mind a more thorough policy, she said. A more detailed policy will help protect trustees from getting into trouble for not signing affidavits.

“You want to focus on improving kids’ grades, improving reading and our math grades, and if someone accidentally gets into hot water because they forgot to sign an affidavit about a company they own 10% or more in, we don’t want it, nobody wants it,” Evans said. “You know, we just want the best for the county.”

Ezzani believes reporting conflicts gives school board members more transparency. If the public sees the report and finds a problem with the conflict, the board members can come back and refuse the gift.

“A gift can be something small, like a T-shirt or a mug. It’s pretty arbitrary,” Ezzani said. “I would not consider this as bribery, and sometimes people just give you things to thank you for your service. But, I think if it has more than the minimum dollar value, then somehow you determine that it is a significant dollar value, such as tickets to a ball game, travel expenses, or a ticket to an event. Then I think you need to think twice about it because it’s too much.”

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

You should even report that you are friends or related to the seller in question. Otherwise, people may perceive this as nepotism or receiving money for voting by a trusted person.

“The work you do is not about serving yourself, not about trying to stand out, not about trying to gain power or fame,” Ezzani said. “You are truly here to make the best decisions for the students and families the district is meant to serve.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the Barbara Clark-Galupi quote.

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at [email protected]. At Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of board members and financial backers. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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