What is the Fort Worth ISD School Board Hiding?

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Direct Action Texas (DAT) called out the Fort Worth ISD School Board for ditching their ethics policy just before voting on a $750 million bond package. We opined that certain Board Trustees made the decision because they may be unable to adhere to the new policy and cash in on the massive bond. So, they buried its repeal in a long, vaguely worded consent agenda.

Other Trustees were outraged when they discovered the subterfuge, feeling tricked into voting out the merely three-month-old policy. Even the liberal Fort Worth Star Telegram weighed in against the removal of the policy with a serious of articles including this scathing rebuke from the Editorial Board. As outlined in another FWST piece, the Board is still in turmoil over what “ethics” means in Fort Worth.

Ethics and transparency aren’t just an issue for the Fort Worth ISD Board. The trouble extends to district staff, struggling with even the most basic of open records requests. DAT filed a request with Fort Worth ISD for Campaign Finance Reports (CFRs) filed by Political Action Committees (PACs). Now, almost 3 months later, the PACs’ reports have still not been produced.

DAT has followed the rules. We sent our request in writing. We received confirmation. We waited the full 10 business days, as required by law. We took the only next step and sent a violation letter to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG). The OAG then sent Fort Worth ISD a demand letter telling them to produce the information. Yet still we wait. Why? What are they hiding? Is the Fort Worth ISD trying to hide information or are they simply inept?

The Public Information Act requires that government entities provide all records to the public, with very few exceptions. One type of commonly requested record is Campaign Finance Reports. CFRs for county and state-wide races are openly available on the Texas Ethics Commission website while CFRs for more local races are held by the individual municipalities. So, if you are a candidate for Fort Worth ISD Trustee, you must file a report detailing your donations and expenditures with the Fort Worth ISD. Any PAC supporting a candidate for Trustee or taking a stance on a Fort Worth ISD initiative, like a bond, must also file a report.

This information is normally produced quickly and easily. Most local entities post all CFRs on their websites. Fort Worth ISD even has what appears to be a link to the information on their site, yet the reports are missing. Why?

The CFRs we requested would reveal exactly how much money PACs have spent on candidates or initiatives and identify individual donors. For instance, a CFR may show that a PAC supporting a bond is comprised of construction companies, engineering firms, and architects. These companies would directly benefit from the passage of a bond package to build or refurbish schools. That same PAC may also donate to a candidate’s campaign. If that candidate wins, he or she will then have the ability to vote on who receives the lucrative contracts. An individual firm’s thousand-dollar “investment” can become a million-dollar contract. That’s a great return when you don’t let ethics get in the way.

A strong ethics policy would ensure that Trustees report any potential conflicts of interest, but right now Fort Worth ISD has a very weak and very broadly interpreted policy. They have a policy with huge loopholes and no real consequences. It is highly suspect that at the same time Fort Worth ISD lacks an ethics policy, it is also reluctant to release the very reports that would reveal any conflicts of interest to the public. Is this a coincidence or revelation of their struggle with ethics and transparency?

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