Friday, February 10, 2012

Rotten Politics in Round Rock ISD

Something is rotten in Round Rock ISD. Last week the school board voted to ask the Williamson County Attorney's office to investigate Board Trustee Terri Romere. The Austin-American Statesman happily lapped up the narrative of an elected official engaging in illegal behavior. Of course, few print newspapers engage in investigative journalism anymore, and as expected, the Statesman's story completely missed the big picture.

But there is oh, so much more to this story.

The backdrop for this drama involves an ISD Boundary determination process that has been so riddled with mistakes, misunderstandings, and deliberate mis-characterizations from the beginning, that the community has lost all faith in a fair outcome. But the tale of a boundary process gone wrong will have to wait; to begin with, I would like to address specific aspects of the allegations against Trustee Terri Romere.

The flap regards an email sent by a RRISD parent, Craig Zawadzki, to all RRISD Board members, RRISD Superintendent Jesus Chavez, and RRISD Director of Communications Joy Lynn Occhiuzzi. Mr. Zawadzki had heard some rather fantastic rumors about one of the Boundary proposals under consideration by the board, and he rightly expressed his concerns. Romere then forwarded Zawadzki's email, not to just a 'parent activist,' but the author of the proposal in question, Erik Okerholm, so that Okerholm could address the specific concerns over his plan. Okerholm then sent an email to numerous residents with questions, including Mr. Zawadzki, correcting the mis-characterizations circulating about his plan.

The alleged 'crime' committed by Romere is that she did not redact Zawadzki's email address. However, the communications were not part of an open records request, but part of a chain of communications about the two boundary proposals.

Here things get pretty interesting. On January 10, Zawadzki sent an email complaining about having his email forwarded. He did not file a grievance, nor ask for an investigation. Unfortunately for Mr. Zawadzki, he now finds himself being used as a pawn by the Administration and some trustees.

On January 12, Superintendent Chavez sent a rather curious communication to the Board that never mentions Romere by name, but insinuates that forwarding an email without redacting the sender's email address would be a violation of Section 552.137 of the public information act, and that the offense is a “misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000; confinement in the county jail for not more than six months or both the fine and confinement. In addition, the violation constitutes official misconduct.” Dr. Chavez adds to the January 19 Board meeting agenda a call for a Closed Session to “discuss duties of public officers and employees.”

On January 19, Ross Fischer, attorney for Terri Romere, sent a letter to the RRISD attorney questioning Dr. Chavez's email. (I have obtained copies of Fischer's letters; you can read the full text of this letter here.)

Fischer writes:

It does not appear that Mr. Zawadzki is alleging a violation of the RRISD's policy on Board Email Communication (which does not appear to prohibit the forwarding of an electronic message), nor does it appear that Mr. Zawadzki is alleging a violation of state law. In fact, it appears that the message is a simple inquiry by a member of the public directed to RRISD officials (and dozens of other members of the public). It appears that Dr. Chavez has taken a simple inquiry and somehow construed it as a complaint against a member of his governing board. “

Fischer sure seems to smell something fishy here, and he also notes that Dr. Chavez has significantly misrepresented the statute in question. He quotes Chavez' message, and follows with this:

This is a misrepresentation of the law, which actually states:

Section 552.137 of the public information act states, “An e-mail address of a member of the public that is provided for the purpose of communicating electronically with a governmental body is confidential and not subject to disclosure under this chapter [emphasis added].

This omission by Dr. Chavez is significant. The statue states that an e-mail address of a member of the public is not subject to disclosure under Chapter 552 of the Government Code. Therefore, had someone sought copies of Mr. Zawadzki's e-mail via the Public Information Act, the RRISD would have had to treat his e-mail address as confidential. However, our client knows of no such request filed pursuant to Chapter 552.

The RRISD attorney, Bill Bingham did not respond until 2 weeks later. His response, dated February 2, states, ”I do not believe that there is a pending “complaint or charge” involving a Board member.”

Even more disturbing are the revelations in Ross Fischer's next letter to the RRISD. (Full text here) Fischer asks for the following:

*First, please confirm whether our client Ms. Romere is the subject of any complaint or investigation that has been commenced by the Round Rock ISD. 
*Second, please provide a copy of any complaint alleging misconduct by our client Ms. Romere.
*Third, Please provide a copy of the standard of conduct which our client Ms. Romere has allegedly violated.
*Fourth, please provide the legal authority authorizing the Board of Trustees to sanction, reprimand, or otherwise discipline our client Ms. Romere.
*Fifth, it has come to our attention that certain documents have been provided to the Austin American-Statesman pursuant to a Public Information Act request. On the tenth page of the documents provided, certain private emails are clearly visible. Therefore, we would like to know the name of the Round Rock ISD employee who released these email addresses, those employees or officers that approved the release, and whether the owners of the following email accounts consented to the release of their email addresses: ...

Wait, what? Somebody in the RRISD Administration is determined to convict Romere of a crime she didn't commit, but their own personnel did?

Fischer goes on to note that while the ISD seems to be stonewalling his client, they are sure eager to give the media select documents.

It is unfortunate that the District seems more willing to provide detailed information to the Austin American Statesman, as evidenced by the article in today's newspaper, than to one of its own Trustees.  We hope that you will point out to the District's officials that, in its rush to ambush our client, it is subjecting its own Trustees to possible criminal liability.  

Yesterday the RRISD sent its request to have Romere investigated by the Williamson County Attorney's office, but they have yet to respond to Ross Fischer's information requests.

All of these factors seem to point to some kind of desperate attempt to either embarrass or punish Romere, with the explicit threat of jail, fine, and removal from office. So what is all this intended to accomplish? Well, for one thing, on December 15, many interpreted the Board's reaction to Chavez's performance review as a prelude to his contract not being renewed and ultimately his dismissal. In fact, the Board could have taken action that evening but for a technicality in the meeting posting that was controlled by Chavez. The official vote has been re-scheduled for February 28th. Absent Romere, the Board could easily split evenly in a 3-3 tie on Chavez's dismissal or, worse yet, others could be intimidated into submission. The tactics against Romere are clearly designed to intimidate her and others willing to stand up for what they believe is right.

Of even more concern to RRISD parents anguished over the corrupted boundary process, the vote on a boundary plan is scheduled for next Thursday, February 16. Judging by past history (Trustees Colby and Sellers wisely opposed similar boundary alignment changes in 2009; Trustees Romere and Seiferman ran their campaigns on opposition to that plan), a 4-3 vote against the Administration’s proposal is a real possibility unless intimidation and manipulation are allowed to rule the day, and ultimately the District. One has to wonder how the Administration has lost sight of its most important duty – educating the children in RRISD classrooms. 

This is local politics at its worst. And, I hope you will not let it stand.

I will be writing more about the RRISD boundary fiasco next week, but residents should be aware that numerous grievances have been filed about the process. It seems that the ISD has violated its own policies regarding the procedure. I strongly encourage RRISD parents to attend the February 16 RRISD meeting to demand a delay until these errors have been remedied. RRISD needs to hear your voices telling them loudly to follow their own procedures, respect the public and parental input, and make the right decision for Round Rock children’s education.

Please email members of the Round Rock School Board:

Please attend the February 16th meeting:  6:30 pm at the Round Rock High School Lecture Hall.

Update:  New article posted today:  School Boundary Zone Disaster 


Jenny said...

Very insightful & factual article...I agree with Mrs. Hansen's assessment & respect the truth in journalism that she is taking care to uphold and protect...Keep up the hard work for the day is young & we must persist! When the truth is with us, who can be against us?
Concerced citizen, Jenny Stearns

PKW said...

BRAVO! Yes, the manipulation and outright deliberate omission of material information to both the Boundary Committee AND the trustees has been going on for years by this administration. The idea that the board could vote to move the same group of kids that were ripped away from their peer groups to e new high school 3 years ago and now this SAME group of kids may be forced to yet a different HS (not back to the original school with their middle school peers) is just ludicrous-ESPECIALLY when the districts data has proved wrong time and time again and a plan has been developed that will vertically align all MS to HS AND save the district milions. This is such a no-brainer. But, wait, our Superintendent and 3 of the trustees don't use their brains....

sak said...

RRISD needs new is way over due.

CZ said...

Very interesting perspective, although I would not describe your ideas as either insightful or factual. Just more biased opinion...