Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Texas Leg to Strengthen School Board Trustees' Ability to Govern

Among the many bills filed for the 83rd Texas Legislative session is HB 628, "Relating to the right of a member of the board of trustees of a school district to obtain information, documents, and records."

The bill has strong bi-partisan support, and was authored by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats.  (Authors are Reps Tony Dale (R-Cedar Park,)  Marisa Marquez (D-El Paso,) Poncho Nevarez (D,) Dan Huberty (R), and Ed Thompson (R).) 

If passed, HB 628 will merely codify a 1983 ruling by the Attorney General which states that elected school board trustees must be given district information and documents without having to file open records requests.  
"I think if you're an elected official you need to have access to documents so that you can understand what's happening in your government organization so you can govern," said Dale.
The issue came up recently when it was discovered that El Paso ISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia had been engaging in fraudulent activity that resulted in his conviction and incarceration in federal prison.  Garcia was able to hide his criminal activity for a lengthy period since he refused to give El Paso school board trustees documents regarding the district.  Now, it also appears that even some of the trustees may have been complicit in hiding the district's illegal activity, and the U.S. Department of Justice may approve a board of managers to replace the trustees until new elections can be held.

Locally, Round Rock ISD Superintendent Jesus Chavez insisted at a November 27, 2012 Board meeting that he had the right to withhold district information from the elected trustees.  In this case, Superintendent Chavez is trying to prevent certain trustees and the public from scrutinizing the $25,000,000 campus they are building for at-risk (of dropping out) students.  Although Chavez denied trustees access to the relevant documents, someone within the district anonymously provided information to Trustee Terri Romere revealing that attendance in the so-called "Success High School" program averaged 40 students a day.

In an ironic parallel to the El Paso ISD scandal, several RRISD trustees seem determined to turn a blind eye to some of the recent revelations about Superintendent Chavez' activities.  Instead of holding him accountable for setting up a School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) that unequivocally violated state law, they have merely swept the issue under the rug and even allowed Chavez to blame the board in recent news accounts.  And when Trustee Terri Romere shared the truth about the daily attendance numbers in the "Success" program, several fellow board members not only ignored the data, but voted to censure Romere

HB 628 is likely to pass, but will not take effect until September 2013.  In the meantime, it is likely that school superintendents will continue their clandestine activity.  Even after passage, it will still be incumbent on local school boards to govern their respective districts appropriately.  The El Paso trustees did not perform due diligence, and now will be removed from office.

Proposed text of HB 628:

SECTION 1.  Section 11.1512, Education Code, is amended by adding Subsection (c) to read as follows:
(c)  A member of the board of trustees of the district has an inherent right of access to information, documents, and records maintained by the district, and the district shall provide the information, documents, and records to the member without requiring the member to submit a public information request under Chapter 552, Government Code.
SECTION 2.  This Act takes effect September 1, 2013.

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