Civility in the FWISD or Politics as Usual?
Is civility, like beauty, only in the eye (or ear) of the beholder?
That’s what some Fort Worth school board trustees are asking after discovering that a group is organizing under the banner of “Put Our Students First,” with a goal of bringing “civility” back to the board meetings. The group is urging members to show up at the April 26 meeting to “express alarm” at what organizer Ed Lasater writes in a draft letter to the board is a continual show of “disrespect for one another and incivility directed towards the staff” by “some members of the Board.” Lasater sent the draft to potential members of his group for their approval and signatures before sending a copy to board members. “I have softened the tone a little,” he wrote, “I still need volunteers to sign [the letter] from each district.”
A final copy went out to board members this weekend signed by one parent or “concerned citizen” from each district. What was taken out is instructional. In the draft Lasater wrote, “Fort Worth is fortunate to have a nationally recognized superintendent working with a highly skilled team of professionals.” In the final draft the reference to the superintendent was deleted.
While not naming the disrespectful board members, the April 14 email from Lasater that was obtained by Fort Worth Weekly from a confidential source, attaches a link to a video of the April 12 board meeting. That meeting became heated over a proposed cut of a popular and by all accounts successful mentoring program for troubled students, mostly minority, in an effort to reduce the district’s $30 million budget shortfall.
The 15-year program, run by a group of mostly African-American men, known as UMOJA, costs the district $208,000.
The email directs the reader to “The comment by Dr. [Carlos] Vasquez regarding the buyout of [Superintendent Melody] Johnson’s contract,” even giving the time Vasquez appears, “at about 3:11.07” into the video.
Vasquez, who strongly supports keeping the UMOJA program, became visibly angry when it was compared to other programs the district did not plan to cut totally, such as the one situated on the Lena Pope Home campus that costs more than $2 million to operate for a student body of 112 with 10 teachers. It too deals with troubled youth. It is listed on the Lena Pope web page as an alternative program for students who have “trouble in traditional classroom settings.”
Hank Johnson, chief financial officer planned to cut $1 million from the program. Currently it is costing the district around $18,000 per student. District-wide per pupil costs are $7,508, according to district data.
Some board members seemed startled to find out that night the Lena Pope program’s total cost to the district: “I didn’t know Lena Pope had all this stuff,” trustee Christene Moss said. “This [budget crisis] is almost a blessing,” she said. “We’re finding out a lot about programs we didn’t know about.”
Adding to the controversy is the fact that trustee Judy Needham sits on the Lena Pope board of directors along with her close friend Marty Leonard, daughter and niece of the late Leonard Brothers retailers.
Vasquez, comparing the costs of the two programs, mentioned the politics of the Lena Pope connection and said he wondered “if we’re pushing budget cuts here or if Dr. Johnson is looking for a buyout” of her contract.
That throwaway line seems to have set the stage for creating Put Our Students First. The group — calling itself a “district-wide grass-roots coalition” — is being organized by Lasater, a Fort Worth attorney and son of former school board president Molly Lasater, with help from Lou Ann Blaylock, an officer with the Roach Foundation, a multi-million dollar non-profit headed by John Roach. Roach was the long-time CEO of RadioShack and for 15 years the chairman of TCU’s board of trustees; he has been a major political power force here for years. Molly Lasater is a member of the school district’s redistricting committee established this year to determine boundaries for additional single member districts based on the 2010 census which shows a large increase in the Hispanic population district-wide.
“This is a group of well connected individuals who sadly do not understand the depth of our problems. If their goal is truly to improve our schools, then we have a common mission,” trustee Ann Sutherland wrote in an email to the Weekly. “I fear, however, that their goal is instead to silence the few voices on the board who hope to raise us to the level we enjoyed five years ago. “
Sutherland was referring to the drop in achievement scores since Johnson took over a little more than five years ago. In 2005, she writes on her web page, Fort Worth children were second from the top in TAKS test scores among the six urban districts in Texas: Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, and Houston. That year Fort Worth was outpaced only by Austin. By 2010, she writes, Fort Worth has dropped to second from the bottom. Only San Antonio kids scored lower.
“I would like to see these downtown individuals focus on the achievement gaps of our students since Dr. Johnson took over,” Vasquez said, “instead of this ‘civility’ issue or who is rude on the board. We have serious education issues, failing students, high drop-out rates, and this is what we should be addressing.”
Vasquez and Sutherland both believe the group’s real purpose is to organize to find opponents to run against them and fellow trustee Juan Rangel when their terms come up, Vasquez and Rangel in 2012 and Sutherland in 2014. Vasquez said that individuals he would rather not name have already been approached by some downtown players to run against him. So far, he said, there have been no takers. Sutherland and Rangel both expect opponents as well. The three trustees are on Johnson’s and her supporters’ hit list because they continually raise questions about the district’s achievement gaps, the drop-out rates, finances, audits and retaliation against employees who speak out about wrongdoing. Lasater did not return phone calls and emails requesting his comments.
Both point out that no group formed to call for civility when Needham began sending ugly emails to Sutherland last year, with copies to all board members and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
In one she called Sutherland a “crazy old fool of a woman,” and the “worst” elected trustee in Texas, because Sutherland took it upon herself to stop Chesapeake drilling company from using a loophole in the law that would have allowed it to drill within 200 feet of a school in spite of the fact that the district has a 1,200 foot setback from all schools. (Needham’s hands are hardly clean on the Chesapeake drilling issues. She and trustee Tobi Jackson were recently caught sending identical letters to the state legislature opposing a bill by Fort Worth representative Lon Burnam that would have made it a state law that no gas drilling could occur within 1,200 feet of a school or any school properties. Both rescinded the letters after they were caught and exposed on Facebook, the Star-Telegram and this paper.)
In another email Needham called Sutherland a “liar” and asked if she learned “to lie” at Berkley where Sutherland got her PhD. And in the latest one, sent after Sutherland was quoted in this paper as a critic of the district’s troubled student information software known as Connects, in particular the nursing section of the program, Needham snidely wrote: “Ann—did your PhD make you an expert on nurses and ERP systems too?” She went on to say, “It would be nice if you were a positive team player.”
And therein, Vasquez and Sutherland say, lays the problem. They are not “team players.”
The board meeting begins at 5 pm in the board room on Shotts Street directly behind the school district administration building at 100 University Dr.