Big Brother is Alive and Well in the Fort Worth ISD —and the S-T Approves
Fort Worth school trustee Ann Sutherland has been regularly trashed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s opinion writers from everything as legitimate as her request to board president Ray Dickerson to address her as “Dr. Sutherland” just as he does the male members of the board who have their doctorates, she said, to her efforts to find the most effective back-tax collection law firm for the district — even if it’s not the one favored by the ST.
The latest swipe at her integrity is an unsigned editorial on October 2, accusing her of wanting to keep the emails generated on her district email server from the public even though such mail is subject to the state’s open records act. “Public officials who don’t want the public looking over their shoulder don’t instill confidence that they’re acting in the public interest,” the editorial stated, in remarks aimed specifically at Sutherland.
However, to those who watched the board’s discussion at the September 27 meeting, it should have been clear that keeping her or her colleagues’ emails from the public was not what she spoke and voted against. It is not the public she doesn’t want looking over her shoulder, it is the superintendent and staff, she said.
Sutherland along with trustee Juan Rangel and Carlos Vasquez voted against a new board policy on its second reading presented by Chief of Administration Sylvia Reyna and Assistant Superintendent Maria Phillips, that will allow the trustees’ emails to be opened and read by the superintendent or any staff member he or she so designates. Sutherland’s opposition had nothing to do with the public having access to her emails, she said. There is no need for a board policy to guarantee that. It is already guaranteed by state and federal law. She made it clear that she understood that her district emails are matters of public record under the state’s open records act, they just should not be subject to the prying eyes of the administration, she said.
Under the open records act members of the public can request copies of emails to and from elected officials. However, there is a careful process the requestor must follow including a ten-working-day waiting period, and just as importantly, there are protections that the government entity must uphold before releasing the information, redacting such things as home addresses, home phone numbers, names of persons not in the public domain (constituents and students), and private information that could prove embarrassing such as medical information.
What was proposed and passed 6-3 last week was a policy that allowed district administrators, including the superintendent who works directly for and at the pleasure of the board, to have “carte blanche,” Sutherland said, to the board’s emails at any time they want to pull them up and read them — without the privacy protections that the open records act provides.
The ST editorial seemed to miss that point, stating, “Of course staffers shouldn’t be snooping in board members’ e-mails, for either nefarious or benign purposes.”
Yet the policy clearly gives staffers “snooping” privileges any time they want. It reads in part: “Electronic mail transmissions and other use of the District’s technology resources by a board member shall not be considered private. The Superintendent or designee shall be authorized to monitor the District’s technology resources at any time to ensure appropriate use.” (Emphasis added)
There is no mention of privacy concerns or of consequences to any staffer who abuses the information he or she reads. But there are threats against board members who refuse to “agree in writing to allow monitoring of their [emails]. …Noncompliance may result in suspension of access [and] violations of the law may result in criminal prosecution.” The policy does not specify what the latter means.
In a response on the ST’s web site, Sutherland fired back: “This editorial mis-states the issue. The issue was not whether the public is entitled to access … FWISD’s records. Of course they are. The issue was whether we want to permit staff to read our emails.
“Board members receive many comments from the community and from staff about problems which need to be resolved. Because our FWISD email addresses are available to the public, most comments come in through this route. Management can find out who is complaining by reading our emails; it is one method for targeting staff for retaliation.”
And in a district where retaliation has been shown to be widespread, this is no small matter.
The policy will have a chilling effect, Sutherland said, on parents or employees who may wish to write to trustees candidly and in confidence.
I spoke with several employees who were not aware of the new policy and each one voiced shock at its implications and saw it as an invasion of his or her privacy. “I won’t be writing any more emails to my board member,” one said.
“I am very angry about this,” Sutherland said. She told the board the night that the policy passed that she would reroute all of her district emails to her private email address in order to protect those who write to her.
Yet the ST editorial put an entirely different spin on the issue, accusing her and those who voted with her in opposition to the policy as trying to hide their documents and emails from the public.
The editorial argued: “The policy change doesn’t give ‘carte blanche.’ It specifies that the ‘superintendent or designee’ can monitor technology resources and the purpose is to make sure they’re being used appropriately. That’s what most companies practice, with employers retaining the right to check on their workers’ computer use at will.” (Emphasis added.)
Read that analogy carefully. When did the trustees become “workers” and the superintendent their employer with the right to “check on their computer use at will”? The board is the superintendent’s employer. He is the employee. The trustees hire him and they can fire him. Show me a private company that would give workers the right to “monitor” the board of director’s emails. (GE? General Motors? Exxon Mobile? Chesapeake? Sure.)
In Sutherland’s comment to the ST, she ended by pointing out what she believes the ST should really be concerned about:
“Not only is [the editorial board] consistently biased, it has ignored the very real need to examine the reasons behind Fort Worth’s declining student performance during [former superintendent] Melody Johnson’s tenure. It may be years before we can raise scores to where they were during [former superintendents] Dr. [Tom] Tocco’s and Mr. [Joe] Ross’s tenures, years that cannot be recouped.”
Student performance, as Sutherland has frequently pointed out, has declined from achievement scores that placed the Fort Worth district second from the top among the state’s major urban districts when Ross left in 2005 to second from the bottom during the next six years that Johnson was in charge.
Now that’s an issue worthy of scrutiny by this city’s paper of record.