From: Needham, Judy (Board Member) <JUDY.NEEDHAM@fwisd.org>
Sent: Wednesday, December 29, 2010 2:23 PM
To: Sutherland, Ann (Board Member) <Ann.Sutherland@fwisd.org>;
(With copies to the other Fort Worth school board members, Superintendent Melody Johnson, district lawyer Bertha Bailey Whatley, Johnson’s entire cabinet, a Star-Telegram reporter and two ST columnists.)
Subject: RE: FYI Protest filing –how dare you file on behalf of our board?
“ANN—who do you think you are and how dare you file something on behalf of the FWISD board of trustees? You are the most inappropriate, irresponsible elected official in the state of Texas. As I’ve told you, we are a board and by protocol you cannot do something on our behalf without our approval or consent. You, as a private citizen, can do whatever you wish. You have become an anarchist and are a crazy old fool of a woman. You are just adding to the list to encourage people in your district who are actively talking about filing a recall election, and this town and board will hold you accountable for your horrible, destructive behavior. Fort Worth ISD is an almost billion dollar corporation with extremely competent employees led by the most outstanding superintendent in our country, Dr. Johnson. As you saw in the email today from our CFO Hank Johnson, the district has already filed a Rule 37 protest in a timely manner. Your filing has nothing to do with the safety of our children as you try to disguise it, but is about a fool run amuck with power.
“I am requesting that you immediately withdraw your protest and let the district’s protest stand, or file another one signed by you as a private citizen.”
Judy Needham, FWISD School Board Trustee, District 5
The new year hasn’t even rolled in yet, but the fireworks are already exploding on the Fort Worth school board over one member’s effort to thwart an end-run by Chesapeake Energy to impose a little-known rule that would have allowed it to drill for gas under property owned by the district in spite of the fact that the trustees postponed signing any leases with the giant energy company for 90 days back in November.
Unknown to the board, until it was notified in an email from community activist Gary Hogan on Dec. 23, Chesapeake filed what is known as a Rule 37 waiver request in early December with the Railroad Commission that would allow it to drill on leases it owned close to one of the district’s schools, T.A. Sims Elementary on the Southeast Side.
The waiver would have allowed the company to draw mineral reserves from underneath the school property even though Chesapeake did not have a lease with the district. The rule gives a company the right to ask for a waiver for two reasons only: to “prevent waste or to prevent the confiscation of property.” Hogan wrote to the board that the rule has been so misused that it now “basically [gives companies] the right to steal the mineral reserves under unleased property,” unless the mineral owner knows what is happening and files a protest with the RRC within a certain time frame. By the time the board was aware of the threat, it had six days to file a protest. The reason the district wasn’t notified? Chesapeake put the wrong address on its filing with the RRC. The final day the district could protest was Dec. 29 — right in the middle of the holiday vacation.
Emails between Sutherland and the district’s lawyer, Bertha Whatley, show that the district was slow in deciding to file the one-page protest that would automatically stop the process and trigger a hearing in Austin before the RRC. Sutherland repeatedly asked for confirmation that the district was committed to filing a protest, but received only vague replies.
On Dec. 23, Sutherland wrote to the board:
“Thanks to Gary Hogan for this heads-up. …Counsel Whatley just informed me that the staff is attempting to determine whether any FWISD properties are involved in this waiver request and they will know by Monday, the 27th. If so we must file a protest by Wednesday Dec. 29….There is some confusion because Chesapeake sent the notification that they were requesting a Rule 37 waiver to the Fort Worth City offices at 1000 Throckmorton. No one contacted the school district. … Our staff needs to file a protest on any Rule 37 Waiver Request.”
Sutherland also called for president Ray Dickerson to convene an emergency meeting of the board so that it could give its approval to the staff to move quickly on the protest. “This is not a decision the staff should have made on its own,” she said. “This decision was one for the board to make.” But the administration offices were all closed for the holidays. No meeting was called.
On Dec. 23, Johnson wrote to the board:
“The staff should have some accurate information and a recommendation for moving forward by Monday of next week (the 27th.) It has been a bit difficult to connect with all critical players due to the holiday.”
On Monday, Whatley wrote to the board:
“Last week the administration became aware of a request for a rule 37 waiver filed with the Texas Railroad Commission. A subsequent investigation has disclosed the waiver would apply to the T.A. Sims ES site. Consequently, a protest against the waiver will be filed by the deadline. The protest will likely trigger a hearing before the Railroad Commission. We will advise you of further action in this matter.”
Sutherland later notified the board, Whatley and Superintendent Johnson that if the staff did not file a protest on time, that she would do so on behalf of District 6, the area she represents.
By 10 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 29, the district had not filed. Sutherland then filed her own protest in order to stop the process. By noon, chief financial officer Hank Johnson (no kin to the super) notified the board that the district’s outside attorney from the Cantey Hanger law firm had filed a protest against Chesapeake’s waiver request. Sutherland then withdrew her letter of protest. (But not before protesting to Whatley that the district should not have paid a high-powered law firm to file a one-page letter that Whatley could have done as easily as Sullivan did.)
In an email statement sent to Fort Worth Weekly, Sutherland explained her actions:
“The science is not yet clear as to the health impacts on our children and the potential long-term costs associated with healthcare for drilling related maladies. Therefore, I have approached this issue seeking an opportunity to get the best information so that any and all necessary protections are in place for our children and schools.
“I felt that a protest to the measure bring sought by Chesapeake was in the interest of the school district and that of our kids. It was not clear that any such objection had been filed despite repeated attempts to encourage such a protest, and repeated requests to receive notice that a protest had been filed.
–FWISD officials failed to notify the board of this filing until I raised questions about it
–When questioned, FWISD staff had no plans to act on it.
–They only said they would file after I said I would if they didn’t.
–At 10 a.m. on the last day, there was still no evidence of filing.”
And, Sutherland insisted, “I did not file on behalf of the board, I filed my protest on behalf of my district and I made that clear in the filing.”
Her protest letter to the RRC states that she is filing on behalf of Fort Worth ISD Trustee 6.
When told of the Needham email, one of Sutherland’s constituents wrote, “I think that you are right to do whatever you have to do to protect ISD property from this type of legally sanctioned property theft. … Also, I don’t think there is any question that you have been and done all that you can to restore honesty to the FWISD and that you are conducting yourself as openly and honestly as possible.” This constituent who did not give permission to have her name made public, also said that Needham’s accusation that there were “recall” petitions being discussed in Sutherland’s district was nonsense.
Tobi Jackson, trustee from the East Side, and the only trustee besides Sutherland to return the Weekly’s calls, said she would not comment on the appropriateness of Needham’s language, saying only that the issue was “convoluted.”
“Judy’s been in office 14 years,” she said, “and she’s entitled to her own opinions.” Jackson called Sutherland’s action a “well-intentioned error” but still criticized her for what she said was Sutherland’s failure to “let the staff do its work. … We have a very smart staff,” she said. “We have to get back to our real job, which is making sure our kids are getting the best education they can get.”
Needham did not reply to email requests for comment.