The weeks following the gutting of Fort Worth school district’s board ethics policy were oddly quiet. No public uproar. No media backlash.
The previous policy, which raised standards for campaign contribution transparency, survived all of four months before being unceremoniously rescinded amid 214 pages of agenda items last August at a Fort Worth school district board meeting.
At the time, the public and local news outlets were focused on the $750 million bond package that the school district board ratified during that same meeting. The largest-ever bond passed in Tarrant County was approved by Fort Worth voters last November. By early that month, due to the efforts of a handful of concerned parents and a right-leaning political watchdog group, news of the watered-down ethics policy began reaching the public.
Several board members claimed to be unaware of the changes, according to press coverage at the time. School board president Tobi Jackson, who authored the agenda item that rescinded the new policy, told me in an email recently that she scrapped the policy because it did not have proper “supporting forms and links,” supposedly making it difficult for administrative staffers to handle.
Fort Worth school district staffers, Jackson said, “were never informed or trained on their responsibilities to gather, monitor, or handle the forms or information provided by trustees” under the new ethics policy. “Trustee” is an alternative title commonly used to describe school board members.
The gutting of the ethics policy, according to several people who follow school district politics and one person with intimate knowledge of school district horsetrading who asked to remain anonymous, was allegedly done to appease Linebarger, Goggan, Blair, and Sampson, a debt-collecting law firm that donates heavily in elections, locally and across the country. Fort Worth school district board races are often run on shoestring budgets of a few thousand dollars, giving disproportionate influence to donors like Linebarger and others who have the resources to write $2,000 checks. After the winners take their seats on the board, they are expected to keep constituents and campaign contributors appeased. That’s just politics.
The national firm has been under contract with the Fort Worth school district to collect delinquent property taxes since 2010 and now has an exclusive six-year contract with the district that began in 2016. The current school district agreement affords Linebarger a 20-percent legal fee that’s levied on top of collected taxes. Between July 2015 and June 2016, Linebarger collected $11,293,671 for the Fort Worth school district while earning $1,820,502 for its own coffers, according to school district records. The City of Fort Worth also began its exclusive contract with Linebarger in 2010.
While campaign contributions from existing or potential vendors were allowed under both the old and revised ethics policies, the new guidelines aimed to reduce the influence of outside money.
“The appearance of a conflict of interest is just as important as the implications from a real conflict,” one line read. Another section restricted board members’ relatives from receiving “substantial financial or other interest in [a] firm” selected for a contract with or monetary award from the Fort Worth school district.
One of the most significant changes brought by the new policy was a requirement that board members disclose donations of $50 or more from “any entity … interested or likely to become interested in any [school district] contract” and to abstain from “any vote or decision related to that entity.”
In other words, had the new policy been enacted on or before 2016, the majority of school district board members would have been required to abstain from the vote to renew Linebarger’s contract.
Stephen Meeks, capital partner with Linebarger’s Fort Worth office, told me in an email that his firm “did not ask the [school board] to rescind, review, or pull the ethics policy.”
He added, “We have no interest in how the school district words its ethics policy, other than to comply with its terms.”
One local political consultant had some words for Linebarger. “Ruthless and cutthroat” is how Travis Parmer characterized the firm’s school-board dealings. “In a political world, maybe that’s the way it is supposed to be,” he continued.
He admits what’s locally known — his family arguably has an axe to grind with Linebarger. His father and one-time Fort Worth mayor Hugh Parmer started his own firm — Parmer, Archer, Young, and Steen — in 1991, with one goal being to raise ethical standards within the tax collecting industry, Travis said. In 2010, Travis’ sister Elizabeth Parmer was an attorney with a local tax collecting law firm — Perdue, Brackett, Flores, Utt, and Burns — that lost its Fort Worth school district contract to Linebarger five years after losing its city contract to the same firm. Past school board members Juan Rangel and Carlos Vasquez and current trustees Jackson, Judy Needham, T.A. Sims, and Ann Sutherland approved the school district’s switch.
Meeks maintains that Linebarger is “fully transparent” and works “in compliance with all applicable local, state, and federal laws” and that all political and charitable contributions are the “result of requests to our firm for support.”
But Linebarger’s critics say the firm gains and maintains influence over several Fort Worth school district board members not only through campaign contributions but also via donations to businesses and nonprofits with ties to board members.
In a state system with few safeguards against outside influence, who can blame any business for simply playing by the rules?
The law firm’s alleged sway over local politics, according to several parents, former district employees, and current staffers, is only one symptom of a diseased district that all too often allows administrators to act as gatekeepers, punishing whistleblowers while protecting vested interests.
And while the school board recovers from public blowback over the handling of its ethics policy, several elementary schools are facing the possibility of disciplinary action from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for chronically underperforming. One penalty may involve replacing current board members with TEA-approved managers. School district leadership sees a new program of leadership academies as the best hope for beating back the TEA.
Texas public school ethics policies must adhere to the State Constitution, which prevents public officials from holding incompatible public offices. Sitting on a city council while working as a full-time police officer is one example of incompatible public offices, the former holding the purse strings over the latter. State statutes add the further requirement that school officials disclose financial conflicts of interest. Districts are free to add additional restrictions and disclosure policies, as the Fort Worth school district did last April. Beginning in the summer of 2016, the board’s policy committee began reviewing the rules that governed how the board operated. School district board member Ashley Paz was active in drafting recommendations that were later included in the revised ethics policy. Paz said the committee, which included herself and fellow board members Jacinto Ramos, Norman Robbins, and Sims, met around a dozen times over the course of the next several months.
“Our old policy was a single paragraph that simply deferred [the board] to state law, which itself is full of loopholes and lacked accountability,” Paz said.
The ethics policy recommendations were modeled after changes that Houston school district board members adopted in 2012 following years of investigative reporting by the Houston Chronicle and other major publications which uncovered vendor-funded vacations, extravagant consultant payments, and incidents of school board members voting for vendors with which they had personal ties.
Early June that year brought promises of warmer weather and the chance to shake hands with NBA legend Magic Johnson at the downtown Hilton as part of a luncheon by the Fort Worth Black Chamber of Commerce. Linebarger has purchased a table at the charitable luncheon every year for the past several, Meeks said.
Paz was surprised when she heard she had been offered a seat at Linebarger’s table for the celebrity event. Vendors frequently lavish gifts upon school board members, here and across Texas, but Paz had been an outspoken critic of what she said was the law firm’s substantial influence over some school board members.
The week of the luncheon, Paz said she and several other board members received a message from Linebarger. The offer had been rescinded, the law firm informed them, because of the new ethics policy, the one that Paz, Ramos, Robbins, and Sims had crafted.
“Linebarger found out we passed this policy, and they’re upset,” Paz said she was told by a fellow board member.
Meeks denied using the event to send what was seen by many to be a sign of dissatisfaction with the revised ethics policy. The law firm partner said it was simply his firm’s belief that hosting school district board members would be “in violation” of that policy.
But for many following the ordeal, the timing presents its own narrative. The comprehensive ethics policy was approved in April of last year. Several weeks later, Linebarger allegedly made its displeasure known to several Fort Worth school district board members during the Black Chamber of Commerce event. Two months later, school board president Jackson, who has close ties to the law firm, inserted additional text into the consent agenda of a school board meeting — a decision she alone as president had the authority to do without the board’s knowledge or approval — to rescind the new ethics policy on a busy day, when the community, media, and school board would be focused on the $750 million bond package.
Months later, Jackson told the Star-Telegram that she had the text inserted in the consent agenda at the request of fellow school board members. Several of her colleagues have since rebuked that claim.
Paz said Linebarger isn’t the only vender possibly throwing its weight around. During the 2015 search for current superintendent Kent Scribner, Paz said she received calls from school district vendors who tried to sway her vote.
When Travis Parmer first heard of the gutted ethics policy late last summer, his first thought was, “Why would Linebarger give a shit” about the district’s ethics policy. After all, he noted, if a highly paid lawyer wanted to find a way to funnel money to a public official or candidate, it wouldn’t be too difficult. In the end, Travis believes Linebarger was concerned with precedent. Houston school district had shown it was taking board ethics seriously. And now Fort Worth was following suit. If other major Texas cities began restricting the influence of outsider money on local government, Travis believes, the lucrative and expensive status quo might crumble.
Travis said the school board balance of power began to flip in favor of Linebarger with the addition of several new board members: Sutherland, who replaced six-year incumbent Chris Hatch in 2010; Jackson, who replaced Jean McClung that same year; and Carlos Vasquez, who ousted Camille Rodriguez in 2008.
Linebarger contributions from that time are unavailable. Fort Worth school district policy requires such records to be “shredded” after five years.
“Tax collecting is a very political business,” Travis said. “Contracts for entities [like the Fort Worth school district] are decided by elected officials. Elected officials have to stand for election,” meaning that they need money to campaign constantly.
Law firms like Linebarger know how to use contributions to flip elections in their favor, he said.
As the election stakes rise, so do Linebarger’s contributions. Over the past eight years, the firm has contributed $4.5 million to races across the nation, including $266,000 to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott between 2000 and 2015, according to a CNN story that cited data from the government transparency nonprofit Texans for Public Justice.
Since 2010, Fort Worth school district’s current and past board members have received $18,550 in campaign contributions from Linebarger, according to financial disclosure reports.
There was a significant spike in contributions from Linebarger in 2015, one year before its current contract with the school district was voted on. That year, Needham ($2,500), Christene Moss ($500), and Ramos ($2,500) received sizable contributions after several negligible years of donations from Linebarger, according to the reports. The next year, Needham, Moss, Ramos, and nearly every other board member voted to renew Linebarger’s contract with the school district. Paz was the sole dissenting vote.
It was around that time, in 2009, that a legal battle drew to a close. Filed against Linebarger by Perdue, Brackett, Flores, Utt, and Burns, the suit was over Fort Worth’s city tax collecting contract. The ruling, declared in the Second District of Texas Court of Appeals, found that Linebarger was not guilty of “defamation, tortious interference, business disparagement, and conspiracy,” according to court documents. The case centered on accusations that Linebarger, through its representing political consultant, Bryan Eppstein, had made false private accusations against Perdue et al. to Fort Worth City Council that resulted in the cancellation of Perdue’s lucrative 2005 city contract to collect delinquent property taxes.
“Mr. Eppstein acted professionally, and he was not directed by our law firm,” Meeks told me in an email. “Our competitor sued our firm after they lost a contract. We were totally vindicated when we were awarded a summary judgment by the trial court, and that decision was sustained at the Court of Appeals.”
The sheer size of the recently passed $750 million bond created the potential for corruption and overspending, said Jennifer Frank, the mother of two children in the Fort Worth school district who volunteered for the district’s Citizens’ Oversight Committee between 2014 and 2015. The committee was formed in 2013 to increase transparency and accountability (and possibly to avoid further public scandals like the one that defrauded the school district of $15 million in 2000).
Frank worked to ensure tax revenue was spent responsibly.
The ethics policy debate didn’t surprise her, she said.
“Linebarger, they’re all corrupt,” she told me in a phone interview. In the mid 1990s, she worked for Blair, Goggin, Sampson, and Meeks, several of whom went on to form Linebarger. She alleges that school board president Jackson and Linebarger partner Barbara Williams have had a close working relationship that Frank believes has influenced Jackson’s decisions on the school board, especially with regard to Linebarger.
Jackson works in a staff position as CEO of the nonprofit Fort Worth SPARC. Up until last December, Williams served on the nonprofit’s board, meaning she was contributing to the school board president’s day job, albeit for charitable purposes. That’s because nonprofit board members are expected to contribute financially or through in-kind services to the nonprofits they serve, according to standard nonprofit board practices.
SPARC receives funds from a variety of sources, including the City of Fort Worth.
Meeks rebutted the accusation that his law firm used SPARC to exert influence over Jackson and the school board. After all, it was Mayor Betsy Price who asked Jackson and Williams to serve as SPARC board members in early 2013. After SPARC’s CEO resigned three years later, Jackson stepped down from the all-volunteer board to serve, with salary, as CEO.
“Our firm scrutinizes all relationships for potential conflicts, and when we have any indication of one, we act promptly to address it,” Meeks said.
Jackson said that she was being paid from city funds in her role as director of SPARC when she voted in favor of Linebarger’s recent contract with the school district. After recent public backlash and media scrutiny, Williams stepped down from the board of SPARC, according to an email she sent to the Star-Telegram.
I requested a copy of the school board’s legal ruling that found that Jackson’s work with SPARC, and its Linebarger connections, does not constitute a conflict of interest.
That document, entirely redacted, was emailed to me with a note: Citing Texas Government Code, “the school district contends that it is entitled to withhold all of the documents requested.”
The Weekly is appealing that ruling.
Raul Duran is left with mixed feelings about his 18-year career as an intervention specialist at the Fort Worth school district. He enjoyed being a resource for students who needed to report bullying, drug use, or other harmful situations, he said. It was the district’s administration, working under numerous superintendents, that he found to be retaliatory toward critics while acting as “gatekeepers” for the administration’s inner circle.
Duran said he was forced out of the school district for criticizing its hiring practices and openly criticizing the lack of Hispanic representation in leadership positions. His final assessment of the district’s board is that its members hinder accountability within the school district. He cited his career and that of one-time colleague and former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal Joe Palazzolo as examples of graft within the system.
“I think negative change started with Thomas Tocco as superintendent,” Duran said, referring to the school district’s leader from 1994 to 2004. “I think the man was very corrupt and insensitive to the needs of minorities.”
Tocco stepped down in 2004 amid a concrete bidding scheme that drained more than $15 million from the district and sent two men to prison, including a district administrator.
Tocco’s tenure did see the number of schools earning an exemplary rating rise from five to 14. Tocco and the three superintendents who followed him — Melody Johnson (2005 to 2011), Walter Dansby (2012 to 2014), and Scribner (hired in 2015) –– enjoyed some of the highest salaries for that position in the state, averaging $300,000 to $330,000 annually.
Duran said his troubles began when he became vocal about the need for bilingual Hispanic staffers and administrators, he said. Several times, Duran filed grievances with the district. Those filings allowed him to speak to the district board on several occasions, but nothing ever came of it, he said.
“I feel like the district has sabotaged advancements made by Hispanics,” he said.
In 2006, a position in the school district’s Department of Equity and Advocacy opened. The position would have meant a promotion within the school district and a chance to effect the kind of change for which Duran had long advocated. As a former investigator for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Duran felt he had a strong chance of getting the position. He wasn’t given an interview. An open records request that he subsequently filed showed that he should have been included in the roster of final five applicants, who were granted an interview. According to a document he obtained through the open records request which he shared with me, the position was given to a current staffer who was not included in the final five interviewees. Duran filed a complaint with the EEOC office in Dallas. After a period of mediation, the district settled with Duran.
In 2007, Duran again applied for the position. After reaching the interview portion, Duran was told that the position was eliminated. A subsequent open records request that he filed found inconsistencies within the district’s ranking system. In 2008, Duran sued the district, maintaining that he was wrongfully denied the promotion. The case was settled in 2012.
As his career hit administrative roadblock after roadblock, Duran said new superintendents continued to protect the status quo.
Duran said his outlook didn’t improve under Johnson, who was superintendent during both promotion denials. I reached out to Johnson for this story but did not hear back by press time.
The last few years of Duran’s time with the school district were a series of reassignments, first to Rosemont 6th Grade, then to the district’s central office (with no promotion or raise in pay) as a prevention specialist for the district’s counseling department. In 2010, Duran was told that the district had run out of money for the position, which also included four colleagues.
“They got rid of us,” he said. “I think they targeted me, and my two [remaining] colleagues were sacrificed,” he said. “I’m sure that my direct EEOC experience and the fact that I stood against employment discrimination sealed my fate with the district. Insiders have come to know that the more you screw up in the district, the higher you’ll go.”
For many school district critics, the firing of Palazzolo highlights how whistleblowers are targeted. In 2010, the former assistant principal at Arlington Heights High School was fired after disclosing attendance fraud, sexual relations between students and teachers, and discrimination at the school. Soon after, Palazzolo filed a wrongful termination suit against the Fort Worth school district. In 2014, a jury awarded him $2.4 million in damages. The school board appealed on the advice of its defense counsel and with the agreement of Texas Association of School Boards Risk Management Services, resulting in a reversal of the 2014 decision in the Second District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth in 2016. A new trial was ordered. Seeking to avoid a new trial, the school district appealed directly to the State Supreme Court, asking for the case to be dismissed. The court ruled that the case would not be dismissed and remanded it for a new trial in Wise County, where the litigation first began.
Palazzolo told me in a phone interview that he regularly fields calls from frustrated teachers and staffers working for the Fort Worth school district. The biggest complaint, he said, is the lack of accountability for underperforming principals, administrators, and board members.
“Ethics? The board has no ethics,” he said. “They just get starry-eyed with the lavish perks bestowed on them. Nothing has changed.”
The Fort Worth school district’s current ethics policy, approved last December, does little beyond reiterating state requirements regarding disclosures and campaign contribution limits. Beyond that, the school district board president is now required to “remind board members of legal conflicts of interest” at the beginning of each meeting.
President Jackson said the new policy “restricts donations from vendors and requires the reporting of financial transactions and loans to political campaigns, with clearly delineated limits.”
The current policy marks a return of the status quo, Travis Parmer told me. The ordeal begs a question for many: Why does the school district need to hire an outside law firm to collect delinquent taxes? Especially when that agreement, whether with Linebarger or any future law firm, will always carry the risk of outside meddling and the expectation of kickbacks? A three-hour drive to our south, one of the largest school districts in the state uses an interlocal agreement with Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor, to handle school district tax collection.
Having seen the tax collection business firsthand, Travis said that he believes the technology needed to handle a school district’s tax collection is minimal. A few lawyers with laptops, working directly for the Fort Worth school district, could handle the work Linebarger does, he said. Beyond clearing up the potential for graft and corruption, such an arrangement would spare residents facing foreclosure from the 20-percent legal fee, mandated by the state, that’s levied on them. Anyone facing foreclosure would certainly benefit from one fewer hardship, he said.
Jackson said the issue has been studied by school district staff in the past. The findings, she said, have always been that “an outside team of attorneys collecting delinquent taxes is the most cost-effective manner for our district.”
Collecting delinquent property taxes, she said, requires a legal team of attorneys, support staff, and clerks. They also must hire customer service representatives to take calls, answer questions, and follow up for payment once a settlement agreement is generated. There are thousands of lawsuits filed that require filing and other fees, so the Fort Worth school district would need to hire people who understood this system, she said.
In a state that continues to underfund public schools, she added, using stretched taxpayer dollars for staffing a law firm is not practical.
Meeks said that his firm provides “state-of-the-art, cost-free professional collection services” to the Fort Worth school district. “Over the past five years, our cost-free collection efforts have added over $50 million to support the students and educators of FWISD,” he said.
Paz said meddling or the appearance of meddling from vendors is a dangerous distraction from the work that school district board members were elected to do. She said she is open to supporting any viable alternative to her school district’s current system of tax collection.
The Fort Worth school district is on the cusp of facing serious disciplinary action from TEA for three underperforming schools: I.M. Terrell Elementary, John T. White Elementary, and Maude Logan Elementary. I.M. Terrell is currently being renovated to house the school district’s new Visual & Performing Arts School and the Science, Technology, Engineering & Math Academy.
Under a new state law, TEA can appoint managers and disband the current school board if any low-performing school fails to meet passing standards for five consecutive years. With a handful of Fort Worth schools in danger of nearing their fifth years with an “improvement required” rating, 2018 is crucial if disciplinary action by TEA is to be avoided.
As part of a new initiative to address chronically underperforming schools, the school district has revamped and re-branded five schools as leadership academies: Como Elementary, Forest Oak Middle, John T. White Elementary, Logan Elementary, and Mitchell Blvd. Elementary.
Supported by a $1 million donation from the Richard Rainwater Charitable Foundation, the leadership academies are provided with special uniforms (similar to private schools), after-school programs, and tutoring. For example, Como Elementary has an expansive youth orchestra, B Sharp Youth Music Program.
Scribner told me in an email that he is “extremely optimistic” that the leadership-academy model will reduce the number of schools rated as “improvement required.”
The leadership academy model, he said, has “allowed us to bring a culture of success and unprecedented support to these campuses. Having said that, some of our schools have had a large education gap that needed to be overcome. They have made considerable progress, and we will continue to work with the students to achieve that goal.”
Handpicked staff, he continued, have a financial incentive to improve their school’s performance over the next year — $10,000 per year, if certain goals are met.
According to the school district communications department, “All five leadership academies show increases in the average [reading level] of their students compared to the same period last year.”
Jackson said the Fort Worth school district is seeing improving test scores overall.
“Our decision to transform our most academically struggling campuses to leadership academies is bearing fruit,” she said. “We also made gains in reading and [middle-years-level] math. Of greatest interests are the observed gains in Algebra I, as this course can be utilized with some predictive quality as a leading indicator of future graduation rates. We have listened intently to our employees, the community, and students when they have commented on the state-approved, anemic history books. We want our students to read, discuss, and remember relevant and accurate history.”
When asked to comment on the recent ethics policy controversy, Scribner said that “any comment regarding that matter would need to come from the board.”
School district parent Frank said ethics policies shouldn’t be complicated.
“Campaign contributions shouldn’t come from people who benefit from school bonds or contracts, whether it’s Linebarger or individuals,” she said. “Parents need to get involved. City Hall has its hand in the [Linebarger] cookie jar, our school board is funded by them, and the board president is paid by them. This is the way it’s been going for decades. It’s ridiculous.”