The SAISD Ethics Committee meets on May 30, 2018.
The SAISD Ethics Committee meets for the first time in May 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Prompted by a former board member’s trial on federal bribery charges, San Antonio Independent School District board trustees on Wednesday night started the process of creating an ethics code for district staff and board members.

This first meeting for the district’s newly-formed ethics committee was called to define the group’s scope and review ethics recommendations made by a federal prosecutor and FBI agent involved in former District 6 trustee Olga Hernandez’s trial.

The three-person ethics committee is made up of trustees James Howard (D2), Christina Martinez (D6), and Steve Lecholop (D1), who serves as committee chair.

“The impetus for the formation [of the committee was] the unfortunate circumstances of one of our colleagues, and so that is kind of the micro reason we are here, although the purpose of this committee is much broader,” Lecholop said.

The committee will work for roughly six months before presenting what Lecholop hopes will be a code of ethics the full board can adopt to define best practices for both trustees and district staff.

Lecholop told the Rivard Report that he hopes this code will become a “national model” and his board’s legacy.

During the meeting, committee members asked board counsel Pablo Escamilla about enforcement mechanisms for this hypothetical code of conduct, mulling the idea of a sanction process if a trustee were to violate one of the tenets.

“What is the purpose of any of this if we can’t enforce it?” Lecholop asked.

Escamilla said he unsure what all was permissible under Texas law, but that he would investigate how other districts operate prior to the committee’s next meeting.

SAISD Chief of Staff Tiffany Grant presented a list of ethics recommendations based on her conversations with the federal prosecutor and FBI agent involved in Hernandez’s trial. Grant said the federal officials told her the recommendations aim to tackle issues in SAISD, but that they also extend to similar problems in districts across the state.

Many of SAISD’s issues with existing ethics guidelines – or lack thereof – came to light during Hernandez’s trial. In December, the former trustee was found not guilty of federal charges of conspiracy to solicit and accept bribes and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. However, during the trial Hernandez did acknowledge she had received gifts including trips to Las Vegas and tickets to Spurs basketball games from insurance brokers seeking contracts with SAISD, leaving lingering questions about best practices for district trustees and staff.

Some of the suggested changes Grant presented included reviewing the bidding process and paying special attention to time periods when vendors are not to contact district staff or trustees; clarifying the gift policy to include whether food or travel qualify as gifts; and developing heightened awareness for trustees who strongly advocate for a particular vendor.

Committee members also talked about the potential for ethics training. Martinez, who was appointed to fill Hernandez’s seat, said she received extensive training during her on-boarding process regarding her role in governing that illuminated how to avoid some ethical dilemmas.

“The governance training I received really helped me understand that while I can advocate for teachers or students, the day-to-day decisions about vendors or students … is not my role,” Martinez said. “You really do cross the line of governance when you start to make advocacy-based decisions for particular vendors or particular schools.”

Much of the conversation Wednesday night focused on interactions with vendors and gifts given to trustees. Escamilla pointed out certain areas that are tricky to navigate – for example, there is a distinction between reporting requirements for entertainment and gifts.

If a vendor gives a trustee tickets to a Spurs game, it is considered a gift and the trustee may be required to report it. However, if a vendor invites a trustee to a Spurs game and the vendor attends the game with the trustee, the interaction is considered entertainment and has different reporting requirements.

Committee members said they want to explore ways to address these potential conflicts further.

Lecholop requested that trustees hear from a member of the City’s Ethics Review Board on best practices at the committee’s next meeting. A date for that meeting has not yet been set.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.