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

In a long-anticipated vote, San Antonio Independent School District trustees voted Tuesday night on an ethics policy more than a year in the making. Trustees unanimously passed a policy that imposes restrictions on themselves and district staff for acceptance of gifts and other ethical dilemmas.

Over the year it took to form the 48-page policy, trustees had to contend with the limits Texas law places on school districts’ ability to police themselves. The strongest reprimand a board can issue to a trustee found in violation of an ethics policy is a public censure.

SAISD trustees first decided to form an ethics committee that would create a policy to govern school district employees and board members after ethical questions arose during the federal bribery trial of former District 6 trustee Olga Hernandez.

In 2017, Hernandez was indicted on federal bribery charges related to her acceptance of gifts from an insurance broker seeking business from the school district. She was acquitted, but trustees decided to look into formulating an ethics policy.

When I joined the board two years ago, this month, March, this was a big deal for me to understand how these things happen,” said trustee Christina Martinez, who was appointed to replace Hernandez. “I kept asking why does this happen, how does this happen … and nobody could really tell me. So this really spells out for everybody the [ethical issues] to be concerned about and to really understand all the [issues] that are out there.”

The code approved Tuesday night outlines restrictions for current and former board members and employees, people doing business with the district, lobbyists, and members of the public. It addresses conflicts of interest, gifts, and confidential information as well as reporting mechanisms and the investigation process when violations occur.

Board members and district employees should recuse themselves from official action that they know could likely impact the economic interests of themselves, family members, outside clients, household members, or other related businesses and entities, according to the code.

Trustees and staff are also not allowed to solicit, accept, or agree to accept any gift that could “reasonably be construed to influence” official district duties and responsibilities. These gifts include tangible items, meals, and entertainment.

An exception to the rule allows trustees and employees to accept gifts that are tangible items of nominal value and meals and entertainment that total less than $25 in one instance, or less than $150 in a single calendar year from a single source.

Trustees and staff can not use their position to obtain official information about any person or entity for any purpose unrelated to official district duties.

If a board member or employee becomes aware of an ethics code violation, they are required to report the violation “within a reasonable time.” Any person who intentionally fails to report a violation is open to penalties.

Trustees can report violations to the board president or vice president, if the board president is the subject of the report. The board president can then begin an investigation. Employees can make reports to the superintendent of the district.

Board members who violate the code would be publicly censured.

All trustees will be given a copy of the ethics code to review annually and sign an affidavit stating they read the document. Newly-elected and appointed trustees will receive a copy of the code within 30 days of being sworn into office.

Employees of the district will be required to review and sign a form saying they understand the code within 60 days of its implementation. All new hires will be given a copy of the code within 30 days of their first day of employment.

“This ethics code is about affirming what we are doing right collectively and using this moment to make sure that the people who come after us adhere to the same standards that we expect of all of us sitting in this room today,” Ethics Committee Chair and Trustee Steve Lecholop said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.