The San Antonio Independent School District board may get to see a first draft of a district ethics policy as early as September. That’s the hope of the board’s ethics committee members, who met Tuesday.
Following the trial and acquittal of former trustee Olga Hernandez on federal bribery charges, the SAISD board formed an ethics committee and charged it with developing an ethics code.
Meanwhile, SAISD trustees were to convene Wednesday to discuss proposed revisions to the district’s work schedule for staff members. The district wants to provide campuses with greater scheduling flexibility, such as allocating staff to cover student arrival and dismissal.
On Tuesday, the ethics committee heard from Adriana Garcia, chair of the City’s Ethics Review Board, about how the City addresses ethics complaints about elected leaders and top-level staff members.
At the end of the meeting, committee Chair Steve Lecholop said he would draw up an initial draft ethics policy based on feedback from fellow members James Howard and Christina Martinez, and on research that SAISD staff has conducted.
“It’s not only how we police ourselves, board members, but we’re also going try to figure out how we can integrate staff members into the ethics code as far as conflict of interest, doing business with vendors, entertainment, gifts, all that stuff,” Lecholop said.
Hernandez was accused of taking part in a scheme to rig the school district’s contract bidding process in favor of a specific insurance broker in return for gifts of jewelry, airline tickets, expensive meals, and hotel stays. Hernandez resigned from SAISD’s board shortly after her arrest in February 2017.
Committee members said one of their main concerns is to what extent could the SAISD’s elected officials police themselves and high-level administrators without superseding the State’s education code, which governs Texas public school districts.
“My thought is that our code, our first draft, should go as far as the State law allows us,” Lecholop said.
Lecholop said that once an ethics policy is crafted, the ethics committee could recommend specific actions such as creating a new administrative position similar to that of the City’s auditor.
Lecholop said he hopes the committee can reconvene in a month – not long after the start of the new school year – to review the draft policy.
After the full board looks at the ethics policy, Lecholop continued, the school district may seek an opinion from the State attorney general’s office on whether any part of the new ethics code goes above and beyond State code.
For her part, Garcia informed the ethics committee of the ERB’s history, and the recent modifications that the City Council made to the board’s functions and jurisdiction.
“We try to be more proactive than reactive,” Garcia said. “Perception is a big thing to understand.”
Some existing codes and laws governing Texas public school districts already have ethics components. For example, each school board member must provide a conflict of interest disclosure statement. Another requirement is that a district’s annual financial management report include summary reports of a trustee’s business transactions with the same district, and any gifts totaling $250 or more received by board members.
Howard said he felt that SAISD already addresses some things like tracking disclosure statements and keeping an eye out for irregularities when the district solicits a bid.
Lecholop said another question to explore is whether the district should try to create a panel similar to the City’s ERB, one that reviews an ethics complaint and renders a decision.
“It would give an opportunity for our constituents to be involved and give them an understanding of the inner workings of a school district,” Howard said.
Martinez said that creating an ethics code could reinforce district staff operations in terms of making board members and top administrators aware of potential conflicts of interest and other improprieties.
“Who on the staff side is helping prepare board members to understand those vulnerabilities?” Martinez asked. “That’s where I think work needs to be done.”