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

The San Antonio Independent School District Ethics Committee unveiled its long-awaited ethics policy at a Monday night board meeting, roughly one year after former trustee Olga Hernandez was on trial for federal bribery charges.

Trustees plan to make revisions to the nearly 40-page policy and bring it back up for discussion and a vote in 2019.

Prompted by issues broached in Hernandez’ trial, the committee first started meeting in May to formulate an ethics policy that would define best practices for trustees and district staff.

During her trial, Hernandez revealed she had received gifts that included trips to Las Vegas and tickets to Spurs games from insurance brokers pursuing contracts with SAISD. This left lingering questions for current board members, who sought to eliminate conflicts of interest for both trustees and SAISD employees. The former trustee was found not guilty.

Over the span of six meetings, the group reviewed the City of San Antonio’s ethics policy, rehashed “significant ethical lapses” of the past, and formulated a sweeping proposal. The lengthy draft includes provisions on gifts, conflict of interests, education on the policy, and reporting and enforcement.

Before this proposal, SAISD lacked a comprehensive ethics code, Committee Chair Steve Lecholop said.

We had pages and pages of semi-related, semi-ethics policies that were spread out among the diaspora of policies that this district has adopted at some point or another,” Lecholop said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to how they were organized.”

If approved, the new ethics code would require school board members to review the policy once a year and sign an affidavit verifying the annual review. The policy would also require district employees to familiarize themselves with the ethics code. This would prevent employees and trustees from claiming they didn’t know what is and is not permitted, Lecholop said.

The proposal also outlines various instances in which trustees must recuse themselves from votes if a conflict of interest emerges. There were no “hard and fast rules” prior to the proposed policy, Lecholop said.

The policy establishes a rule on gifts, placing a monetary value on allowed entertainment, meals, and other gifts. Per the ethics code, trustees would be allowed to accept gifts of nominal value like a box of chocolates during the holidays, meals valued at $25 or less, and entertainment including – but not limited to – sporting events, concerts, and movies valued at $25 or less.

Certain employees involved in financial services who play a role in procurement and payments would not be allowed to accept any gifts.

These provisions would be enforced by a reporting requirement that mandates issues with employees be relayed to the superintendent and conflicts with trustees to the board president. If the board president is implicated in a conflict, a report would be made to the board’s vice president.

The board president could investigate the complaint and if an issue were found credible, the board of trustees could publicly censure the trustee in question at the next school board meeting. If the report involves district staff, the superintendent could investigate and propose penalties to the board as deemed necessary.

This enforcement mechanism is the harshest state law allows, Lecholop said. Whereas cities and other government entities have policing power, school districts do not.

“As the [ethics] committee discussed … we should go as far as the law allows us in order to make sure we are holding ourselves and our colleagues accountable for adhering to the ethical restrictions,” Lecholop said.

When trustees asked how the code would address campaign finance contributions and become more user-friendly, ethics committee members said they plan to revisit those matters in a future meeting.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.