At school board meetings, Fort Worth ISD trustees regularly hear committee reports from colleagues on topics ranging from finance to after-school programs.
These reports are the public has access to, but the committee meetings are closed to the public.
The issue of transparency – including committee meetings – has emerged as a campaign topic among the candidates vying for seats on the school board. Early voting started April 24 for the May 6 election.
Current District 5 trustee CJ Evans said she wants committee meetings to be open to the public, especially when people care about what is being discussed. She pointed to the racial equity committee as an example.
“I have encouraged board members on that committee to make their committee meetings open. I think just opening the doors will go a long way,” she said. “The racial equity committee meetings were open. But at the height of COVID and then after George Floyd, there was just such a fervor that a decision was made — not by me and it wasn’t even a board decision — it was a committee decision to have those meetings private so that they could just get business done.”
Evans sits on three committees — finance, legislative and policy — all of which conduct closed meetings.
One of her opponents, Kevin Lynch, wants more transparency from the school board on where students stand academically. He would propose the district sending a letter to all parents letting them know if their student is performing at grade level in reading, writing and math.
At the trustee level, Lynch thinks the board approves expensive items without enough information to make an informed decision. The district should provide more information, he said.
Agenda packets include reports on each item trustees vote on, including the cost to the school district.
“I think you have to require that all of this information needs to be provided to me in order for me to make a decision. And if you don’t give me the information I’m asking, then you don’t give the district what they’re asking for, and that creates a level of accountability,” Lynch said. “As a board, we structure that. And every time they’re asking for money, there’s transparency of where that money’s going, why we’re doing it, is it impactful? If you can’t do those things, then we’re not gonna continue to do these things.”
Candidate Josh Yoder also wants more financial transparency, along with campus-level accountability data.
Typically the board sees districtwide data, he said. Yoder would like to see a campus breakdown presented to the board.
Campus level accountability data is provided by the Texas Education Agency online at www.txschools.gov.
“I think the website needs a full overhaul because it is not transparent,” Yoder said of the Fort Worth ISD page. “You have to dig and dig and dig. Transparency in salaries, you need to put that out there. With the budget, I want to see how we are faring from an education standpoint and the expenditures on specific schools’ administration.”
Board president and District 2 candidate Tobi Jackson believes the board has been as transparent as it can be and said she is open to ideas on how to improve.
“We work as unpaid volunteers and our job is 40 to 60 hours a week when we do it well, and I have a full-time job,” Jackson said. “We are available via text, via phone call, social media, via email. And I believe we get answers to people with regard to their questions all day every day. I don’t know how much more transparent we can be.”
Jackson pointed out that the board publishes the budget and checks for district purchases online.
Her opponent disagrees.
In the two board meetings she’d attended when she spoke to the Fort Worth Report in March, Carlson said she did not think the board was very transparent. There are smart parents who do a lot of research and stand up to speak at meetings, Carlson said.
She also pointed out potential conflicts of interest. Specifically, she referred to the district hiring law firms that have donated to trustees’ campaigns. At the March board meeting, an item considered working with Cantey Hager LLP, Kelly, Hart & Hallman LLP and O’Hanlon, Demerath & Castillo — all of which have donated to trustees.
Carlson would not accept campaign money from firms that do business with trustees, she said. So far, she has not.
The school board should be more transparent with parents, District 3 candidate Mar’Tayshia James said. She doesn’t think the 2 to 3 minutes allotted for public comments at board meetings is adequate.
“I don’t think that’s enough time either to get what it is that you’re trying to say out, especially when it comes to your child,” James said. “And they would know their child better.”
The Texas Open Meetings Act allows governmental bodies the right to limit the amount of time someone can speak during public comment.
The district can also improve on how it gets information to parents and have more of an open-door policy, James said.
A big part of transparency is communication, District 3 incumbent Quinton Phillips said. People need to feel like they can inquire about something in the district and get reliable information and hold people accountable.
“When you talk about transparency — all of our systems are getting revamps, including communications — so people can begin to get real-time access to real information so they know what’s happening in the school district,” Phillips said. “When people know what’s going on in the school district, they feel so much better.”
District 3 candidate Valeria Nevárez thinks parents are blindsided by a lot in the district, such as not having access to curriculum, she said. When taxpayer dollars pay for curriculum, parents shouldn’t have to pay money through an open records request to access it.
If elected, Nevárez said she’d be open to communication with parents and district staff.
“You should be talking to the parents on a daily basis,” she said. “I think there’s something super powerful about being face-to-face, not just emailing, but getting to know people on a personal level, building relationships.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.