When Fort Worth ISD board President Tobi Jackson traveled to an education event put on by the Wallace Foundation at Stanford University in 2015, she did so as a member of the district — her expenses mostly covered.
But her fellow board members didn’t know that Jackson was, at the time, a board member of the local chapter of the Scholarly Public and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an education non-profit that receives money from Wallace.
“That would have made a difference,” said board member Ashley Paz. The board became aware of Jackson’s connection to SPARC later, when Jackson became executive director of the group in January 2016.
Shortly after the conference, Wallace announced a $765,000 grant to SPARC.
Paz discovered last week that Jackson was a charter board member of SPARC in a story by The Texas Monitor (“Ethics policies, records access, continue to dog Fort Worth ISD”).
“None of us knew she was a founding member of SPARC,” Paz said. “So that’s interesting. Promoting that organization is not a problem, until she starts using district resources. And now that we know she was a board member, a reasonable person could ask the question: Was she traveling in her capacity as a board member for the school district or as a board member for SPARC?”
Jackson’s LinkedIn page makes no note of her early connection to SPARC.
Jackson said in an email. “I attended at the invitation of The Wallace Foundation and The Gardner Center at Stanford, in my capacity as a FWISD Board trustee and this was independent of my role as a volunteer board member of FW SPARC.”
The Texas Monitor’s story last week outlined a legacy of opacity regarding transparency at Fort Worth ISD in light of a failed effort to reform the district’s ethics policy.
In reporting the story, we found Jackson’s early connection to SPARC, which she shared with Barbara Williams, a lawyer from Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson.
Jackson voted in 2016 to extend the district’s tax collection contract with Linebarger despite her connection to the firm. Jackson was called on this during an ethics policy debate last year and she insisted she had no need to refrain from the Linebarger vote, saying it was “not a conflict of interest and has a letter from an attorney backing her,” according to a story in the Fort Worth newspaper.
It was a statement worth verifying, so in reporting the story, we reached out to Jackson via our in-house email address — ending in texasmonitor.org — asking to see a copy of the letter from the lawyer.
Jackson never responded to The Texas Monitor’s query.
On Monday, we received a letter from the school district’s lawyers, refusing to provide the letter Jackson cites as a reason she did not need to recuse herself from the Linebarger vote. The district is seeking a ruling from the state Attorney General on what was supposed to be an informal, personal courtesy — an opportunity to prove her statement.
Two other parties have, through open records requests, sought the letter Jackson cites as her ‘out’ to avoid a conflict, and both times the district has prevailed in keeping that alleged evidence secret.
Of course, the letter is protected by attorney–client privilege, which we readily admit. We just wanted to give Jackson a chance to prove her insistence that she was ethically clear in her conduct.
The district paid for the letter, Paz said.
“[Jackson’s] argument to get the district to pay for it was that she would not have to hire an attorney if she were not a board member,” Paz said.
The law firm that now represents the board, Leasor Crass, was the one that both provided the alleged letter of clearance to Jackson and sent the letter challenging our request.
At the time, Leasor Crass was not representing the district, so Jackson went to outside counsel for the work. And when she became board president in May 2017, Jackson made Leasor Crass the board’s counsel, Paz said.
“I’m going to ask to see this letter,” Paz said. “They’ve been so secretive about it, even though we paid for it, now I need to see it.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].