Regardless of what policy the Round Rock school board has set, board members have the right to talk to news media, a school district attorney has told trustees.
Reacting to a television interview given by board member Cory Vessa in January, the board voted 5-2 at its meeting Thursday to require board members to refrain from speaking on behalf of the entire board.
Instead, members will bring board-related issues to board president Charles Chadwell, who will act as the spokesman for the board. In the absence of Chadwell, vice president Nikki Gonzales would serve as spokesperson. If neither is available, only board secretary Steven Math would be empowered to speak for the group.
Chadwell and Vessa voted against the rules change, which drew criticism from government transparency organizations, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Texas Sunshine Coalition.
“You can’t pass a rule that restricts the free speech rights of elected officials,” Kelley Shannon, executive director of the FOIFT said Monday. “If they want to voluntarily defer to the board president, that’s their prerogative. Or if they don’t want to talk to the media and pay a political price for it, they can. But you can’t tell them they can’t talk to the press.”
Douglas Poneck, an attorney for the district, concurred. Several board members confirmed that he sent a message to all board members over the weekend assuring them they were free to discuss any and all district business, as long as they stipulated that they were speaking as individual board members and not as the voice of the board.
Vessa said she was satisfied with the clarification. “I’m talking to you now, so I have clarity,” Vessa told The Texas Monitor Monday afternoon. “I ran on mobilizing for our district. My entire campaign was school finance reform. It’s important that we have powerful voices advocating for our community.”
Vessa’s voice alarmed several members of the board when KXAN-TV in Austin aired an interview with her on Jan. 15. The story focused on efforts by leaders of both houses of the Texas Legislature to increase spending on public schools and to reform the school finance system. KXAN also reported a $14 million budget shortfall for the Round Rock district and the “jam” the district will be in without more funding from the state.
“It’s going to affect every facet of our school system here in Round Rock,” Vessa told the reporter.
Math told The Texas Monitor he thought Vessa did nothing wrong, but the juxtaposition of the good news from the capitol and Vessa’s warning was probably worrisome to parents, taxpayers, staffers administrators and teachers in the district.
“It was the perception of alarm,” Math said. “It wasn’t a good look.”
At its Jan. 24 meeting, board member Mason Moses proposed that all statements from the board come from the board president. “I think the goal is to make sure none of us are blindsided,” Moses said prior to the vote. (You can find the entire discussion and the vote beginning at 1:25:00 of the meeting video.) “We all agree that being blindsided is not the most fun.”
Vessa told the board at the meeting that the rules change could lead to board members and their opinions being locked out of public debate. “The truth of the matter is,” Vessa said prior to the vote, “there’s precedent for certain people not being very popular on their board and then maybe the board votes that that person never gets to speak — ever.”
Chadwell, who will become responsible for joint board statements, told board members he voted against the change because existing rules were clear about the role of individual members on the board, district spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo told The Texas Monitor Monday afternoon.
“The motions approved last week do not prohibit individual trustees from speaking to the meeting or legislators when speaking for himself or herself,” LaCoste-Caputo said. “Board policy and board operating procedures already permitted the board to designate a spokesperson when speaking for the board as a whole or for the district.”
James Quintero, with the Texas Sunshine Coalition, told The Texas Monitor Monday afternoon he was relieved to hear the school district’s attorney had clarified the board’s ruling.
“There seems to be a trend toward less transparency at the local level,” Quintero said. “Without open and honest local government, it is going to be impossible to have effective public oversight of our cities, counties, and school districts.”
Vessa said she intends to continue to speak out as an individual board member to seek relief for Round Rock school district taxpayers.
“I don’t want to have to go back and fight this battle over school finance again,” she said.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].