The fictional Ewing family of the Dallas TV series may have seen less scandals in their 35-plus years on South Fork Ranch than Texas independent school districts (ISD) have over recent years. Dallas ISD, Garland ISD, Comal ISD and South San Antonio ISD boast everything from school officials charged with cheating on standardized test scores and trusted district employees caught emptying out the coffers to teacher-student sex scandals have all rocked Texas education. In early April, two high-profile district embezzlement cases hit the headlines.
In Collin County, the $2.5-plus million dollar Plano ISD (PISD) embezzlement scandal came to resolution while downstate in Jefferson County, Texas Education Agency (TEA) Education Commissioner Michael Williams dealt with the aftermath of two former district employees indicted for the $4 million Beaumont ISD (BISD) embezzlement scheme that has shaken the community. Not only has it raised issues of school governance, it may put the district in El Paso ISD’s (EPISD) shoes with a school board takeover.
The harsh highlights in Plano ISD included former school district employee Kris Wilson Gentz who plead guilty for his role in conspiracy to embezzle over $2.5 million dollars from the school district However, according to U.S. Attorney Malcolm Bales, Eastern District of Texas, “the total amount of money stolen is not available yet because of the length the scheme was carried out.” The total amount should be less than $7 million, according to the Plano Star Courier on April 1.
“Public corruption always involves the breach of a position of trust and, even apart from the financial impact, erodes the trust of taxpayers and the community,” said Bales about last week’s events in PISD, according to an FBI news release.
Former City Manager and Security and Fire Systems Security Support Specialist Gentz was responsible for ensuring that the schools in the district were equipped with fire and security alarms that were properly maintained for 12 years. According to the FBI, Gentz and two others set up companies called Fire System Specialists and Digital Security Solutions between 2004 and December 2013.
It came out in court that Gentz and his co-conspirators were “allegedly” maintaining fire safety and security systems. In reality, they generated fraudulent invoices for the companies and submitted them to PISD for payment. In his district position, Gentz corruptly approved invoices for services and products never rendered. The embezzlers planned to split the cash. In this case, PISD officials discovered the fraud and reported it to the authorities which led to Gentz now facing up to five years in federal prison.
Like in Plano ISD, Beaumont ISD’s former finance director Devin McCraney and former comptroller Sharika Baksh Allison were indicted on federal charges, 19-counts including conspiracy and 18 counts, of fraud. Both defendants face up to 10 years of fraud in federal prison if convicted.
On January 8, 2014 the U.S. Attorney, Eastern District of Texas issued a press release that said $4,041,705.27 were embezzled from BISD school funds by means of 18 separate wire transfers to bank accounts under personal control. The scandal decimated already tattered public trust in a district plagued with leadership issues and a continual lack of internal controls despite 2013 reviews and recommendations made for improvement, according to an NBC 5 report.
On Tuesday, April 1, the TEA issued its final BISD financial investigative report recommending the removal of the current publicly-elected school Board of Trustees to replace them with a Texas Education Agency (TEA) appointed board of managers. Although BISD board president Gwen Ambres said the other board members were very unhappy and disappointed with the TEA response, but they would comply. The TEA was not the only agency to respond to the district corruption.
Jefferson County D.A. Cory Crenshaw also responded with a request for public input of “knowledge of wrongdoing,” asking community members who have any information to come forward. He said, “We are asking that all individuals with knowledge of criminal activity at BISD to meet with us, tell the truth, and agree to cooperate. Change within this school district is imminent, and this opportunity will hopefully allow for swift justice.”
However, final fate of BISD’s board rests with Commissioner Williams, who met with the seven trustee members on April 3rd. Breitbart Texas attempted to reach the commissioner for comment last week but did not hear back before deadline.
In audio of the press conference, Williams said, “Now, we have to figure out solutions,” adding that he had not made any decisions based on the TEA report recommendations yet and wouldn’t “tarry long but not rush into it either.” A priority for Williams is give voice to the community who would normally not have this opportunity. He plans to solicit input from BISD “moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, guardians, area civic leaders and elected officials” before rendering a decision.
Should the commissioner move forward with his staff’s recommendation of a district takeover by a board of managers, Texas law also requires Williams to appoint a new superintendent.
Earlier in his TEA tenure, Williams did just that at El Paso ISD (EPISD), where a high-stakes state testing scandal and a TEA recommendation led to replacing the board of trustees. BISD might meet the same fate — an appointed managed board of trustees–but for very different reasons.
Although the commissioner is clearly doing his part to rectify a bad situation and re-instill the public trust, there is something always to be considered philosophically regarding appointed versus elected boards, even when communities are clamoring for a TEA board takeover.
Publicly-elected school boards of trustees and appointed boards of managers operate under different governance guidelines. Boards of trustees answer to those who elect them; chartered or managed boards answer to the public agent(s) that appoint them. The Texas Education Code (TEC) delineates distinctions.
Even though boards may have the exact same functions that does not mean they are always answering to the same higher authority. Even as the TEA recommends the takeover in cases such as EPISD and BISD, perhaps, even rightfully so, a managed board does come with a price in freedoms. To whom does the board answer? The taxpayer or the TEA?
In the case of the EPISD takeover, the managed board assumed authority immediately. They can stay in power for up to two years before the TEA removes the board of managers and reinstates local control, according to the El Paso Times.
Understandably, the commissioner may have no choice but move forward to appoint managed governance but it is important to consider that the ultimate price of a school scandal may be loss of local parent, community and district control.
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom