By Kathi Bliss
Without regard to a statutory requirement that a vacant position on an independent school district’s board of trustees be filled within 180 days, and despite months of trying, the Lockhart ISD School Board is no closer this week to filling the vacancy left by Chip Pittman’s July 2011 resignation.
In fact, the Trustees might be farther apart than they have ever been.
In front of a packed gallery on Thursday evening, the LISD Board of Trustees continued to lock horns and spin their collective wheels with regard to the appointment, and eventually gave the public at large a rare glimpse of how deep within the board the underlying dysfunction truly runs.
Thursday’s special-called meeting was the result of what board members referred to as a “gentlemen’s agreement,” to meet with District attorneys and work toward setting a special election to fill the position which, to date, the trustees have refused to fill. In addition, the Board had intended to finalize their annual evaluation of Superintendent Dr. Jose Parra. At the eleventh hour, Trustee Brenda Spillmann added another item to the agenda – the discussion and possible action on appointing a trustee to fill the vacant position.
She made the decision, she said, based on conversations she had the weekend prior, with two former trustees who volunteered to serve until the November regular election, in an effort to break the gridlock and move the board forward.
First, though, the trustees consulted with their attorney about the possibility of a special election. After just over an hour of discussion behind closed doors with attorney Abraham Barker of the Henslee-Schwartz law firm, the board returned to open session and Board President Timoteo “Tim” Juarez, Jr., made a motion to move forward with an order declaring the special election.
Trustee Juan Alvarez seconded the motion, and said that he believed the cost of the election was well worth the benefits, because the trustees have been deadlocked for so long on the issue. It is time, he said, to let the voters decide.
Barker suggested the election could cost the district as much as $20,000.
The motion failed, with Juarez, Alvarez and Trustee Tom Guyton in support of holding a special election, and Spillman, Board Vice President Susan Brooks and Trustee Alfredo Munoz standing against it.
Spillmann explained that she was against the measure because the trustees had not yet discussed the possibility of appointing one of the two candidates that she said had approached her to volunteer, and as she explained her actions, the sparks began to fly.
As Spillmann began to explain that she had been approached by former trustees Alan Fielder and Fermin Islas, other trustees began talking over Spillmann and drawing fierce reactions from the gallery.
Guyton accused Spillmann of trying to circumvent the board’s approved process for appointment, and said at least one of the candidates presented in the past, she declined because he is a black man. He publicly called her a “racist,” and said he believes she should resign from the board.
Guyton claimed Spillmann said, during a recent meeting, that “one black man on the board is enough.” Though she did not answer the allegation directly or explain the comment, made during an executive session, she accused Guyton of taking the remark out of context, and blowing it out of proportion.
Eventually, Juarez stepped in to cool the conversation, reminding the Trustees not to talk over one another, and asking them to conduct themselves with decorum. He said he would refuse to recognize a trustee who interrupted when another had the floor.
When the chair recognized Alvarez, he, too, said he felt Spillmann should resign from the board, and alleged that concerns brought forth by Spillmann, Brooks and Munoz regarding “certain candidates” [including the spelling and punctuation in their letters of intent to the Board, were, in fact, fabricated concerns used to veil their desire not to appoint another minority to the board.
Throughout the “letters of intent” process, Spillmann, Brooks and Munoz have offered unwavering support to Rick Womble, while Alvarez, Guyton and Juarez have put forth a variety of minority candidates, steadfastly refusing to confirm Womble’s appointment.
“Racism has no place on this board, and no place in this community,” Alvarez said. “Anyone who has those kinds of attitudes should resign from this board, and needs to leave Lockhart.”
Alvarez’s remarks drew titters from the gallery.
“You people laughing right now,” he said, “are probably racists, too.”
Attempting to press forward and conduct business, Spillmann nominated Islas to fill the vacant position, a motion which was seconded by Brooks.
Taking turns addressing the issue, Juarez, Alvarez and Guyton each expressed concern that the board had come to a consensus during the last meeting that an election would be held to fill the position. Each said that, though they had nothing personal against Islas, they were concerned that he had not submitted a letter of intent during the five month process, and said because they had not had the opportunity to bring forth candidates of their own, they would not vote to appoint Islas to the board.
The measure failed, 3-3.
Alvarez said the board should continue to discuss holding a special election to fill the vacancy, and in fact said he believed that Munoz, who was appointed to fill an unexpired term vacated by former trustee Derek Benavides in 2010, should be included in the election as well.
Under the Texas Election Code, a trustee appointed to an unexpired term serves until the next “regular” election, and cannot be put forth on a special-election ballot.
The ongoing dysfunction of the school board with regard to an appointment to fill the vacancy could be seen as a violation of the Texas Education Code, which demands that a board must fill a vacancy within 180 days.
Though the Texas Education Code does not spell out remedies for a board in violation of Section 11.060, representatives of the Secretary of State’s Elections’ Division said the violation could be litigated, and the Board could be forced through legal remedies to comply.
While the Office of the Attorney General said the issue is a local one, and would not be handled by that office, the Secretary of State’s Office said if the Board chooses to hold an election, those results could be invalidated, based on the underlying possible violation of the timeline spelled out in the Texas Education Code.
Caldwell County District Attorney Trey Hicks did not return calls requesting comment on the issue.
The Thursday, Feb. 2 meeting of the LISD Board of Trustees will be rebroadcast on Time Warner Digital Cable Channel 10 on Wednesday, Feb. 8 and on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. The board routinely meets on the fourth Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in the Conference Center (old library) of Lockhart High School.