By Kathi Bliss
After more than a year of wrangling and several thousand dollars in legal fees, the Office of Attorney General Greg Abbott settled a question of power and placement for the Lockhart Independent School District last week.
The question, which according to LISD records was brought forth by former trustee and Lockhart resident John Manning, centered around whether or not LISD Superintendent Dr. Jose Parra was in violation of the state’s nepotism statutes when he transferred his wife, a certified counselor, to the Pride High School, effectively swapping her position with then-counselor Lynne Lewis, who was moved to the Lockhart Discipline Management Center campus.
Parra has maintained that the swap, which did not impact either woman’s salary or work hours, was not only legal, but necessary. As a certified counselor, Mrs. Parra has the authority to certify transcripts, he said, a function that is necessary for the graduating seniors at the pride high school, and an authority that Lewis did not have at the time.
Manning, backed by pressure brought to bear on the LISD Board of Trustees and LISD attorneys by Trustee Tom Guyton, disagreed.
The transfer occurred in February 2010 and was brought to light in August 2010. At the time, Manning told the Austin-American Statesman that he thought Parra would simply return the women to their original positions.
Instead, Parra stood his ground on the transfer. The Board then opted to seek an opinion from the Office of the Attorney General as to whether, for purposes of the transfer, Parra was a public official who was in violation of state nepotism statutes by making a personnel transfer involving his wife.
At the time, Parra had final hiring authority, which was granted in January 2010 in an effort to allow the district to streamline the hiring process and become more competitive as an employer. That final authority was later revoked, in the wake of the questions surrounding the transfer.
Had Parra been found in violation of the nepotism statute, he could have faced misdemeanor charges and fines up to $1,000, and his career could have been ended by the fallout. Parra was responsible for paying his own legal fees to defend the transfer and his position – a decision which eventually allowed him to prove he was not in violation of the laws.
The opinion from the OAG, released on Feb. 7, briefed Chapter 573 of the Texas Government Code, specifically as it applied to the question of the transfer, and summarized by saying, “[the] superintendent of an independent school district is not a public official subject to the anti-nepotism provisions of the Government Code when assigning an employee to a particular district campus.”
The opinion, which had been Parra’s stance all along, was also suggested to the LISD Board of Trustees by their legal counsel in August 2010. However, because the matter was, in the eyes of some, not “well-settled” under the existing laws, the Board chose to push forward and ask State Senator Glenn Hegar to seek an opinion from the OAG.
Between preparation of the brief requesting the opinion and the several hours spent in executive session with attorneys discussing the matter, the LISD Board incurred $33,937.73 in legal fees to settle the matter.
The average starting salary for a first-year teacher in the Lockhart ISD is $41,250.