By Kathi Bliss
Despite several hours behind closed doors on Monday evening, the Lockhart ISD Board of Trustees made no decisions they were willing to announce to the public.
In a special-called meeting, Trustees chose to cover a range of legal issues, including the possible appointment of a new trustee, addressing questions about redistricting and the change of electoral terms, and discussing an employee grievance.
Although sparks flew and contention ran high among the board members, no forward motion on any of the issues was visible.
Early in the meeting, the board convened in an executive session to discuss the appointment of a trustee to fill the unexpired term vacated by the resignation of Chip Pittman last summer. Several previous votes gridlocked at 3-3, and there were hopes among the public that the board would finally move forward.
Homer “Papa” Shaw, Jr., and Rick Womble remained in the running as volunteers to step up and fill the position. Shaw recently submitted a letter of interest, while Womble noted his interest when the first call for potential appointees was requested.
Board vice president Susan Brooks, along with trustees Alfredo Munoz and Brenda Spillmann have offered their unwavering support to Womble, while in Monday night’s vote, Board president Timoteo “Tim” Juarez, Jr., and trustees Juan Alvarez and Tom Guyton stood fast in support of Shaw.
Neither side blinked, and once again, no appointment was made to fill the position, despite encouragement from at least one member of the gallery for Juarez, Alvarez or Guyton to strike a compromise and vote for Womble in an effort to help the district move forward with routine business.
The trustees did not announce any plans or give the administration guidance on how to move forward. If a decision is not reached soon on the appointment, the trustees will be forced either to hold an election or to face hefty fines from the State.
In a related item, Spillmann asked the trustees to convene in an executive session to discuss the recent vote to extend the terms of the three at-large trustees to November 2014. The request sparked heated discussion about Spillmann’s interaction with district attorneys, and degenerated quickly into interruptions and accusations.
Because Spillmann’s request was to receive legal advice in executive session, no one at the dais made it clear to the public what the information she hoped to discuss was, nor how that information triggered her desire to rescind the decision made by the trustees during their last meeting.
The request did, however, make clear that dysfunction and bitter interactions are bogging down board business.
Alvarez accused Spillmann of disregarding board protocols and requesting an attorney to be present at the meeting, while Spillmann maintained her request was to engage in a telephone consultation with legal counsel. She agreed that she had called the board’s law firm, Henslee Schwartz, to ask a question about the wording of the agenda item she’d submitted, but maintained that the presence of the Henslee Schwartz attorney was in relation to another agenda item, and was the result of another board member’s request.
Alvarez pushed the point, reminding the board that during a recent meeting, Spillman unilaterally decided to have legal counsel present, an accusation that Spillmann denies. She maintains that she requested counsel to be present, but that she followed protocol and directed that request to Board President Juarez.
After heated discussion in which Alvarez suggested that the district should bill Spillmann personally for the legal fees incurred at the previous meeting, the trustees agreed to convene in an executive session to discuss Spillmann’s question with the attorney, and to determine whether it was proper fodder for an executive session. The attorney responded that the session should convene, and if the subject matter was improper for an executive session, that he would advise them to break the executive session and reconvene in a regular open meeting.
Before leaving the dais, Alvarez asked the present attorney whether, if Spillmann’s request was not in line with policy and law, and was not a topic that was proper to be discussed in executive session, if she would be billed for the attorney’s time, or if the district would. He cited upwards of $160,000 in attorneys fees paid last year. Before the attorney could answer, he retracted the question.
The board remained in executive session for nearly half an hour. When they reconvened in open session, they did not clarify the question or the issue discussed behind closed doors.
Juarez did, however, open fire on district administration, asking why a directive issued by the board during their last meeting was not followed.
“We voted on and prepared a resolution, and directed it to be mailed,” he said. “I want to know why it wasn’t mailed and who made the decision not to. I saw a disturbing email that one of our employees was questioning our action – and why is an employee questioning? If we take an action, it should be upheld and carried out.”
After a third closed session lasting about 20 minutes, the board opted to defer action regarding the settlement of an employee grievance until their regular meeting scheduled for Jan. 23, 2012.
The board then convened in their fourth and final executive session, to discuss their evaluation of Superintendent Dr. Jose Parra. Just after 10:30 p.m., they once again met in open session, and Juarez announced that, “based on the discussion in closed session, [the board would] take the necessary steps to move forward.”
The meeting closed with no other information shared with the gallery or the administrators asked to be present for the meeting as to what issues were discussed, what future action might be taken, or what concerns the board had raised about prior or upcoming issues.
Lengthy sessions behind closed doors with little information shared with the public after the fact has long been a hallmark of the Lockhart ISD Board of Trustees, which routinely meets on the fourth Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in the Conference Center (Old Library) of Lockhart High School.