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Minda Caesar wants to start a "public conversation" about SBEF, other NPOs; Board agrees completely.

[Authors' note: You will read and hear a lot about emails in this update and video. We have requested copies of these emails from SBISD, but have not received them yet. Therefore, this update is sourced solely on the publicly-available information in the board meeting video below. We will update readers further when SBISD fulfills our request for copies of the email communications.]


The Spring Branch ISD Board of Trustees held their regularly-scheduled board meeting on Monday, September 19th. The final item on the agenda was a "discussion of the District's affiliation with 501(c)(3)'s", commonly known as non-profit organizations, or NPOs.


This item was added to the agenda at the special request of Trustee Minda Caesar. Video of her agenda item and the discussion that followed is below.


Ms. Caesar opened her agenda item by referencing "a lot of [internal] questions coming through my email on this topic" of NPOs, and added that it was "worth bringing out for a public conversation, to see if there is a particular issue there."


This email exchange would become central to board discussions later in the meeting.


VIDEO*: SBISD Trustees discuss SBEF and other non-profit orginizations.


Ms. Caesar asked Trustee John Perez, who had authored certain basic questions about SBISD's relationships with NPO's including SBEF, to expand on his inquiries and any findings. Mr. Perez had drafted his questions because the Board had appointed him as their liaison to (and member of) the Spring Branch Education Foundation Executive Committee.


Mr. Perez offered a few high level points about transparency and the differing parity of various NPO's. Specifically:

  • how much access each NPO has to our district personnel, facilities, and IT infrastructure,

  • how certain NPO's have different levels of access, i.e., they are treated differently, and

  • Mr. Perez compared the legal agreements in place with different NPO's and noted specific places where certain agreements are less robust than others.

Ms. Caesar noted that there are a handful of NPO's that use district facilities and did not object to a review of the agreements the district had with those non-profits.


Ms. Caesar then noted that although the non-profit organizations like SBEF may be "beneficial relationships" that can "enhance the student experience", that indeed SBISD "may have to consider different ways that we do this."


As the discussion continued, Mr. Perez and Trustee Chris Gonzalez compared and contrasted their observations of the different ways non-profits are treated by the district.


Vice-president Lisa Alpe, speaking next, noted that the email exchange between Mr. Perez and SBEF concerned her. Ms. Alpe described the questions asked by Mr. Perez as "bland and basic" and "non-probative" and concluded that Mr. Perez was "just trying to learn [about SBEF] as a new trustee."


She described the response from SBEF to these questions as "very defensive" and "very disproportionate", and rhetorically asked "why can't we as trustees ask any questions of SBEF, that [offices] in our administration building?"


Ms. Caesar immediately interjected, agreeing with Ms. Alpe, that Trustees "can ask the Foundation any questions at any time [we] want."


Mr. Perez and Ms. Gonzales continued their discussion of some specifics of the Spring Branch Education Foundation and their fundraising and accounting methodologies. Mr. Perez stressed that the district and SBEF need to be fully transparent with one another, and that the District needs to be in a position to hold SBEF accountable should any need arise.


Ms. Gonzalez closed that discussion by agreeing that the board should look at non-profit agreements in detail, but, she caveated her agreement by expanding the scope of that review to capture many smaller NPOs, Ms. Gonzales then questioned the time it would take staff to prepare for that larger review, seemingly undermining her own suggestion.


President Chris Earnest pointed out to Ms. Gonzalez that Mr. Perez had asked his initial questions of SBEF in his capacity as a board-appointed liaison to that non-profit, and that such inquiry was not only natural, but expected of him in that role.


Mr. Earnest continued, "It is our duty to probe and ask questions" and added that "there is a level of defensiveness [in the SBEF response to Mr. Perez] that is somewhat alarming, and I don't really understand it."


Mr. Earnest concluded, "I think that the fact that these questions originated from [newly-elected Trustee John Perez] got met with defensiveness" because he was unfamiliar to, or perhaps not preferred by, SBEF leadership.


Mr. Earnest closed his remarks about the SBEF emails by correctly stating that it was "dangerous when an organization that is supposed to be for the benefit of all students gets political"


Trustee Josef Klam supported Mr. Earnest's conclusion that there was a political aspect to SBEF's response to Mr. Perez.


More importantly, Mr. Klam specifically raised the issue that SBEF leadership has been involved in Elizondo vs. SBISD since that lawsuit was filed against the district over a year ago. This is the first time we recall a sitting board member acknowledging the elephant in the room on the record.


The Board's discussion moved on to the unique benefits SBEF receives from the district. Specifically:

  • SBEF offices are located inside the SBISD administration building,

  • SBISD uses taxpayer money to pay for multiple employees that work for SBEF, and

  • SBEF board members are also members of the SBISD Board of Trustees.

President Earnest offered some information on nearby school districts and how they manage their relationships with their own educational foundations. Mr. Earnest noted that "the practices are split", with some districts housing their foundations in public facilities, and others not, and, certain districts having their trustees serve dual governance roles, and others not.


Mr. Earnest said it's "fair to look into" these practices between SBISD and SBEF.


With each and every of these trustees in agreement that the conversation they will soon have will be fruitful, Ms. Caesar closed the agenda item by inquiring of the superintendent whether the upcoming process would be a burden to staff. The superintendent made it clear that staff will support the Trustees in their efforts to review the district's relationships with SBEF and any other NPOs the trustees have questions about.


With that settled, the trustees adjourned their meeting.


For our part, SaveSBISD is happy to see this discussion begin. We will do all we can to keep our readers informed as the public conversation continues.


If you would like to stay updated, please subscribe to our updates here, and follow us on Twitter @SaveSBISD.

 

*In the interest of keeping this video watchable, SaveSBISD has edited out a single, ~4:00 section which was not relevant to the discussion by the board, and was never referenced during their subsequent discussion. That section was a dive into the minutiae of how the district can handle certain entities, legally.


If you would like to see this portion of the video, or if you are having trouble sleeping, it is available on the SBISD website here and begins at the 3:42 mark.





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