Friday, August 3, 2018

TASB Election Heats Up

Normally no one cares about the Texas Association of School Boards.

Actually, you probably still don't care about them after reading this. Nonetheless there is an election for the local representative to the TASB and its between three people - Marlene Bullard from Tornillo ISD, Al Velarde from EPISD, and Armando Rodriguez from Canutillo ISD.

Bullard has a steep hill to climb in this one primarily because she has a smaller base to work with as a trustee in a rural community, so the race is really between Velarde and Rodriguez. In the next couple of weeks most of the school districts will be voting on this issue, with several of them voting on the same night. Both Velarde and Rodriguez are working the phones to try to get support from the various trustees in the county.

District trustees vote on who they want to represent the area by passing an agenda item in favor of their choice. So unlike most elections, you can get a sense of who is winning and who is losing before the election is finalized.

Bullard works at Fabens ISD and they voted previously on the issue, voting to support Rodriguez. But there was some procedural confusion so they brought the issue back and are voting on it again on the 15th. If Bullard doesn't win Fabens, she's basically done and not viable.

Question of Conflict

The real issue in this election is the conversation surrounding the appearance of a conflict of interest involving Armando Rodriguez. Mando is employed by Hellas Construction. They build stadiums and sell turf, so school districts are a major part of their sales. Rodriguez is in Business Development, in other words, sales.

The question of a conflict of interest with Rodriguez working for a company that does business with schools came up in the media previously and the concerns were put to rest when Rodriguez assured the board that his company doesn't do business with Canutillo ISD, where he is a board member.

Frankly, that is pretty open and shut. If his employer doesn't do business with the district, its not a big deal.

But things aren't so clear when you're talking about TASB or the Mexican American School Board Association. Those are statewide entities in which Rodriguez holds an official position.

Here's the big question for the trustees voting and the media reporting on this issue - Rodriguez indicates that the has attended education conferences as a vendor for his company. Is that an appearance of a conflict of interest?

Personally, I think its pretty obvious that it is. He sits on educational boards with statewide membership. That gives him relationships with trustees across the state of Texas. He admits attending educational conferences as a vendor, to which trustees are very often attendees. Trustees make the ultimate procurement decisions.

You're telling me that isn't problematic?

I spoke to Rodriguez to give him an opportunity to tell his side of the story.

Me: My question is about who you work for, not about the fact that you have a job. 

Mando: Its a job I applied for on LinkedIn and was able to get.

Me: Your employer is involved in school construction projects among other things. They also sell artificial turf to schools. Do you feel there is a conflict with your employment and if not, why not?

Mando: Nope. I've asked legal council of TASB and she said none at all. My goal on the TASB board is to make sure they understand the issues of a border community so we can help legislation in equity and set the direction of the organization as it relates to goals. 

Me: So one key component of conflict of interest is the appearance of conflict. Are you concerned at all about the perception of a conflict of interest of you being on a statewide board while working for a company that does business with Texas schools. 

Mando: Nope I don't mix the two. 

Mando (about two hours later): I am not concerned. My role as a TASB board member does not include or involved decisions made related to purchasing at the local school board level. TASB promotes policies and educational objectives designed to assist Board in the delivery of quality education to students. 

My point wasn't about whether as a TASB board member he was making purchasing decisions at the local level. Of course he doesn't, that isn't the issue. I don't know if he didn't understand my concern or if he's just giving me a red herring argument, but the questionable situation is the fact that he is a sales guy for a vendor that does business with schools. Serving on these statewide boards with other trustees gives him an inherent advantage at performing his sales job.

The question isn't if he's making the actual vote at a school district level, its about him making the pitch for the product to trustees who do make the actual vote, that know him through relationships that he's cultivated on boards like MASBA and TASB.

I was told by a school board trustee that Rodriguez attended at least one education conference wearing something that had the name of his employer on it, though the trustee wasn't clear as to whether it was a name tag or a shirt with the company name on it. I found out Rodriguez attended education conferences as a vendor - that is to say he attended education conferences like the coach's conferences in his official work capacity as a salesman.

In a bit of whataboutism, Rodriguez raised the question about whether Velarde had a possible conflict. So I asked Velarde about his work as an Executive Director of a non-profit. V

ME:  ...he raised a legitimate question. Does Paso del Norte health foundation have contracts with schools or districts and in what capacity do you work with them?

VELARDE: First, we are not the Paso del Norte Health Foundation so I don't know what they have in place if anything. We are the Paso del Norte Children's Development Center. We do provide space to EPISD for them to operate a PK3 and a PK4. We have an MOU in place but we get no payment from EPISD. This was set up before I got here. We provide a teaching assistant for the EPISD teacher at our cost and get no cost to the district. The only thing we get is that a few of the kids stay with us for childcare before or after their class. We did an analysis on it and we are loosing approximately $3,000 per month on this arrangement. We do it because we are the best option for children with special needs because we bring therapy into the classroom for them.

Rodriguez believes that Velarde is running against him because his enemies on the Canutillo Board of Trustees put Velarde up to run against Mando and he further believes that Velarde is bad mouthing him to other Trustees. The reality is that I was the one who questioned the conflict issue because of his employment when I had heard he was calling trustees to solicit support for his candidacy.

Sources also indicate he's been trying to do some damage control over the phones in anticipation of my post.

I don't particularly care who is going to represent the area on a board of limited influence. I'm asking a legitimate question about his potential conflict because a compromised member is not an advantage for the El Paso area.

Controversy seems to follow Rodriguez pretty regularly. Here is an editorial by the El Paso Times calling into question transparency. And this isn't the first time that questions have been raised regarding Armando Rodriguez' possible issues with conflict. Click here to read that story.

I'll update you in a future poll about the eventual outcome of the race later this month.

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