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YISD trustees spent thousands in taxpayer money to fight transparency law

By: Bill Melugin

EL PASO, Texas Trustees of the Ysleta Independent School District spent $7,500 in September 2013 to fight back against Texas House Bill 343, according to invoices obtained by KFOX14.

HB 343 requires school board trustees in El Paso county to file financial statements starting next year or face a possible misdemeanor charge. The law was aimed at making trustees more accountable and increasing transparency.

YISD trustees fought against the law until April 2014, when the voting majority switched and trustees voted 4-3 to discontinue spending district money to fight back against the law.

In May an anonymous source provided KFOX14 with copies of legal invoices from September that show a district attorney, Anthony Safi, had charged trustees $225 per hour for consultation regarding HB 343 and attorney Monica Pineda had charged the district $135 per hour.  Legal fees for the month cost YISD a total of $7,497.

"That money should've gone to the kids, 100 percent, said Shane Haggerty, a YISD trustee. "The money needs to go to the kids because this is a law, this isn't something that affects the students, this isn't something that affects the teachers, this is something that only affects school board members.

The invoices show trustees consulted with the attorneys on what the latest possible date they could resign their positions could be, specifically so they wouldnt have to file a financial statement.

"I've heard speculation that some of the board members have considered stepping down to avoid having to file those documents, Haggerty said. "Why anyone wouldn't want to fill out their financial disclosures, I couldn't tell you, but I have no issue with anybody looking at my documents once I've filed mine.

The invoice also shows board members repeatedly discussed HB 343 and sought an opinion from the Texas attorney general about the law.

Haggerty told KFOX14 board discussions about HB 343 began a year ago.

KFOX14 filed an open records request with YISD seeking to find out how much district money had been spent in legal consultation regarding HB 343 between September 2013 and April 2014. Attached to the request were the legal invoices we had obtained from an anonymous source, meant to serve as context as to the type of information being requested.

Shortly after the request was sent in, YISD Superintendent Xavier De La Torre released a memo stating the district had hired an outside investigator at a rate of $75 per hour to find out who provided KFOX14 with the invoices.

De La Torre also stated in the memo  that The invoice for legal fees in the photograph was unredacted and contained attorney-client privileged information that is protected from public disclosure."

The memo also warned of jail time and fines for whoever had leaked the information to KFOX14.

KFOX14 sent the open records request in two weeks ago and still has not received the requested information. YISD has not asked for an extension and the district has surpassed the 10-day deadline to respond to an open records request.

"In my opinion, the entire subject has been a little upsetting, Haggerty said. These are public funds going to pay for attorneys, why wouldn't any private citizen, including the media, be allowed to see those records and say this is where we spent your tax dollars?

KFOX14 met with De La Torre on Monday and asked him whether he feels district money was spent inappropriately by trustees.

"I can only speak to my tenure, and I'm not aware of the board of trustees spending any money other than on students faculty and staff, he said. "I've not made it a point to go back and look at decisions that have been made prior to my arrival."

De La Torre was asked about trustees considering resigning before filing a financial statement and whether that concerns him.

"All seven of the trustees aren't the type of people that skirt their responsibilities or dodge anything. I think they're principled and so if something happens to be counter to their principles, they'll make decisions based on that, he said.

KFOX14 asked De La Torre if he feels YISD trustees did anything unethical.

"I do not, he said. And maybe it's because I've been in the district for all of 70 days, and I've not made it a point to go back and look at decisions that predate my tenure.

 

De La Torre guaranteed that KFOX14 would receive its open records request within the next day or two.

After reviewing the invoices in person, De La Torre admitted nothing in the documents needed to be redacted and that everything in it was subject to open records laws.

KFOX14 also submitted open records requests to every school district in El Paso County to find out how much money each had spent  between Jan. 1, 2011, and April 1, 2014.

The results are as follows:

1)      EPISD - $2,980,234

2)      YISD - $2,826,864

3)      Socorro ISD - $775,139

4)      Clint ISD - $565,283

5)      Canutillo ISD- $424,937

6)      Tornillo ISD- $243,809

7)      San Elizario ISD- $131,478

8)      Fabens ISD- $82,124

 

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