Despite more than a year of outcry for transparency, trustees remain torn between giving people the answers they need and protecting the best interests of Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, board president Luis Fernandez said.
That said, it’s unlikely Uvalde will see another district town hall meeting anytime soon.
“We’re really handcuffed in what we can and can’t do,” Fernandez told the Leader-News on Aug. 28. Even so, Fernandez said, the board sees the need for clarity and hopes to strengthen communication in the year ahead.
In the months after the May 24, 2022, shooting at Robb Elementary, the board held a handful of community meetings where residents could ask questions and air grievances. During multiple board meetings since, people have asked for another.
Fernandez called these meetings “not productive,” and said it wasn’t likely the board would hold one anytime soon.
In lieu of the community meetings, Fernandez plans to hold “placticas,” or “talks,” on the west side of town. During these talks, Fernandez will field questions about district operations and policy on behalf of the board, he said.
No definite timeline has been laid out for when the talks will happen, but Fernandez said he sees this as a compromise.
Although the district’s board procedures stipulate trustees are not allowed to act in their official capacities outside of meetings, Fernandez said he – as president – has more liberty when it comes to public communication.
Other efforts Fernandez said he wants to introduce include: meeting with students and teachers; starting a “dads in schools” program; pursuing new board training; and publishing a board president community newsletter.
People have called for answers – or any indication that their concerns are being heard – at multiple board meetings over the past several months.
For a time, trustees’ emails were removed from the district’s website altogether. The board’s decision to stay quiet on most matters following May 24 stemmed from legal advice to play things on the safe side, Fernandez said.
He also said his own grief following May 24 contributed to the lacking communication. Now that he’s had some time to heal, he’s ready to open things up, Fernandez said.
The school district, like other public entities, is limited in what information it can share in and out of meetings by the Open Meetings Act and other legal parameters, like FERPA.
During the open forum part of board meetings, members are restricted, to a degree, in what they can say to community members.
In Uvalde this past year, open forum has become a place where community members, desperate for answers, approach the board with questions. Regularly, these questions elicit the following response:
“Per the Open Meetings Act, the board cannot discuss items not related to the agenda.”
The Texas Association of School Boards says: “The OMA does not authorize a board to discuss or act on comments or complaints from a member of the public if the subject is not on the meeting agenda.”
Board members can respond in some circumstances – but that response is limited, according to TASB. Board members can answer community members by:
1. Making a statement of specific factual information;
2. Reciting existing board policy related to the question asked;
3. Placing the item on a future agenda;
4. Deliberating with the board on whether that can be placed on an agenda.
Although trustees know they can do this, they typically don’t respond to avoid saying the wrong thing or fueling anger, Fernandez said.
Due to the amount of litigation filed against the district after May 24, the board is especially concerned about making a misstep, Fernandez said.
Joy Baskin, an attorney at TASB, said boards statewide are advised to take this approach during meetings. Erring on the side of caution by not responding to community members prevents trustees from relaying incorrect information on the spot.
behind the scenes
Fernandez said the board handles most grievances and questions behind the scenes instead of in public.
If a community member wants to ask questions between meetings or on an item that’s not on a meeting agenda, Fernandez said people can email board members at: 1. Luis Fernandez, email@example.com;
2. Rob Fowler, firstname.lastname@example.org;
3. Laura Perez, email@example.com;
4. Javier Flores, firstname.lastname@example.org;
5. Anabel White, email@example.com;
6. Cal Lambert,
7. J.J. Suarez, firstname.lastname@example.org
Although trustees can answer low-stakes questions, like the date of an upcoming meeting or event, all in-depth questions go back to the superintendent, Fernandez said.
Any time a board member receives a detailed question from a constituent by email, that information is shared with interim superintendent Gary Patterson. Then, Patterson will address the issue or work with that board member to address it.
The board’s key responsibility is to its only employee: the superintendent, Fernandez said. Outside of policy approval, it’s largely responsible for setting goals for the superintendent. How the superintendent achieves those goals is up to them.
Among the things community members called for after May 24 was a full administrative audit. An outside entity was never introduced to perform that audit, although Fernandez said he thought Patterson, who joined the district in November, provided a sufficient outside perspective.
Baskin, the TASB attorney, explained that being out in the community and engaging with one’s constituency comes with the job. Even so, boards are allowed to set a specific set of operating procedures that may have guidelines on public interaction, she said. These procedures aren’t legally binding, but help keep board members on the same page.
According to the UCISD board’s operating procedures, adopted March 27, no trustee can act in their official capacity outside of official board meetings. What official capacity means is subject to interpretation, Fernandez said.
Although trustees are able to share their personal opinions on board matters with constituents, they can’t promise the board will act in a certain way, Fernandez said.
UCISD board members are typically advised to stray from having community meetings because they run the risk of making promises they can’t keep, Fernandez said. But, they’re not prohibited from doing so, he said.
During an Aug. 3 informal meeting held at the Tabernacle of Worship in Uvalde, board member J.J. Suarez told about 10 community members that trustees would discuss the search for a new superintendent at their next meeting. He also shared plans for district security upgrades. The district and Suarez later backtracked on the search, citing an official agenda hadn’t been published, and that Suarez didn’t have the authority to share that information at the time.
Despite the perception that Suarez was acting in his official capacity, Fernandez said that by having the meeting, Suarez was acting as an individual, not a trustee. Although there wasn’t anything wrong with Suarez sharing that the search was upcoming, it was information discussed in a closed session that had not been put on an official agenda, Fernandez said.
Per state regulations, no Texas public school board member has the individual authority to make decisions on behalf of the board, Baskin said. The board can only take official action as a unit.
Mickey Gerdes, an attorney who served on the UCISD board of trustees 2010-2018 and spent four years as its president, said although the present board is likely taking a more-cautious approach to public communication in the aftermath of May 24, trustees have always been limited by policy in what they can share.
Gerdes said there’s often a misconception on what the board has the power to do.
“It’s a very limited responsibility, a very limited power, that the board of trustees has,” he said. Most of that power is delegated to the superintendent. The main way the board can hold a superintendent accountable is by performing regular evaluations and reviewing their contract.
It’s pretty common for the school board president or superintendent to be the point person for community questions, Gerdes said.
When Gerdes was on the board, he wasn’t advised on how to interact with community members. He was, however, regularly reminded that he as a board member had no power outside of a called meeting.
Fernandez said he understands that the board’s lacking communication contributes to a perception that it doesn’t care.
But that’s not true, he said. He hopes strengthening communication and incorporating transparency can help knock down that view.
“We care more than you believe, or else I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m still sitting,” Fernandez said.
Sofi Zeman (email@example.com, 830-278-3335) covers education and crime for the Uvalde Leader-News as a Report for America corps member. Report for America (www.reportforamerica.org) is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities across the United States and its territories.