Katy ISD trustees: Freedom of speech restricted by school board

By Sebastian Herrera
Houston Chronicle
Originally published Nov. 13, 2016

Two trustees on the Katy school board believe their First Amendment rights are being infringed by a written board procedure that only allows the board president to speak to the media.

The long-standing procedure suggests that elected officials should filter information to the public and act as a unified voice despite different opinions on district matters. It is scheduled to be discussed by trustees in the suburban west Houston district on Monday after new board member George Scott threatened legal action.

Katy ISD voters elected Scott in May after he ran a campaign based partly on criticizing the board’s transparency on fiscal matters and other topics. Trustee Charles Griffin, who has been on the board since 2012, has also publicly complained about the protocol.

“Katy ISD is a government, and if a government tries to restrict the ability of a trustee to speak to the media, it is simultaneously restricting the freedom of the press,” said Scott, whose background is in public policy and journalism. “There is nothing that should exist to squelch that right, but there has been an effort in Katy ISD to filter the public discussion.”

Trustees are scorned behind closed doors by board president Rebecca Fox and other trustees if they talk to media members on any issue about the school district, which is the eighth largest in Texas with 73,000 students, Scott said.

The procedure is not illegal, but trustees shouldn’t be discouraged from speaking to the media, according to Houston-based attorney Tom Gregor from Gregor Rippy, a law firm that works with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, a nonprofit that focuses on protecting the state’s laws for open government.

Many school districts in Texas have policies that deem the board president as the spokesperson but still allow other board members to speak to media members if they want to, according to Leslie Story, lead attorney at the Texas Association of School Boards, which represents school boards statewide and gives them counsel.

Some Houston-area districts, like Fort Bend, loosely follow a similar practice. Trustees in other districts openly talk to journalists.

‘Free speech issue’

Board members in Katy, however, decided more than 10 years ago that only the board president should speak to reporters, according to Fox, who has been a trustee since 2004.

“It’s the way our board chooses to respond. We all agree to it,” Fox said. “It’s one of many, many procedures we have agreed upon. It’s not an infringement on our rights. I’m open to changing it.”

The team-first mentality pushed by TASB prompts boards like Katy’s to act as one voice instead of as individually elected officials, Scott said.

Kelley Shannon, executive director at Freedom of Information Foundation Texas, said each school board member has a duty to speak to journalists.

“(The board’s) constituents include the media. That’s how officials speak to the public,” Shannon said. “They don’t have to have the same viewpoints as the board president. This is clearly a free speech issue.”

Community decision

After waiting for change to occur during his first months as a trustee, Scott’s frustrations tipped over when he recently felt restricted to discuss a Chronicle report detailing how the price of the school district’s new football stadium had quietly climbed to about $70.3 million, making it the costliest high school stadium in the state.

Scott sent an email to Fox and superintendent Lance Hindt saying he would seek the advice of a private attorney regarding the procedure unless the matter was quickly placed on a board agenda to be publicly discussed. Hindt could not be reached for comment.

Griffin, who served as board president before trustees awarded Fox the job in the spring, has voiced displeasure about the protocol since switching roles.

“It’s not the board president’s job to police us. It’s the community’s,” Griffin said. “Let the community decide what’s good or not.”

Fox said the discussion on Monday will be open-ended and that the procedure could be altered in the future.