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State rejects ethics complaint in GISD election

The Texas Ethics Commission has rejected a complaint lodged against Goodrich Superintendent Dr. Gary Bates by Patricia Oakley, who also has filed a civil lawsuit in district court challenging the results of the Goodrich Independent School District’s $3 million bond election.

“We received sworn complaint SC-31605141 on May 16, 2016,” the commission’s response read. “This complaint does not comply with the legal and technical form requirements for a complaint filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

“A sworn complaint must also allege facts that provide sufficient detail to reasonably place the respondent on notice of the law violated and of the manner and means by which the violation allegedly occurred and to afford the respondent a basis on which to prepare a response. Section 12.61, Ethics Commission Rules. Your complaint includes allegations that the respondent, as an officer or employee of a political subdivision, knowingly spent or authorized the spending of public funds for political advertising, in violation of section 255,003 of the Election Code.

“However, the complaint did not allege facts or provide evidence sufficient to show that the respondent spent or authorized the spending of public funds for political advertising. In addition, it is unclear which specific communications you are alleging constitute political advertising and for which you are alleging the respondent committed a violation.

“Further, the complaint also does not clearly indicate whether the respondent authorized each of the communications that you are alleging constitute political advertising. Therefore, the allegations do not state facts that indicate the manner and means by which the respondent committed a violation under that section of law.”

The bonds that were approved by voters in the May 7 election were split into two propositions. Proposition 1 had a vote of 66-61, with Proposition 2 passing 64-59. The $600,000 in Proposition 1 is earmarked for debt the district accumulated last year when work was done on roofing and an HVAC system that was sinking into the ground. The other $2.4 million in Proposition 2 will go toward current issues, including the school’s roof, science labs, doors and windows.

“I’m very satisfied with the report that the Texas Ethics Commission has ruled,” Bates said. “From the start of this bond, we have been very transparent about what we were trying to do with this money. It is going to benefit Goodrich ISD, our kids, and our community as well.”

Bates said there would be minimal work for the school board once the funds are received, as the money has been allocated to specific items.

“We have earmarked this money for doors, buses and science labs,” Bates said. “We can’t go back and change that — we would be breaking the law. Everything we posted and everything we put out — factual information — that is what we are going to do with that money. The only thing I’m really concerned about is there’s not going to be enough money to pay for everything that we were wanting on our wish list for renovations needed. We did not want to raise taxes, but unfortunately education is becoming a very expensive business. The great thing about this bond, it’s not going to just touch elementary kids or middle school kids or high school kids. It is going to touch every child in this district.”

There were 60 school districts attempting to pass bonds on May 7. Out of the 60 school districts, the Goodrich bonds were lower than all but two schools. Bates said the district attempted to find an amount low enough to cover essentials and have the smallest impact on taxpayers.

One of the complaints listed in the ethics commission filing involved students who were part of a video placed on YouTube used to educate the public about the bonds. A quick search of YouTube found informational videos of Terrell ISD, Weslaco ISD, Plano ISD, and locally, Splendora ISD bond elections. All had students play a large role in its videos, with shots of students in school and all, by admittance of Bates (who was also the video’s director), were a higher quality of production.

Each of those school districts was attempting to pass bonds at least 10 times the amount of those that passed in Goodrich. Plano topped all asking prices in the state, with a $481 million bond.

At no point in the Goodrich video are viewers asked to vote in favor of the school bond. It does show teachers and faculty giving examples of items and facilities in need of repair on campus. The video can be seen on YouTube by searching “Goodrich Bond Proposed Projects.”

Regarding another allega-tion made in connection with the election, the superinten-dent said he knows nothing of a trip from U.S. Capital Advisors about which the filing suggests he “should be questioned under oath.”

“We are being very cost-effective with what we are trying to do here. It is kind of like repairing your home,” Bates said. “Things are going to come up that cost. I feel like we’re good for right now and these buses will be a game-changer for us, as well as the science labs. We will probably not see this money until November. What we would like to do is have two new buses at the beginning of the year for January of 2017.”

One of the issues raised by Oakley in the complaint to the ethics commission concerned an interview that the Enterprise conducted with Bates about the bond election. The interview was posted on the district’s website as well as its Facebook page.

“Your complaint includes an allegation that the respondent knowingly spent or authorized the spending of public funds for political advertising,” the response from the Texas Ethics Commission said, “when his statements, which were gained through an interview conducted by a newspaper reporter on school property, appeared in a newspaper article. Political advertising is defined, in pertinent part, as a communication supporting or opposing a measure that in return for consideration, is published in a newspaper.

“Although the newspaper article appears to include statements made by the respondent that support the passage of the school bond measure,” the commission’s response continued, “the complaint did not include any evidence that shows the newspaper published the communication in return for consideration, and thus, whether the newspaper article constitutes political advertising. Therefore, the complaint does not allege facts that, if true, constitute a violation of a rule adopted by or a law administered and enforced by the commission.”

Multiple efforts to contact Oakley for comment failed and calls were not returned.

Another claim was that the paper Goodrich ISD used for brochures printed to inform the public about the bond election were made of “heavy, glossy paper and in full color at an extreme cost to the school.”

According to school officials, the paper used for the brochures was purchased in 2007 at $22.94 per ream, which consist of 500 sheets each. Only 75 percent of the ream (375 sheets) was used -- 300 in English and 75 in Spanish -- for an amount just over $17. Copies in two-sided color cost the district over $63. The two combined for a grand total of $80.29.

The complaint charged that only 10 percent of those eligible voted and asks that a new election be called to give everyone an opportunity to learn about the bond and involve the entire community.

However, the school’s efforts to inform the community through brochures, YouTube videos, and newspaper interviews were all listed as grievances in the complaint’s preceding paragraphs.

“Hopefully we will start the projects in November or December in terms of roofs,” Bates said of the funds the school will receive. “We are starting our budgeting process and we are talking to architects. We’re going to look for the best possible choices. Dr. Bates does not have any architectural friends or anything like that. We are going for the bang for our buck, because we don’t have a lot of money to spend. Once we know, we will let our community know where everything is going. Our community will know that their tax dollars are not wasted.”