AP NEWS

Parents allege rushed Fort Bend ISD middle school rezoning politically motivated

March 21, 2019

Parents say they feel they were unfairly singled out in a scathing editorial by Fort Bend ISD trustee Kristin Tassin. In a March 12 editorial titled “Bullying Tactics Used in Attempt to Force FBISD Trustees to Cower to the Will of One Community”, Tassin blasted a group of residents from the Sugar Land-area Riverstone development for “harassing” and “bullying” trustees in opposition to plans to re-zone two nearby middle schools. Tassin called the parents “loud” and “angry” and criticized them for filing multiple open records requests for trustees’ texts and emails.

Radhika Iyer is a soft-spoken mother of two Fort Bend ISD students who says she feels betrayed by Tassin. She and other Riverstone residents say they feel heir community has been unfairly singled out for re-zoning and question if the proposal is a pre-election political maneuver.

“I think this last minute re-zoning is absolutely politically motivated. Otherwise, the process would be a more transparent and organized process,” Iyer said. “I think we need to have a larger conversation and careful planning before trustees consider these rushed, last-minute plans for re-zoning just before the election coming up in May.”

Iyer said she and other parents were shocked during the Feb. 18 board meeting when trustees proposed re-drawing enrollment boundaries to move several hundred kids from Fort Settlement Middle School, which is expected to have near 100 percent enrollment to First Colony Middle School, which consultants predict will drop to roughly 62 percent enrollment.

Iyer questioned if board members were focused on the needs of students or if winning re-election for two incumbent board members next May was the bigger motivation.

“I think some of the board members are looking at this as a political win,” she said.

Iyer and others in the group who oppose re-zoning argue the board has not applied policy rules fairly.

“In terms of overcrowding and campuses with lower enrollment, the board has set their own guidelines. Any school that has less than 80 percent of its enrollment capacity is considered under-utilized and any school over 120 percent is considered overcrowded. But, they don’t stick to that rulebook when it comes to different communities. They need to work on building trust within the community and this is not the way to do that,” she said.

Tassin’s criticism came after several dozen Riverstone parents protested outside the Feb. 18 trustee meeting. Led by former TV reporter turned media consultant, Wayne Dolcefino, the parent group stood outside the meeting holding handmade signs as they talked with reporters.

The next day, the group responded to Tassin’s social media post turned-editorial by sending reporters a press release demanding Tassin apologize and then resign. Instead, parents say they got the cold shoulder not only from Tassin, but also from board president Jason Burdine and other trustees who have ignored calls and emails from irate parents.

In her editorial, Tassin wrote “Members of this community, which is a small portion of the Riverstone development, are acting like they are the only community that matters.” Tassin went on to accuse parents of trying to “dominate and usurp” district time and money and urged board members and parents in the district to “stand together against the bullying tactics employed by these individuals.”

Riverstone parents then launched an online petition to voice opposition to re-zoning that garnered more than 650 signatures as of Wednesday, March 20.

Despite opposition, district administrators are quickly organizing plans for the re-zoning. Last week, parents say a large group of Riverstone students came home upset or crying after a field trip to Fort Settlement was cancelled without notice. Students who were looking forward to visiting what they expected would be their new middle school, came away from the experience confused and unsettled, according to Iyer.

After the abrupt change of plans, parents received an update from superintendent Charles Dupre about plans to re-zone with limited time for community input. Iyer volunteered and was selected to serve as a member of the recently formed steering committee organized to provide feedback.

“I feel it is kind of a futile exercise because it appears the decision is already pre-determined. Why even have the sham of having the community meeting?” Regardless, Iyer said she would participate and offer her feedback on the district’s rezoning proposal.

“Moving from elementary school to middle school is a very important transition and as a community many of us would like to see all our elementary school children go to the same middle school. Of course, I realize that may not be possible. But, I think we need to have a proper conversation about that before jumping into re-zoning in a very rushed manner,” she said. In addition, Iyer argued the vote to approve re-zoning should be delayed because the board is currently short one member after trustee KP George won elected to Fort Bend County Judge last November.

Some Riverstone parents speculate trustees targeted their development because Judge George nurtured a special friendship with many Riverstone residents when he was a trustee. Perhaps some board members and parents thought George had given Riverstone parents special treatment and it created resentments, parents said as they try to piece together a possible reason for the current hostility focused on their communty.

Iyer said she felt Tassin had damaged her relationship with many parents in the Riverstone community as well as other parts of the district as well.

“I think if I were living in another part of the district and I read Mrs. Tassin’s statement saying negative things about a community, basically resorting to name-calling and calling for the rest of the district to stand with her against Riverstone, I would question her judgement and would be hesitant to trust this elected official,” Iyer said.

But, trustees have many supporters among Fort Settlement parent of students who are expected to remain at the campus. With enrollment next year expected to be near full capacity, many parents favored plans to move some students to a less crowded campus.

However, Baylor College of Medicine faculty member and educator Uma Ramamurthy is not among those who support re-zoning. A Riverstone resident for eight years, she worries her grandchildren attending Fort Bend ISD elementary schools will be uprooted by the proposed rezoning. She said she was disappointed in Tassin’s criticism toward parents for making open records requests.

“Her reaction to our open record requests shouldn’t be trying to shame parents and calling us irresponsible and making accusations she is being bullied, because that is not based on facts,” she said.

Riverstone parent Sapna Singh, parent to two Fort Bend ISD students, also questioned Tassin’s accusations that requests for information were harassment.

“If records are requested, there is a state law that protects the public in terms of knowing how decisions are made. If she disagrees with that she has to take that opinion up with the Texas Attorney General, not the people who requested the records. We have a right to request the records just like a person who lives in Aliana, or Quail Valley or Sienna Plantation. Any resident of the district is allowed to request records under Texas state law. But, if her reaction to that is to single out a community and speak negatively about them, I think that mars the trust the community will have in how she is making decisions. As a voter, you want to be able to trust your public officials and trust the process by which they make decisions is fair and consistent. We do not have to agree with all the decisions made by the board, but we do want to believe they are made in a fair, just and legal manner,” she said.

In her editorial, Tassin claims open records requests made by Riverstone parents will draw funding from other educational programs.

“The district will likely be required to expend thousands of taxpayer dollars to assemble, redact and produce personal records for dozens of personnel. Thousands more in taxpayer dollars could be wasted as FBISD must now consider whether to issue trustees and staff phones and computers in order to protect personal information on personal devices,” Tassin wrote.

“This takes resources, money and focus away from educating students. This is especially damaging at a time when we struggle to find funding for technology in our classrooms, a literacy center that helps at-risk children read, an early intervention center that helps students with disabilities prepare for the classroom, and new early college and P-Tech programs at our more struggling high schools. This is where our money and focus should be,” she wrote.

However, according to state law the district can charge requestors for costs for copies and employee time needed to redact personal information from open record request documents and multiple open record requests should have no financial impact.

One question that remains unanswered is the process that led trustees to discuss re-balancing enrollment between the two middle schools at the Feb. 18 meeting. The agenda included no mention of a proposed re-zoning measure as required by Texas Open Meeting Laws for trustees to take action.

Joseph R. Larsen, an attorney who specializes in media and public records law from the Houston law firm Gregor Cassidy, PLLC, commented by phone Wednesday, March 20, that it was possible trustees violated the state open meetings laws.

“It’s troublesome that the district has already taken concrete steps in the re-zoning process such as sending emails to parents and gathering community input from a steering committee as they are just now going to vote in an upcoming meeting as to whether or not it should be done in the first place,” he said.

Larsen said he was also concerned by Tassin’s complaints trustees were being harassed via requests for public information.

“The re-branding of requests for information underlying this decision as ‘bulling’ is a sure sign the process is less than transparent,” Larsen said.

Tassin, board president Jason Burdine and others were contacted via email Wednesday, March 20, to allow the opportunity to clarify information or respond to parent’s questions and concerns. Trustees have so far declined to comment. Trustees are expected to vote for final approval to re-balance enrollment and accept new attendance boundaries at the upcoming March 25 board meeting.