Cowardice and Contempt for the Law on the Texas State Board of Education

It seems that at least one member of the Texas State Board of Education likes to attack colleagues behind their back rather than address them face-to-face. And that same board member appears willing to break the law to hide such deceitful tactics.

We told you last month that Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, sent his state board colleagues a private memo chastising them for spending so much time pushing a politically motivated resolution that criticizes the College Board’s Advanced Placement U.S. History course. Nearly 50,000 Texas high school students took the highly regarded course and its exam in 2013 to earn college credit. But board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, has criticized the course for supposedly undermining patriotism and promoting America-bashing.

Right-wing bloggers have echoed and spread Mercer’s baseless and silly claims, and the manufactured controversy has spread to other states as well. One Colorado State Board of Education member has even criticized the course for not teaching students that the United States ended slavery “voluntarily.”  Of course, the reason students don’t learn that is because it’s not true. But truth hardly slows down politicians trying to score cheap points with their gullible base.

Anyway, you can read Ratliff’s memo to his colleagues here. Very soon after he sent it, however, one of his board colleagues leaked it to a right-wing fanatic — Donna “Jeffrey Dahmer Believed in Evolution” Garner — with an email list. Garner then blasted out a nasty email attacking Ratliff and calling for his impeachment.

Wondering which state board member would have done such a deceitful thing to a colleague, we formally requested under the Texas Public Information Act any communications about the memo between state board members and individuals off the board. We also requested related communications among board members.

Well, the leaker didn’t fess up and turn over the relevant communications with Garner. That’s no surprise, but it also seems rather cowardly. And it indicates the leaker is willing to break the law to hide that cowardice. Public officials and employees are required to turn over written communications or other documents responsive to a valid Public Information Act request. (The leaker could have asked the state’s attorney general opinion about whether the requested documents must be turned over, but that didn’t happen. Of course, it’s very unlikely that the attorney general would have ruled in the leaker’s favor on this point anyway.)

We did, however, get some interesting communications among board members. Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, told Ratliff she was disappointed by his memo:

“Way to throw half of the board under the bus.”

That seems an odd charge to make considering that Ratliff wasn’t the person who leaked his private memo. If anyone threw board colleagues under the bus, it was the leaker. We wonder if Bahorich knows who leaker is and delivered the same criticism to him or her.

When Ratliff noted his disappointment about the leak in a follow-up email to his colleagues, board Chairwoman Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, replied in an angry tone:

“Your letter and now this message are in direct contrast to what I (and you too) have worked so hard on for the last 3 1/2 years and that’s to being [sic] the board back together to work in a professional, respectful way. This did the board no favors and you no favor. I’m not saying it should have been made public but any correspondence sent to the entire board has the potential to be forwarded.”

Ratliff shot back, rightly noting that he wasn’t the one who acted unprofessionally and deceitfully by leaking his memo. He also pointed out that Cargill had “fanned the flames” during the debate over AP U.S. History by resisting “several efforts at tamping down the rhetoric.” He expressed his weariness with “saber rattling” from board members who push non-binding resolutions in an effort just to score political points:

“I simply thought it was time to point out the obvious. There is nobody to blame but ourselves when the legislature and the public loses confidence in us.”

Ratliff is speaking the truth here, as hard as it might be for Cargill and her other right-wing colleagues to hear. They have made the state board (and Texas) look foolish with a seemingly never-ending series of unnecessary “culture war” battles over the years. The current battle over the adoption of social studies textbooks is a perfect example. (Moses influenced the writing of the Constitution? The roots of democracy are found in the Old Testament? That’s what Texas students will be learning if the state board votes on Friday to adopt these new textbooks. Why? Because that’s what the ridiculous curriculum standards championed by the state board’s right-wing bloc require students to learn.)

In any case, if Cargill wants board members to work together in a professional way, she should call on the member who leaked Ratliff’s memo to step forward and defend his or her actions publicly. Perhaps more importantly, she should insist that all board members obey the law, including the Texas Public Information Act.

8 thoughts on “Cowardice and Contempt for the Law on the Texas State Board of Education

  1. There is a backstory to this and previous Texas PIA requests. TFN has made hundreds of PIA requests and I have made several, too, but we aren’t always able to obtain the documents we need. Why? Because SBOE members use their private email accounts to correspond with each other about state education business and they can and do keep these email messages private. Although they discuss state business, the messages are apparently not accessible by PIA request no matter how unethical the practice or topics are. And unless what they do with their messages is illegal or potentially illegal, there is no chance that these email messages can be subpoenaed by a court.

    The Reactionary Religious Right Republicans on the SBOE know this. Here are two paragraphs from a recent Donna Garner post:

    “Since the SBOE members receive no remuneration for their service and pay for their own private e-mail systems (no cost to the state), those who were on the SBOE at the time exercised their First Amendment rights to privacy.

    “Here is a comment one of the SBOE members made at the time, and I feel sure members who are serving on the Board now will feel the same way: ‘I am a private citizen, paying for and using my own private email and computer, on my own private time — abiding by all quorum rules. I will not be submitting my PRIVATE communications.'”

    The pugnacious attitude expressed in the quote sounds like something David Bradley or Ken Mercer might write.

    However, I know that SBOE members are provided a TEA laptop and email account to use for SBOE business. But here’s what I don’t know: Are they not obligated to use this laptop and email account for SBOE business? Are they permitted to use their private email accounts for SBOE business and thus keep their state education policy communications private and safe from PIA requests and public knowledge? Doesn’t this policy violate the Texas Open Meeting law?

    The federal government policy is that all federal government email or written communications must be recorded or preserved and kept accessible for federal archiving. Private email communications about government matters, policies, legislation, and rule-making are prohibited (although they can be classified as secret for a period of time and withheld from the public). Why isn’t this policy used in Texas?

    Leaking Thomas Ratliff’s private memo to SBOE members was unethical but not illegal (or so I believe). Using one’s private email account to communicate a state document to an outside party seems like a violation of the Texas Open Meetings law, but I am not sure if it really is since I don’t know the details of the law. Of course, Donna Garner knows who sent her the leaked memo but that knowledge can be kept from the public unless the act was illegal and thus open to court discovery.

    I believe this example of a breach of public trust, and there have certainly been other such examples in my long knowledge of SBOE Republican member behavior, and seems to a topic that should be addressed by the Texas Legislature next year. Some of the SBOE members are still playing fast and loose with the concept of open and transparent government by using private methods to conduct state public education business even when technology has been provided to them to conduct such business at public expense and with public transparency. Perhaps Texas needs a new law to prevent this type of sordid and unethical behavior, behavior that is not illegal but still detrimental to the quality of public education in Texas.

    1. Steve: If an email includes communications related to their job as SBOE members, those communications are covered by the Texas Public Information Act even if they come from a personal email account. So they can’t get around a valid public information request by using their personal email accounts. The Texas Education Agency staff have reminded SBOE members of this in the past in explicit terms.

      1. I appreciate that information but wonder if Donna Garner, David Bradley and Ken Mercer have acknowledged and accepted that ruling. How can I reconcile that with what Steven Schafersman has written concerning their defiance of the rule? Is there further recourse to be taken?

  2. “Way to throw half of the board under the bus”?

    I just read Mr. Ratliff’s memorandum. It reads simply as one member of a government board expressing a legitimate-sounding concern to his colleagues on the board and balancing it out with a pat on the back for a recent positive at the end. If this is the kind of memorandum that threatens the well being of a governing body, then all I have to say is that the overall quality of government would be greatly improved if every public official in Texas and elsewhere were to write similar letters on a variety of issues.

    It pains me that we have reached a point in this country when the honesty and integrity of people like Mr. Ratliff are called into question as a result of something so benign as this memorandum. I wonder when half the Texas SBOE is going to quit acting like a handful of teenage drama queens. Male and female both, this teenage drama queen behavior on the Texas SBOE has gone on way too long and is an embarrassment to the State of Texas. Even key education people here in Tennessee state government, which is arguably more conservative than Texas, thinks the Texas SBOE has gone nutty over the past decade or so. Why they persist in this teenage drama queen behavior is a mystery to me—and why they think this improves the image of Texas in the eyes of American citizens who live outside the borders of Texas is an even deeper mystery.

    Like I have said before, the rest of the nation does not look to Texas for direction on how to do anything. The eyes of Texans may be on Texas—but quite frankly—no one else’s eyes give a shit about what Texas is doing.

    1. “And though it’s part of the Lone Star State, people don’t seem to care…”

      ZZ Top

      And what? Why should anyone care because it’s part of the Lone Star State? There are 49 other states, and if it seems like we don’t care, you are right. We don’t care. Texas is not the center of the known universe.

      1. Texas—and around it orbits Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Ur-anus, Neptune, and Pluto.

        The Texas SBOE seems to think the whole world watches its example for a cue on what to do next in education. I live out here. It ain’t happening!!!

  3. Hammer-heads are going to be hammer-heads, Peckerwoods are going to be Peckerwoods, what else can they be?