Round Rock ISD board imposes media ban for trustees

Investigations
RRISD BOARD OF TRUSTEES

ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — Asking questions of elected officials on the Round Rock Independent School District Board of Trustees just got a lot harder. The board recently voted to ban certain trustees from discussing school district business with reporters without permission. 

Under the new rule, the only person authorized to act as the board’s “spokesperson” is board president Chad Chadwell. If Chadwell isn’t available, board vice president Nikki Gonzales would have the authority. If Gonzales isn’t available, the only person “designated” to discuss RRISD matters and decisions of the board would be board secretary Steven Math. 

The remaining four members would only be authorized to discuss school district matters if the entire board approves one of the four to speak publicly. 

The motion passed in a 5-2 vote with Chadwell and Trustee Cory Vessa voting no. 

WATCH: Jan. 24, 2019 RRISD Board Meeting (Scroll to 1:25:16)

Each member of the RRISD board is independently-elected to the board and each member’s vote on board decisions is equal to the others. The new rule could ban individual trustees, for example, from fielding questions about matters regarding the school district. 

The new rule was presented by trustee Mason Moses. 

The truth of the matter is, there’s precedent for certain people not being very popular on their board and then maybe the board votes that that person never gets to speak—ever.” 

Trustee Vessa, who is not one of the three trustees with the new authority to discuss school district matters with the press, questioned Moses about the intent of barring independently-elected officials from answering questions and discussing school district business with the media. 

“My only concern is that the board could designate that so and so—they could never want that person speaking and then that person would be essentially barred. The truth of the matter is, there’s precedent for certain people not being very popular on their board and then maybe the board votes that that person never gets to speak—ever,” Vessa said during the board meeting.

“I think we all—we have different levels of experience here. We’re trying to get out and advocate for Round Rock ISD and public education in general. On one hand, I don’t want to stifle that in any way because there are some experts here among us all,” RRISD Board President Chad Chadwell said during the meeting. 

“I don’t want us to automatically go out and make comments that will set alarms off because that will — because we’re not sure what we’re going to be doing. So, I would request that we all be careful how we respond to the public, even if it’s our neighbors — especially on social media — everywhere we go because we are—people are looking to us for answers and guidance and we all have different opinions,” Chadwell said.

Under the new rule, if a trustee isn’t granted the authority from the board to provide school district information, that trustee is barred from discussing school district matters with the media. 

The board did not vote to include any punishment for violating the new rule, which the district confirmed in an email to KXAN on Friday. 

RRISD CRACK DOWN ON TRUSTEE/LAWMAKER CONTACT
RRISD board members also won’t be able to discuss school district business with Texas lawmakers without first telling the district’s hired lobbyists and the district’s attorney about it. 

During the same meeting Thursday night, the board unanimously voted to ban trustees from discussing what the district needs from lawmakers without first “coordinating” those conversations through RRISD’s “legislative consultant.”

“Legislative consultants” are also known as lobbyists.  

The district currently has two lobbyists on the payroll, according to 2019 lobbying records filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. Those lobbyists are: Marty DeLeon and M.J. Nicchio. The lobbyist filings show the district is paying DeLeon between $25,000 and $49,999 and paying Nicchio up to $10,000.

More precise totals aren’t available in the ethics commission records as state law only requires reporting of salary ranges. A search of RRISD’s online contract database did not produce copies of the lobbying contracts. 

State records show RRISD paid DeLeon to lobby for the district in 2018 and 2017. Ethics filings do not show a lobbyist hired before 2017. 

“The intent would be that this is not a five-minute notification, this would be a well in advance notification that way if there’s any need to gather materials for a meeting or to get other input from the board, there’d be time to do that,” Moses explained. 

“What if someone meets a said legislator in the gas station and you just start talking; that happens just walking out of the restroom,” Vessa asked. “I could literally have three or four minutes of that person’s time at the Chevron station to advocate for our district, but I can’t because I didn’t notify our counsel beforehand — that seems limiting.”

Moses, who proposed both restrictions on fellow board members Thursday night, told Vessa the new rules would help the board present a unified message to the public and to lawmakers. 

“I think the goal is to make sure none of us are blindsided. We all agree that being blindsided is not the most fun. So, again, it helps us work collaboratively and if we need to have those conversations about one trustee believes this, another trustee believes that — that’s fine — but at least we’re able to have that in a fair way,” Moses said. 

“I’m just going to have to disagree with you, based on my own experience, expertise, and knowledge of this particular legislator. And, I think we’re just going to have to know that we’re not always going to agree on strategy,” Vessa said. 

The restriction passed the board unanimously. 

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