This is a picture of Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza talking to lawyers after this morning’s school board workshop on procurement.
The two lawyers with whom Mr. Carranza is talking are Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, the district's General Counsel or head internal lawyer, and Arturo Michel, a partner at Thompson & Horton which serves as Board Counsel or the lawyers that represent school board trustees.
The three of them speaking is not an anomaly and given the business the firm does with the district, the board and district administrators wouldn’t be surprised by a conversation like this and certainly don't see a problem.
But I do.
In addition to being Special Counsel to the Board, Thompson & Horton does a great deal of work for HISD administration. In the last twelve months ending October 31, 2016, Houston ISD has paid Thompson & Horton $1,498,141.54 — $1.5 million — for various services.
How much money for what matters isn't clear yet, but to put that amount of money into some perspective, the contract for providing legal advice to trustees at board meetings and workshops each month comes to $81,000 a year.
Thompson & Horton having two clients — the trustees and the administration — wouldn’t be a big deal except for one major issue. One of the board’s fundamental responsibilities is the hiring, managing and firing of the superintendent. Meanwhile, the superintendent and his staff are responsible for hiring, managing and firing outside attorneys for use in a litany of legal matters including litigation, lobbying and financial transactions.
There can be no question that this presents a conflict of interest.
Furthermore, even if in compliance with State Bar of Texas Ethics Rules, attorneys have disclosed this conflict and the parties have agreed to the dual relationship, the mere appearance of such a conflict to the public cannot be considered acceptable.
I’ve written about this conflict before with regard to both negotiating a separation with Dr. Terry Grier, the former superintendent, and when the board was negotiating with Mr. Carranza to become the new superintendent. I warned about the inherent conflict in those dealings. Now when when I attend board meetings and workshops, I can see that conflict manifest itself right in front of me. I wonder what they were talking about this morning.
The board of trustees represent us and their lawyers represent them.
If we are to believe they are working in our best interests, we must demand that they receive independent advice.