July 30, 2020
by Robert Montoya
Parents in the Fort Worth area are crying out against local officials after learning they are not only imposing new sweeping bans on education, but they’re making the decisions in secret. Their county judge refused to make these meetings more transparent.
On Monday, parents clashed with Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who serves as spokesman for the Tarrant County commissioners, over the county’s ban on in-person education this fall for most schools. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has since said that locally elected school boards, not local health officials, must make such decisions.
What made parents even more upset was learning the ban was created at a secret, closed-door meeting of schools with local officials—and such meetings are common.
“I’m a student, and I don’t want to do online school,” said Andrew, a young black student at Monday’s protest. “It’s just more difficult, and I can’t ask a teacher questions. That’s how I learn, by asking questions.”
On July 21, Tarrant County’s Public Health Department banned in-person education for most schools in the county until September 28. The ban came one day after Fort Worth Independent School District announced they would offer in-person classes.
Parents concerned about their children’s education and well-being organized the protest, wanting the freedom to choose whether they would send their kids to school or keep them at home. Whitley met with some of the organizers in the commissioners’ courtroom and later came outside to address the rest, where he pointed the finger at the county health authority, local school boards, state representatives, and Gov. Greg Abbott—not the county commissioners who decide county government policy.
“It is not something that even pertains to the commissioners,” Whitley told Texas Scorecard. “It is, again, something that … the local health authority and the public schools—all the schools—came together to discuss this order that was subsequently issued by the three public health authorities. The commissioners court has no jurisdiction over that.”
Sources familiar with Tarrant County operations dispute this, claiming commissioners can override the local health authority in this matter and that Whitley knows this.
“The governor has indicated that once an order has [been] issued, we do not have the authority to contradict those orders,” Whitley added. “And he gave the local health authority the ability to do this order.”
However, nowhere in the county ban is an executive order by Gov. Abbott on this matter cited.
“I’m very disappointed in Judge Whitley,” Sarah, one of the protesters, told Texas Scorecard. “I think there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on, and I just want answers.”
“I think he’s passing the buck,” Deborah agreed. “I think he’s not telling the truth, and I think there’s a lot of underlying problems. I think my kids are taking the fall for it.”
Parents were also concerned with how this decision came about. Whitley told the selected group of parents in the commissioners courtroom that the ban came after a closed-door meeting of schools with local officials. At least one parent expressed an interest in seeing a transcript of that meeting, but Whitley said not only was there no transcript, but there is no record of who participated. He said that is done so anyone attending the meetings can feel free to participate.
This is not the first closed-door meeting in which a major decision was made in Tarrant County. Earlier this year, such a controversial meeting occurred where a handful of judges questionably removed cases from a Republican district judge’s court—cases that voters had hired him to handle.
Whitley was involved in that situation, as well.
He also indicated that Fort Worth ISD’s prior announcement about offering a choice of in-person classes may have just been for show.
“There was strong support—strong support—by the Fort Worth ISD for the September 28 [opening date] and for everything that was in that order,” Whitley said of the closed-door meeting.
“Him saying that the school boards unanimously told him is bull,” Michael, a father from Carroll ISD said. “[Because] I [can] show you emails of the school board—our ISD—that said ‘our draft plan is to give parents a choice.’”
Another father didn’t appreciate the lack of transparency in Tarrant County politics.
“The meeting with 75 school folks, superintendents, whatever, those where you are making decision[s] are not public calls and no minutes. I don’t understand that at all,” he told Whitley.
“When I have done orders, I have had conversations with the cities, the mayors, the city managers … and from that, I gather that information together and then ultimately end up issuing an order,” Whitley replied. “None of those have been public. None of those have been recorded. That’s the way we’ve gone about doing things.”
“Would you commit to recording those calls in the future?” the man asked.
“No, I won’t,” Whitley replied.
Another mother, concerned the voices of parents are being ignored by the county, brought up a recent Fort Worth ISD survey.
“It was absolutely a landslide that families wanted the choice to be able to have their kids have virtual or in-person school,” Amy said.
“52 to 48 percent,” Whitley interrupted. “That’s not a landslide!”
“It was actually 70-something percent. I can show you the graph,” Amy countered.
Michael challenged Whitley on the science behind the ban.
“Two or three weeks out of July 4th, numbers [of coronavirus cases] have come down. But you’re saying we’re worried about Labor Day numbers going up,” he said. “Why is Labor Day, a much smaller holiday, causing such panic?”
“This order was between the public health authorities,” Whitley began answering when Michael interrupted—sparking Whitley’s anger. “Are you going to let me finish or are you going to keep interrupting?” Whitley demanded. “This could end right now.”
For weeks, recoveries from the coronavirus have continued to far outpace deaths.
“The fact is that most of the people who get COVID-19 will recover,” Richard Hill of Tarrant County Public Health previously told Texas Scorecard. When asked, Whitley did not say if this fact was taken into consideration regarding the ban—nor did he deny Hill’s comment as factual.
“Five percent of all of our children right now are testing positive,” Whitley told a group parents outside the commissioners court building, acknowledging that the vast majority of the children will recover. “But they go home, and they infect the parents or they infect the grandparents. Over 95 percent of the deaths that we’ve had have been older adults with underlying health conditions.”
The parents immediately reacted to Whitley’s comment, saying they want their kids back in school. “We’ve got several people talking, and when that happens, I leave,” Whitley replied to the group.
Clearly, parents—many of whom were wearing masks—acknowledged they understood the Chinese coronavirus situation. They were simply asking for the freedom to choose what they felt best for themselves and their children.
“What we’re fighting for is just the choice,” a mother said. “If I have someone in my home, a parent living with me who is over the elderly age, or my husband if he has an underlying health issue, then I want to make that choice that my kid does learn virtually.”
One of those kids, Andrew, had one simple message for Tarrant Commissioners: “Just give us an option. Everybody has their own choice. We should at least have an option. It’s not that big a deal.”
Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said “local health authorities may not issue sweeping orders closing schools for the sole purpose of preventing future COVID-19 infections.”
Concerned parents are encouraged to contact their local school boards. Texans concerned about closed-door meeting being a regular occurrence in Tarrant County may contact their county commissioners.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Roy Brooks: 817-370-4500; firstname.lastname@example.org
Precinct 2 Commissioner Devan Allen: 817-248-6099; DJAllen2@tarrantcounty.com; email@example.com
Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Fickes: 817-248-6295 ; firstname.lastname@example.org
Precinct 4 Commissioner JD Johnson: 817-238-4400; email@example.com