The Dallas Morning News
Lovejoy gadfly right all along
Brenda Rizos says she doesn’t care what people say about her. For almost 20 years, she focused her criticisms on the leadership of Lovejoy ISD. She directed her ire mostly at Superintendent Ted Moore.
For that, she became the target.
“Instead of investigating him, the school board came after me,” she says. “I felt like I was living in the twilight zone, you know?”
Turns out she was right all along.
In February, Superintendent Moore was ousted for undisclosed reasons, except for a brief statement by the board that his removal stemmed from “alleged misconduct” with “adult victims.”
Moore said at the time in a statement that he was stepping down for health reasons.
Now comes the latest vindication.
The Texas Ethics Commission issued a fine, based on Rizos’ complaint, that found that under Moore’s leadership the district used public money to campaign for a “yes” vote in its 2016 tax increase election. The district sought a huge 11% tax bump.
In Texas, school districts are allowed to present election facts in a neutral manner. They are prohibited from using teachers to campaign on school time, from sending provote messages using district email and from various other tactics used to game an election.
That didn’t stop Moore. The ethics commission fined him $1,500.
A school district spokeswoman said the district is not on the hook for the money. It’s a personal civil penalty as
sessed to Moore, Laurie Vondersaar explained. Moore must pay. Ethics commission spokesman Ian Steusloff declined to provide information about the payment.
I called Moore, now apparently retired.
The former superintendent told me he stands by the accuracy of his bond information campaign. The messaging was needed, he said, because “the district had reached a point where it was either necessary to cut programs or raise taxes. The community needed the information to make an informed choice.”
He agreed to pay the $1,500 fine, he said, because “I made a financial decision to pay a relatively small fine as opposed to paying in the neighborhood of $20,000 in attorney fees.”
“I feel like the world is finally starting to be sane again. What’s bad is bad. What’s good is good.”
The centuryold Lovejoy district has about 4,000 students and includes the cities of Lucas, Fairview and part of Allen. It’s known for earning high scores in state rankings. It’s also known for Ted Moore.
At a state association meeting of superintendents and school board members in Houston a decade ago, he gave a slide show presentation about how to deal with critics like Rizos, a Lucas resident.
Without naming her, he referred to his top critics as “cyber terrorists” and showed a slide of the famous knifeattack shower scene from the movie Psycho.
“Do critics have a point?” he asked in one slide. His answer: “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
Rizos later obtained the slide presentation, complained, and Moore was never allowed to present that program again.
Bag of tricks
When it came to the 2016 tax ratification election that served as the basis for Rizos’ ethics complaint, Moore was at his best — or worst.
His bag of tricks was heavy. He staged the election two weeks after the regular May municipal election, guaranteeing lower turnout.
He used taxpayer money to produce videos giving the district’s side.
He took advantage of a loophole in state law and used temporary voting booths when the practice is mostly forbidden.
Very little election information was shared with most taxpayers. The campaign was geared to the school community, parents and district staff.
Most unfortunate from my viewpoint was Moore’s scare campaign. If the tax vote lost, he wrote in an email blast to families, teachers’ pay would get frozen. Many middle school sports would be eliminated. Fine arts would get cut, and travel would be curtailed. A “pay to play” plan would be instituted for sports and fine arts.
There was more. Bus service would be reduced. Lunch prices would increase. Class sizes would grow. Teachers would get laid off. Oh, and byebye school receptionists.
He ended the email with: “I hope you are having a good week.”
It was so over the top, but his scare tactics worked. The tax vote won, 52%48%.
The ethics commission nailed him on only a few of the above tricks he pulled to win.
Moore spent public funds and resources — including work done on school time — to produce promo videos that appeared to promote a “yes” vote.
The videos went beyond the allowed neutral delivery of facts to actually campaign for passage, the commission found.
That’s a violation of the state election law, which says public funds can’t be used as political advertising. The videos were declared to be political ads.
One campaign phrase used — “Protecting the Lovejoy Way” — was deemed by the commission to be “a call to action to support” the tax increase. A nono.
Moore’s defense, according to the order, was that the district’s lawyer advised him he wasn’t breaking any rules. The commission decided to hold the former superintendent responsible.
Rising from the ashes
This ruling is quite rare. In the real world, superintendents win (for a while) and gadflies get toasted, even burned.
“I’ve had horrible, horrible critics online,” Rizos says. “People used to come out and viciously attack me. … A lot of people talked trash to me.”
Now with the ruling, things feel different.
“I feel like the world is finally starting to be sane again,” she says. “What’s bad is bad. What’s good is good.”
The other day, Rizos had her first meeting with new Lovejoy ISD Superintendent Michael Goddard.
Goddard emailed me after the meeting: “I look forward to a stronger and more collaborative relationship with Brenda and all our community members. It’s a new day in Lovejoy ISD that includes the ability to be examples of respect, encouragement and love in all our interactions.
“I’m personally committed to model that and have a very collaborative relationship with Brenda and all our Lovejoy community.”