The already strained school board was further divided last night as trustees fought over proposed gas-lease bids.
Some gas-lease bids were pulled in November. Board president Ray Dickerson said at that time that the district was going to take 90 days to review gas lease concerns and “do its homework,” not just for those mineral rights contracts but for lease issues moving forward.
So some were surprised to see 10 mineral rights contracts worth nearly $2.5 million on Tuesday’s agenda. Trustees voted the bids down in a split 5-4 vote, but not after heated words were exchanged.
Trustee Carlos Vasquez said it seemed Tuesday’s bids came before the board only after Dickerson got letters from “big business people that are your friends” urging the district to approve them. He said he wasn’t against the gas lease bids but that the board told the community it would wait and should honor that.
“It troubles me all the way around. … This is playing politics on the backs of our kids and it’s wrong,” Vasquez said.
Dickerson said he took exception to Vasquez comments.
“I don’t have friends in these oil companies,” Dickerson said, noting that had only met representatives as the bids were being brought forward to the district. “It disturbs me that you would jump to that kind of a conclusion and that kind of accusation. I think it’s terribly inappropriate.”
The complicated issue started this fall when XTO sought mineral rights from the district for schools that are within 1,200 feet of existing drill sites. The district does not have any authority over where gas companies place wells. That lies with the city, which requires such sites to be at least 600 feet of schools.
But the district’s own policy says it will not enter into a contract with gas companies for mineral rights if a company’s drill site is within 1,200 feet of district property. XTO asked for a waiver for leases that were related to gas sites in south Fort Worth within that distance of schools, one near Wilson Elementary and one near Daggett Montessori.
Dickerson said gas-lease bids were put on the agenda this month after new information came to light, including that XTO pulled the bids for those within the 1,200 distance and after concerns that the district could lose out on much-needed money if it passed on the bids now.
Trustee Ann Sutherland questioned whether some trustees really were concerned about children’s safety if they voted for the leases before additional review could be done and until the city’s air quality test is done. “You do not know if this is safe for kids, and you aren’t going to know until these tests are done,” Sutherland said. “Let’s not try to pretend that we care about kids and then vote for the thing because you’re just blowing smoke.”
Other trustees said they felt confident that the gas leases were safe for children and that the district needed to do its diligence to secure financial dealings. Trustee Judy Needham added that she supported the bids as the money could staff an entire school, help keep the Center for New Lives school for pregnant girls open (which was at risk of closing this summer) or almost fund a 1 percent raise for employees.
As it seemed the bids would be denied, Dickerson asked trustees to make sure they voted as they intended to do so.
Trustee Juan Rangel had been working with local university experts to review gas drilling issues and pushed to keep the moratorium. He attempted to formalize a 60-day waiting period after the contracts were denied, which led to more arguing among board. Dickerson ended up instructing staff to not rebid the gas leases for at least 60 days.
Then after the meeting, Sutherland and Needham seemed to be in a heated discussion when Needham yelled across the board room to Sutherland, “You don’t know everything.”