When parent advocate Lynn Davenport learned that Todd Williams was among the appointees to the Permanent School Fund Corporation Board of Directors, she was immediately concerned.
“He has a conflict of interest because his nonprofit The Commit Partnership receives money from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and he also has access to student data,” Davenport told The Dallas Express. “If his organization is receiving money from the TEA, should he also be on an oversight board?”
Davenport is a member of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, a group concerned with the rights of parents and students to protect their personal data.
“These are not elected boards so this is taxation without representation,” Davenport said in an interview. “This is just another way to skirt transparency. People are not aware that this is even happening.”
Gov. Greg Abbott announced the appointment of Williams and Brad Wright last month. While Wright is a co-founder and managing partner of the Bandera Group, an energy investment firm headquartered in Houston, Williams is the chairman and CEO of The Commit Partnership and the founder and president of the Todd A. Williams Family Foundation.
“Todd Williams is involved with a network of people who are profiting off of the education system in Texas through no-bid contracts and data is the key,” alleges Alice Linahan, an education policy advisor with the nonprofit Women on the Wall.
She continued, “When you have access to the data and the data is used to create software programs and algorithms used for the next generation of assessments and accountability, then you have access to use the data for profit and you have access to use the data to build software programs that modify students by beliefs and behaviors.”
Williams has a long history as a board member. He previously served as a gubernatorial appointee on the Texas Commission on Public School Finance and the School Land Board and is the former chair of the Dallas ISD Citizen Budget Commission and Teach for America Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin College.
Williams is also the former chairman of the board of the Real Estate Council of Dallas and the Real Estate Finance Investment Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Despite Williams being a former chairman, Linahan believes he is active as a real estate investment manager.
“Todd Williams is hardly retired,” Linahan told The Dallas Express. “He’s focused on education because of the vast amounts of investments in real estate, state and federal monies and philanthropic ventures where billions of public funds flow that have little to no oversight or related spending.”
Joshua Kumler, manager of communications for The Commit Partnership, Williams’ nonprofit, did not respond to requests for comment about Williams’ motives.
However, in a statement Williams emailed to The Dallas Express, the Board member said he manages no investments other than his own.
Not all education advocates are critical of Gov. Abbott’s selection of Williams. Innovative Teachers of Texas (ITT) is pleased with the appointment of both Williams and Wright.
“Innovative Teachers of Texas congratulates both Todd Williams and Brad Wright and is grateful for their service,” said Jennifer Winter, ITT director.
ITT is a teacher’s organization serving teachers statewide.
“Most of our members have joined ITT because they do not condone a liberal agenda in schools nor do they desire to financially support left leaning political candidates,” Winter told The Dallas Express.
Kelly Burke, who is campaigning to be elected to the board of trustees of Arlington ISD, is neutral about Williams.
“I don’t know him personally,” Burke told The Dallas Express. “I’ve just heard that he’s a powerful guy who makes a lot of powerful moves that some people don’t agree with.”
The Texas Permanent School Fund Corporation Board of Directors was created last year by the legislature and limits the authority of the School Land Board, on which Williams has also previously served.
“The School Land Board never had full authority at all,” said SBOE member Pat Hardy. “The State Board of Education was always the bigger player in the field. The land commissioner has a portion of it and a portion of it still comes in with all the mineral rights and fossil fuels but our side has been investing the money in a much more lucrative way.”
Hardy serves on the SBOE’s Committee on School Finance, which oversees the Permanent School Fund. As a member of the Committee on School Finance, Hardy has also been appointed to the Permanent School Fund Corporation Board of Directors.
“A teacher can always tell when kids are cheating,” Hardy told The Dallas Express. “If anyone thinks that someone has a nefarious purpose, which I’m not saying that that is the case, but if anyone were saying that about the board of directors, then there are enough of us to make sure that nothing along that line happens.”
Members of the Board of Directors serve a laddered six years with one member’s term ending on January 1 of odd-numbered years.
Senate Bill 1232, which outlines rules and regulations for the Permanent School Fund Corporation Board of Directors, states that a member of the board of directors should disclose in writing to the corporation any business, commercial, or other relationship that could reasonably be expected to diminish the person’s independence of judgment in the performance of their responsibilities relating to the management or investment of the Permanent School Fund.
“A person who makes a written disclosure under Subsection B stating a possible conflict of interest may not give advice or make decisions about a matter affected by the possible conflict of interest unless the board of directors expressly waives this prohibition,” states SB 1232. “The board of directors may delegate the authority to waive the prohibition established by this subsection.”
When asked whether Williams disclosed potential conflicts of interest that the board waived, Gov. Abbott’s press assistant Sheridan Nolen did not respond to requests for comment.
However, Williams told The Dallas Express in his email that the School Land Board (from which he resigned to serve on the Permanent School Fund Corporation Board at the Governor’s request), has similar financial disclosure and ethics requirements, and the two years he spent on that board should serve as evidence that he will approach his recent appointment with the same integrity.
Williams emphasized that his role on the Permanent School Fund Board is unpaid and that its policy will function in the same way as did the School Land Board’s, wherein he is “precluded from voting on anything where [he has] any financial interest.”
“Everyone wants access to the Permanent School Fund because you get to pick who the winners and losers are,” she added. “Between no-bid contracts and the fact that the TEA is working hand in hand with this board that has control over the permanent education fund, there is so much money being made off of the backs of our children.”
The TEA did not respond to requests for comment.
Williams, on the other hand, maintains that he has not served in these roles for the money. In his email to The Dallas Express, he points to the fact that his current position at The Commit Foundation affords him no financial benefit: “I have led Commit as a full-time unpaid CEO for 10+ years.”
He further reiterated that he did not profit financially from either of the Commissioner positions he has held (both of which were unpaid), nor will he from his recent appointment to the Permanent School Fund Board.
Note: This article was updated on February 16 at 8:40 p.m. to include comments obtained from Todd Williams.