It showed up in mailboxes across the City, innocuous at first; that is until the letter was read. The El Paso Independent School District recently announced a new Bond Election to fund among other things the payoff of existing bonds and to begin much needed construction and repairs of the schools in the district. Although the school district has publicly indicated that it has learned from its past mistakes, Paul Strelzin’s apparent involvement and a letter are troublesome at best. It is generally accepted that the district’s last Bond attempt failed because of a general distrust of the school district by the voter’s of the city. Although the Bond Committee has publicly stated that it wishes to garner voter trust, unfortunately a letter apparently received by current school district vendors betrays a sense that the Committee still hasn’t figured out how to develop trust among the voters of El Paso.
The letter starts out friendly enough, “Dear Valued EPISD Vendor, WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW!” Oh gosh, the reader reacts, they need my help and it must be serious. The letter goes on to state the fact that the “El Paso Independent School District is going before the voters with a $207,435,000 million dollar bond proposal on October 4, 2003.” The letter adds that this Bond Election is very important to the school district. Oh, great another fundraising letter the reader must be thinking. The letter continues by asking for money to help defray the cost of the election and a proposed media blitz. Then the clincher; “We are asking the leading EPISD vendors to contribute a minimum of $5,000 to help defray the costs of the election, of course your company can choose to contribute more if you wish.” Oh wow, they need my $5,000 the reader is probably thinking.
Just another fund raising letter that makes its journey across many business desks every week in El Paso, or so we think. Unfortunately, for EPISD, the letter concludes with a request to mail a check to the “El Paso Independent School District/Political Action Committee” at 917 Cortijo Drive, which according to public records happens to be Paul Strelzin’s home address. A few question but no real problems, until the reader gets to the last line; “EPISD purchased over $_____ from your company last year.” According to the samples made available to the El Paso Tribune, the blank line had been hand-filled with what appears to be the company’s total sales to the School District.
As one person, who wishes to remain anonymous told the El Paso Tribune; “I don’t have a problem with a Bond Committee asking for contributions to support the costs necessary to promote passage of the bond program. I took great offense at the wording of the letter (extortion is my first word) and the fact that Paul Strelzin is ‘collecting’ the checks.” According to information made available to the El Paso Tribune, it appears that Paul Strelzin has approached the Bond Committee to offer assistance and the EPISD had already planned to contact vendors. However, by all indications, it seems that the Bond Committee may not have been aware of this letter. However, the reality is that they are still ultimately responsible for it.
The letter, Strelzin’s involvement and the apparent lack of Bond Committee oversight over this betrays a sense that the EPISD Bond Committee may still have some serious problems garnering the public’s trust. PAC laws and rules are complicated but it is almost certain that extortion to raise money is definitely not in the approved list of acceptable functions for any PAC, and, most definitely not an option for creating trust in the community. The letter may not actually meet the definition of outright extortion but its wording and content makes it seem like it could be. First, the letter is addressed to vendors currently doing business with the School District. Second, the letter states how much money, $5,000 the business should consider contributing and finally the letter makes it a point to point-out how much money the vendor has received from EPISD.
Any business will tell you that the hardest thing to do is build a relationship with a customer. Most companies spend a significant part of their yearly budgets in building these relationships in order to keep the business flowing. In most cases, a school district is a significant part of any small business’ revenue, as school districts tend to spend significant amounts in the city on products and services. When a vendor receives a letter purporting to be from one of its largest customers, especially one reminding the vendor how money they get from the customer, asking for a “donation”, the business owner has no choice but to take the letter seriously. For most businesses in the city, loosing a significant portion of revenue may spell disaster for the business and its employees. If the intent of this letter was to get businesses in El Paso to contribute to the Bond Committee’s efforts to pass the Bond Election then the content and the targeted audience is most unfortunate at best. If on the other hand, the letter was in reality an attempt to extort the monies needed, serious legal repercussions are in order. Regardless of the justification for any possible extortion attempt, extortion is extortion and it remains a serious crime. This letter is not a good way for the Bond Committee to start its campaign to garner trust for its Bond Election and in some ways betrays a sense that the Committee still has not figured out why it lost the last election. With Paul Strelzin’s history of delaying payment on his own taxes, his integrity on this issue is definitely not appropriate for soliciting monies by asking the taxpayers for help. The EPISD Bond Committee needs to seriously reevaluate its initiative as this latest action bodes serious problems to the “trust factor” EPISD desperately needs in order to pass the bonds in October. If EPISD authorized this letter, then a serious revamp of the Committee itself is in order, on the other hand if this letter was not officially authorized by the Committee, then Strelzin’s actions in regards to this letter needs to be seriously studied.
Personal Note from the Author: I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many individuals who sent me copies of the letter and personal commentary. Your help is very much appreciated.