San Antonio was lucky. Until now.
Our school board meetings have not become bloody battlegrounds in the culture wars that have erupted in school districts across the country.
With 19 independent school districts in Bexar County, we have no shortage of opportunities. And during the emotionally raw times of the worst of COVID-19, there have been raucous meetings over mask mandates.
But while elected state leaders in Austin considered it good policy to portray school librarians as purveyors of pornography, teachers accurately portraying the state’s history of slavery as reversed racists and parents of transgender youth as child abusers, local political discourse has been relatively free of such hysteria.
Had there been massive anger against our school boards and staff, our largest suburban school district, Northside ISD, would not have been able to pass a nearly $1 billion bond program. dollars with 57.4% of the vote. And one of our poorest school districts, Harlandale ISD, wouldn’t have been able to pass a $125 million bond program despite the fact that it involves a 7-cent tax hike that will cost owners of a typical $87,844 home about $60 a year.
Meanwhile, in the only Alamo Heights ISD board seat on the ballot, a dermatologist cast himself as a culture warrior and lost decisively. Dr. Jane Lindell Hughes didn’t raise or spend a lot of money campaigning against her opponent, incumbent Brian C. Hamilton, but used her website to attack a district’s ‘equity’ agenda as a sort of stealth effort to infuse the district with the dreaded, if undefined, “critical race theory“.
“I don’t believe most parents think the school’s mandate sees their child as a captive audience of adult socio-political agendas,” she said.
In a video on the site, Hughes continues, “Last spring there was equity training for our teachers. Equity, as you can recognize from diversity, equity and inclusion, is an integral part of the principles of critical race theory, that very few people still use this term, but this are the three fundamental principles of this theory.
As you can see from a PowerPoint presentation on the “equity” program to which Hughes provides a link on his website, it was neither a “teacher training program” nor a gateway to “critical theory“. of the race”. His link effort would compete for a gold medal if the Olympics held a “long jump to a false conclusion” competition.
In actual competition, she fared less well. Hughes lost to Hamilton, 58.7% to 35.74%, with a third contender taking the rest.
The contest for three ISD North East board seats, however, showed how highly effective a well-funded campaign can be. In this race, three starters were challenged by Diane Sciba Villarreal, Marsha Landry and Jacqueline Klein.
I was not able to learn much about the candidates. All three refused during the campaign to speak to reporters.
Only Villarreal had a campaign website, and that in no way implied that she was a culture warrior. His website copy says nothing that anyone could disagree with. As close as she gets to sounding the alarm, it’s this: “My friends, we have problems in our schools today that call for a new approach.”
Villarreal is for greater parental involvement and wants “teachers to love teaching again”. His Facebook page mentions his campaign but offers no other clues about his agenda.
Klein’s Facebook page offered some clues. While criticizing her opponent for being endorsed by Democrats and unions, she said she was non-partisan but had displayed endorsements by Republican groups and other conservative organizations.
The three challengers didn’t run a coordinated campaign, but a small political action committee organized one for them — and did a great job. Parents United for Freedom PAC raised about $13,000 from just 14 people, including $10,000 from attorney Jason Desouza.
The PAC donated $500 each to candidates Klein, Landry and Villarreal. But more importantly, they spent over $4,000 on advertising, mostly for iHeart Radio, as well as just under $400 on behalf of each of the contestants at Salem Media of Texas, which owns a Christian station and a of conservative talk show in San Antonio. . According to its filing with the Texas Ethics Commission, the PAC also spent $4,600 on printing posters, door hangers, and other materials and $1,800 on block walkers.
Individuals affiliated with the PAC have also come forward to work in the polls.
In highly targeted school board races with very small stakes, more than $12,000 well spent can make a big difference, and it did in this case. Villarreal beat Omar Leos, who was appointed to the board in 2019, with 57.8% of the vote. Landry barely cringed with 41.6% of the vote over incumbent Sandy Winkley, a margin of just 35 votes out of 3,377 votes. (There is no run-off in these races.) The third contestant on the ticket, Jacqueline Klein, lost a close race to incumbent Terri Williams.
It remains to be seen what impact the election will have on the district. The two newcomers will join Administrator Steve Hilliard, who was elected two years ago with the support of the San Antonio Family Association, another small, active social conservative group. Hilliard hasn’t been particularly disruptive on the seven-member council, but if the three form a coalition, they could be.
It is not uncommon for criticism of school boards to become constructive when they really come to grips with the challenges and complexities of operating a school system, and that could happen at NEISD. The danger is that they could become the tools of politicians who see personal gain in turning our schools into social policy war zones. (For example, U.S. Representative Chip Roy, who recently alleged that Northside ISD violated a new state law regarding how teachers handle historical and other issues.)
The best defense is for parents and taxpayers who don’t see the teaching of history accurately as an attempt to turn children against America, who don’t see the fight against bigotry against gay youth as a “grooming,” who don’t see school librarians as porn pushers. — that these parents and other citizens organize themselves to support their candidates like a small group organized in this campaign.
Note to readers: This is my last column for a while. I’m taking a summer sabbatical to work on other projects and to escape the South Texas heat. I can not wait to return to.