Oct 13, 2022 - News

Texas conservatives vie for school board takeovers

Illustration of a school street sign with the Republican Party logo on instead of icons of children.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Conservatives are angling to take control of key suburban Austin school boards.

Driving the news: Following unrest involving Covid mask mandates and library book purges, candidates in politically purple Round Rock and Leander are pushing a "Texas values" and "pro-freedom" agenda ahead of Election Day.

The big picture: Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has told conservatives that to "save the nation," they need to target school boards.

  • "The school boards are the key that picks the lock," Bannon said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas this summer, according to NBC News.

Zoom in: School districts are the front line in the political battle for Texas. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke highlighted school funding and safety, while Gov. Greg Abbott has made fears of conservative parents a cornerstone of his re-election bid.

  • The Republican Party of Texas, which is making endorsements across the state, called local school board races "the new election battleground in Texas."
  • School boards set district goals, hire and evaluate the superintendent, and adopt a budget and set a tax rate, among other duties.

Details: Five of the seven board seats in Round Rock, where meetings have devolved into screaming matches and arrests, are on the ballot this November.

  • The two board members not up for re-election are on the district's conservative wing, and have sued fellow board members.
  • Five of their allies, calling themselves the "One Family" candidates, are running for the open positions and are supported by a political action committee called Round Rock One Family, funded heavily by the campaigns of the two sitting arch-conservative members.

Between the lines: Among the candidates is former Austin City Council member Don Zimmerman.

  • He is running against ​​incumbent Tiffanie Harrison with the motto "Let's return the classroom to ABCs and 1-2-3s, not CRTs and LGBTs."
  • On her own campaign site, Harrison says she wants "to see Martin Luther King Jr’s vision of Beloved Community come to fruition and am happy to dedicate my life to making that a reality."

Follow the money: Zimmerman's campaign has netted at least $3,000 from GOP megadonors David and Darlene Pendery and $2,500 from long-time Central Texas mass transit opponent and former Tracor CEO Jim Skaggs, per an Axios Austin review of campaign finance reports.

  • Another contributor to "One Family" candidates is a Round Rock resident who started a Fighting Freedom Fund GoFundMe page last year to pay for court expenses for two people arrested in conjunction with a school district protest, which she attributed to "the gestapo efforts" of the school district.

Plus: Five of seven seats are also up for grabs in the Leander Independent School District, where some conservative-minded candidates have won backing from groups like Conservative Minds of Cedar Park.

  • Leander district officials opted last year to remove 11 books from high school book clubs and school libraries, including "V for Vendetta" and the graphic novel version of "The Handmaid's Tale."

What they're saying: But with a state lawmaker floating a list of hundreds of books that should be investigated, some of the candidates think the district should go further.

  • "It is completely inappropriate for adults to be providing pornography to minors inside our schools. That will come to an end if I am elected," candidate Mike Sanders told the Austin Chronicle.
  • Sanders is running against district board president Trish Bode and David Doman, who says he is running "on a common sense and Texas values platform."

The other side: "I'm frustrated with our board members and our community and the difficulty many are having in finding common ground," LISD board member Aaron Johnson told Community Impact. "Instead, members of our community are refusing to listen to one another and are trying to rally their base to support their point of view."

  • Johnson said this summer he is not running for re-election.

What's next: Early voting starts Oct. 24.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Austin.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Austin stories


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Austin.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more