Conservative candidates join forces in bids for Round Rock school board seats

A coalition of five conservative candidates known as Round Rock One Family are aiming to sweep the five Round Rock school board seats up for election on Nov. 8.

Saying they are in support of trustees Mary Bone and Danielle Weston, who have had a contentious relationship with the rest of the board since they were elected in 2020, the group is running on a platform that calls for more oversight of library materials, the teaching of biological male-female differences and not of gender identity, and the prevention of critical race theory from being taught in taxpayer-funded schools.

If successful, the One Family candidates — John Keagy, Orlando Salinas, Jill Farris, Christie Slape and Don Zimmerman — would create an all-conservative school board. But even if only two of its candidates win and create a majority on the board, the group has said it would work to replace Superintendent Hafedh Azaiez.

All five coalition members have been active in participating at school board meetings and have built a rapport with each other, they said in a statement. It said the members formed the coalition to "combat the fraud and bigotry of the incumbents." Becoming a group, they said, increases their chances of winning because they can reach more of the community and increase engagement.

The individual members of the coalition responded to questions about their campaigns by issuing statements signed by all the members.

"We all strongly believe the current board has not done enough to empower students to achieve their potential, to support and value teachers and to acknowledge the rights of parents to be heard and understood," one statement said.

Campaign materials from the Round Rock One Family say the candidates would work to fire the superintendent, prevent "biological boys in girls' bathrooms and locker rooms," and to get rid of pornographic books from school libraries.

Some of the incumbents and other opponents in the races, however, said they did not think that consolidating as a group would help those candidates win, and that it would be dangerous if they were successful.

"The One Family slate is running a platform based on misinformation and fear," said Alicia Markum, who also is challenging an incumbent for a school board seat. "Our district values diversity of thought and the ability of school board members to evaluate issues from a variety of perspectives."

Tiffanie Harrison
Tiffanie Harrison

In four of the district races, Round Rock One Family candidates are going head-to-head against incumbents. Salinas, a chief financial officer at Zoom Contracting and Consulting, is challenging board President Amber Feller for the Place 3 seat. Farris, a homemaker is challenging Cory Vessa for the Place 4 seat. Slape, a former teacher and professional organizer, is challenging Amy Weir, the current board secretary, for the Place 5 seat. In the Place 6 race, former Austin City Council Member Zimmerman is challenging board Vice President Tiffanie Harrison.

More:Five Round Rock school board seats are up for election. Meet the candidates.

In the Place 1 race, coalition member Keagy, along with Yuriy Semchyshyn and Estevan Zarate, are seeking to unseat Kevin Johnson. Johnson was appointed as a trustee in July following the resignation of Jun Xiaou, who would regularly clash with Bone and Weston at board meetings.

A divided board

The Round Rock school board in recent years has been marked by accusations, lawsuits and censure motions. Bone and Weston have long been at odds with the other five board members over issues ranging from mask mandates in schools to the hiring of Azaiez as superintendent in June 2021.

In April, a Williamson County judge dismissed a lawsuit that Weston and Bone has filed against the other board members over proposed censure resolutions over them disrupting a meeting. A second censure resolution failed in August. The motion was proposed after both trustees broke quorum during a June 16 meeting to pass the budget. Bone also filed a lawsuit against the superintendent, alleging unauthorized investigations into district emails that Weston had shared.

More:Round Rock trustees extend Azaiez's contract

Azaiez was placed on paid leave on Jan. 6 after the school board, acting upon recommendations from the Texas Education Agency, authorized an independent investigation of a protective order issued against him in a personal matter. He was reinstated on March 24 after the district said the investigation had concluded.

A Travis County judge issued the protective order against Azaiez on July 30, 2021, and it expired on Dec. 15, according to court records. According to a report by a third-party investigator, the superintendent agreed to a permanent protective order on Dec. 13. No charges were filed against Azaiez.

In September, Azaiez's contract was extended for a year with an incentive and performance bonus of $28,900. Bone and Weston voted no. The superintendent's total base salary is $350,000, according to district documents.

Conservative influence

Daron Shaw, a professor of government at the University of Texas, said conservative groups are becoming more prominent in school board elections across the country as they work to influence voters on issues such as transgender rights and what is being taught in schools. He added thatschool board electionsalso are becoming increasingly partisan and ideologically charged.

"The downside is the possibility that (they) will chase out well-qualified candidates who don't have the appetite for those sorts of partisan fights," Shaw said.

Shaw said that running as a coalition helps those candidates to simplify the ballot, making it an easier choice for voters. He said it also serves as an economic benefit if one of the candidates can help financially support others in the group.

Johnson, the Place 1 incumbent, said it would be dangerous if the conservative coalition gains a majority on the board.

"The school board should represent the varying elements of the community and review every aspect of the school system from complex and discerning viewpoints," he said. "The lockstep nature of the group and the parroting of campaign talking points we have heard from members currently sitting on the dais is disconcerting."

Zarate, who also is vying for Johnson's seat along with Round Rock One Family candidate Keagy and Semchyshyn, said he feels the coalition is dangerous, though he does not know whether running as a group will help them win the majority.

"It is my hope that the voters of Round Rock ISD are paying attention and that they will vote to continue the proud tradition of our district," Zarate said.

Incumbents Weir and Harrison said they were both confident they would win re-election. Weir said the coalition's views are extreme, and Harrison said trustees should not lead with their political affiliation.

"The people in our district are tired of frivolous litigation and continued manufactured disruption," she said. "I hope that our community realizes these (five) people have been at the center of much of the chaos Round Rock ISD has experienced over the last two years."

Candidate finances

On Oct. 11, the trustee candidates reported their 30-day campaign finance reports. According to those reports, the Place 6 race has drawn the most campaign contributions. Harrison has brought in a total of $45,565 while Zimmerman has raised $31,782. The report shows money raised between July 1 through Sept. 29.

All of the One Family candidates have raised between $29,000 to $33,000. A majority of what the coalition candidates have raised is from non-monetary contributions, which include the value of provided goods and services such a campaign material, volunteer time and advertising. The One Family candidates have raised more in non-monetary contributions than any other candidates. In total, the One Family candidates have raised between $21,000 and $24,000 in non-monetary contributions.

From the coalition, Salinas raised the most overall with $33,346 in the Place 3 race, while incumbent Feller had $3,689.

In the Place 1 race, One Family candidate Keagy received $29,806, with approximately $5,000 being non-monetary contributions. Johnson raised $2,368 and Zarate raised $11,658.

More:Here is what you need to know about casting your ballot in Round Rock

In the Place 4 race, Farris raised $28,626, with $24,076 coming from non-monetary donations. Vessa, the incumbent, raised $2,461. Avila and Markum have both raised about $10,000.

In the Place 5 race, One Family candidate Slape raised $31,277 while incumbent Weir raised $8,788. Bryant brought in $4,285.

Both coalition and non-coalition candidates have received contributions from outside the district, including from Georgetown, Leander, Bastrop, Fort Worth, Nacogdoches, Dallas and Houston. The highest contribution from outside the area that any candidate received was $1,000.

Despite both receiving campaign contributions from outside the area, Zarate and Harrison both said they are worried about the money that is coming from outside the district.

"I believe deeply in local control and do not like that these candidates are seeking to allow outside influence into our district," Harrison said.

In a joint statement, the coalition members said they are not worried about the donations their opponents have received.

Semchyshyn, one of the two Place 1 candidates who is not a coalition member or the incumbent, said he isn't worried about the coalition's donations or that of any of the other candidates. Instead, he said it is encouraging to see the community be so active.

Shaw, the UT professor, said school board races are becoming more expensive, but that spending more money does not always mean more success.

"Spending a lot of money on a bad message or a bad candidate tends not to be particularly effective in the United States," Shaw said.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Conservative slate of candidates is vying for seats in races for RRISD board of trustees