North East ISD’s high-stakes election: 5 races, 3 open seats, a divided board

The NEISD school board election could tip the balance of control over San Antonio’s second largest district.

By Camille Phillips, Texas Public RadioApril 29, 2024 9:45 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

For the past few years, the North East Independent School District has been embroiled in culture war debates over masks, library books and curriculum.

Now, early voting is underway for an election that could tip the balance of control on the board and make those issues less of a battle and more of a foregone conclusion for San Antonio’s second largest school district.

Five of the seven seats on the North East ISD school board are on the ballot in the municipal election on May 4. But conservatives only need to win two of them to gain control. Right-wing trustees already hold the only two seats not on the ballot.

Local Moms for Liberty leader Jacqueline Klein is one of the most polarizing candidates. She’s an outspoken critic of the district’s policies and leadership and is running an adversarial campaign against both her own opponents and candidates in other NEISD races.

A screenshot of Jacqueline Klein’s April 19 post on immigrant students from her campaign Facebook page.

Klein thinks parents don’t have enough say at NEISD. She said she decided to run for school board in part because of the way the district handled an incident involving one of her sons.

She said NEISD administrators didn’t do enough to protect her son, so she pulled her children out of the district and enrolled them in a charter school.

“In trying to advocate and protect my child of a safety issue, I realized exactly how the deck was stacked against parents and the fact that they weren’t safe,” Klein said. “I know that what happened to me is happening to other parents, and they don’t have a voice.”

Klein points to enrollment declines as proof NEISD officials aren’t listening to parents and said that dissatisfaction among English-speaking families is being obscured by an increase in the number of immigrant students.

“In the last three years, we have lost 5,500 English-speaking students,” Klein said. “And I say that because there is a difference in the student population that we’re seeing in North East today.”

In a post on her campaign Facebook page, Klein said the rise in immigrant students enrolled at NEISD “hinders YOUR child’s success” because it costs the district resources. She also said immigrant children made schools less safe because they are members of “warring gangs.”

Her opponent, Tracie Shelton, sees that type of language as fearmongering. “People are using fear as a way to get people on their side,” Shelton said.

Shelton is running against Klein to represent the Roosevelt High School cluster, which has a higher concentration of poverty and more students of color than other parts of the district.

She said the rhetoric used by some board members — and some candidates — suggests they aren’t committed to the students.

Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio

NEISD Single Member District 2 candidate Jacqueline Klein poses for a portrait after an interview on April 15, 2024.

“Our children deserve people that will sit and earnestly consider them — all of them — as they make decisions. The ones that look like them and the ones that don’t,” Shelton said.

If she’s elected, Klein said she wants NEISD to return to using more out-of-school suspensions.

“I’m not saying kick them all out,” Klein said. “But they need to know [there are consequences]. These kids are smart. They’re doing it because they know they can get away with it.”

Historically, Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by expulsion and suspension. But Klein says discipline should be “colorblind.”

“You may have a 10% student population that is being disciplined 90% of the time. Well, if they’re causing 90% of the discipline issues, that’s what you get,” Klein said.

Shelton disagreed with the idea that NEISD needs to suspend more kids.

“Unless there’s data to suggest that 1. We need more. And 2. When we do it, it works and it … corrects that behavior, then that’s not something that we should continue to do,” she said.

Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio

Tracie Shelton speaks to NEISD trustees during a finalist interview for an attempt at appointing a trustee that ended in a stalemate.

Shelton is Black and the only person of color running for the board. She said there is a lot the district is doing right.

“It has lots that it has to update and do. But [let’s] start from the fact that we’ve got something in the cup. Right? And let’s figure out what we need to change based on evidence,” Shelton said.

Conservative retired educator Rhonda Rowland is also in the race to represent Roosevelt. All three candidates applied to be appointed to the seat after the elected trustee died last August. Moderates on the board backed Shelton. The right-wing faction wanted Klein. But they couldn’t break the stalemate, and so now it’s up to voters to decide.

Right-wing trustee Steve Hilliard was part of the board faction that backed Klein.

“The constituents are the parents, and they’re the ones who make a choice. We want them to choose North East, so we have to listen to them and respect them,” Hilliard said.

He’s running to represent the Reagan High School cluster in Stone Oak, one of the more affluent parts of the district. He’s the only conservative incumbent up for re-election.

“Some people have not been happy I’ve asked so many questions, but I believe that’s my responsibility,” Hilliard said. “They basically want the board to be an extension of the admin like it was before I was on there.”

Hilliard credited himself for getting new parents appointed to the advisory council responsible for recommending sex ed curriculum.

“We didn’t have true representation of parents across the district. Basically, one or two parts of the district. And the board president had a lot of her friends on there, quite frankly,” Hilliard said.

Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio

NEISD Single Member District 6 incumbent candidate Steve Hilliard poses for a portrait after the North East Council of PTAs forum on April 6, 2024.

The new council makeup paved the way for North East’s new, more conservative sex ed curriculum.

Before he became a trustee, Hilliard filed a grievance against the district because he thought the old curriculum didn’t focus enough on abstinence. But he said the changes are not about conservative values.

“It’s just compliance with the law,” Hilliard said. “It’s not a change of focus. It’s compliance.”

State law does require sex ed to focus on abstinence, but it allows schools to choose the specific curriculum.

Hilliard and other candidates running under the banner of parent rights call the previous board majority — and the more moderate candidates running to replace them — the “establishment” because they think the moderate group of candidates are too close to district leadership.

His opponent, Terri Chidgey, was the first principal of Stone Oak Elementary. She worked at NEISD until she retired in 2018.

“I don’t see myself as the establishment, but if giving 41 years of my life to a district is a negative thing, is establishment …it’s accurate,” Chidgey said.

Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio

NEISD Single Member District 6 candidate Terri Chidgey poses for a portrait after the North East Council of PTAs forum on April 6, 2024.

She said her background gives her valuable experience, but it doesn’t mean she’ll just go along with whatever district leaders recommend.

“I’m never a ‘yes’ person,” Chidgey said. “I am somebody that always pushes the envelope.”

Conservative candidates told TPR they’re pushing for discipline to be enforced more strictly to support teachers.

But Chidgey said the teachers she speaks with don’t feel supported by them. “I have spoken to literally hundreds of educators in the past six months, and they do not feel valued. They do not feel heard,” Chidgey said.

Besides Hilliard, the only other incumbent on the NEISD ballot this year is David Beyer, a moderate trustee running to represent the MacArthur High School cluster.

Two other long-serving moderate trustees, Shannon Grona and Sandy Hughey, decided not to run for reelection, leaving their seats open for new candidates.

Beyer said he wants the board to spend less time on controversial social issues and more time on things that enable student success.

Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio

NEISD Single Member District 4 incumbent candidate David Beyer poses for a portrait after the North East Council of PTAs on April 6, 2024.

“Some of those things that we talk about have touch points that elicit a very visceral response from people. I’ve lived it for the last four years,” Beyer said. “I just want to make sure that we don’t let the proverbial tail wag the dog. That we’ve got a small vocal group that starts pushing policy and agenda for the entire district.”

Although culture war issues have garnered the most headlines in recent years, Beyer said the difference between himself and some of the more conservative candidates is also about how much confidence they have in district leadership.

“There’s a lot of people that want to get their kid to school, they trust that their teachers and administrators are teaching them, leading them down the right path,” Beyer said. “I’ve been a parent in the district for 12, 13 years now, and I have never felt unwelcome by a school. I’ve never felt unwanted or unappreciated.”

Beyer, Chidgey, and Shelton are part of a group of candidates backed by a political action committee called Bexar County Champions for Public Education.

Public education advocates are worried that the political climate — including Gov. Greg Abbott’s push for school vouchers — is hurting public schools.

Shelton said running for school board put that in focus for her. “There is a concerted effort to dismantle public education,” Shelton said. “I see that more and more clearly.”

Hilliard and two other conservative candidates, Michael Gurwitz and Dick Rasmussen, are backed by a PAC called Parents United for Freedom. Klein isn’t officially backed by the PAC, but they endorsed her when she made her first bid for school board two years ago, and they use her Facebook posts as talking points. She is a political consultant.

Klein said she’s against vouchers. Hilliard has avoided taking a position and said it’s a matter for the state legislature. “I think we have to acknowledge where there are issues and problems and address them, but those are ones that are within the control of the trustee. I don’t control the voucher issue.”

Another faction on the ballot, including Rowland, is backed by the conservative Christian San Antonio Family Association, which opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

Both moderate and conservative candidates told TPR school board races should be nonpartisan, and they blamed their opponents for making things political.

But, for better or worse, education is highly political right now, and the North East ISD school board race is a microcosm of the national debate.

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