How Political Action Committees Transformed School Board Races in Round Rock and Leander
Forty years. That’s how long Austin attorney Jim Cousar has been practicing campaign finance and election law. Yet nothing could have prepared him for the “substantial amounts of money” he has seen participating in local school board races during this midterm election cycle.
“I have observed campaign finance in central Texas since the 1980s,” Cousar said. “In a school board race, traditionally there isn’t a lot of money, and traditionally almost all the money will be raised by the candidate and spent by the candidate.”
Instead, this election cycle has seen several local political action committees formed to lend thousands of dollars and endorsements to candidates in school board races — notably in two of Central Texas’ largest school districts, Round Rock and Leander. Each district had five seats up for election.
“I understand there are significant sums being raised and spent by individuals and groups who genuinely care about the burning issues,” Cousar said.
Some of those “hot issues” include critical race theory, gender issues and sex education, he said.
Take, for example, the campaign slogan of a candidate for the Round Rock school board: “Teach ABC+123, not CRTs and LGBTs.”
Don Zimmerman, a former Austin City Council member, was one of five selected “conservative” candidates for the school board who were endorsed and financially backed by the Round Rock One Family PAC.
The PAC sought to bring conservative values to the school district. Zimmerman’s campaign received thousands of dollars from the group.
It’s “unusual to see a lot of money being spent supporting candidates who have an ideological agenda within the school board,” Cousar said.
Volunteers become politicians
Why is so much money going into these local school board races?
First, Cousar said, it’s important to note that school board members are unpaid.
“They often do it, you know, as community volunteer service,” he said. “A lot of them don’t even really consider themselves politicians.”
He also notes that it has always been legal to spend money on school board runs; most people just don’t see them as the kind of place where you make large financial contributions.
So what’s different? It all comes down to those “hot issues”.
“What we’re seeing now are people with a very partisan agenda on these issues…trying to push [them] on the knees of the school board, rather than the school superintendent and professional educators,” Cousar said.
Historically, he says, education has not been seen as a partisan issue. This is not the case in today’s campaign environment, where school board candidates assume the role of politicians.
“What we’re seeing are school board races that look more and more like legislative races,” Cousar said. “People are talking about issues that traditionally a school board wouldn’t even really address and raising money to do it and trying to align voters like it’s a traditional Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative split. .”
round rock isd
Two major local PACs have emerged from Round Rock this election cycle – the Round Rock One Family PAC and Access Education RRISD. Both groups have raised thousands of dollars, according to campaign finance reports.
Support for the Round Rock One Family coalition of conservative candidates has transcended the grassroots level. The candidates obtained the endorsement of the Project 1776a national PAC dedicated to electing school board members committed to abolishing critical race theory, as well as thousands of dollars in financial support from the Republican Party of Texas.
Zimmerman explained the PAC strategy to KUT.
“You have to win with a majority, especially when you’re working to reform a school district…so the only way to have a chance of doing that is to win with a slate,” he said. “There’s no point in winning as individuals if you don’t have a strong majority.”
Zimmerman said the group began researching and selecting potential candidates for the slate last December.
“We searched and searched…we asked all kinds of people to run and no one would run because it’s so much work,” he said. “It’s a job that doesn’t pay anything. It costs you a lot of money…no one wants to run for the school board.”
Despite this effort, all five Round Rock One Family PAC contestants failed to win.
Instead, the five Access Education RRISD-approved nominees — including incumbents Amber Feller, Amy Weir and Tiffanie Harrison — swept the school board.
The Access Education RRISD website said PAC has worked diligently to recruit, support and elect school board trustees who share its values, including an emphasis on “safe access for all” and “fair practices”.
A similar situation unfolded in the nearby town of Leander. All but two candidates supported by the Everything in LISD PAC got seats on the school board.
“I think one of the reasons we started the PAC is we noticed things were getting a little more chaotic at our school board meetings,” said Joel Bercu, one of the creators of the PAC. , at KUT. “We really care about our teachers and our administration and everyone who works so hard for our children, so we wanted to help support them.”
The largely teacher-led group backed incumbents Trish Bode, Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia and Sade Fashokun, as well as newcomer Francesca Romans.
Romans, who worked in education law until last year, said she first became more involved in the district after one of her sons was “chained to the book controversy.
Leandre ISD deleted 11 pounds from the district’s high school curriculum last year after a year-long review of credentials that parents deemed inappropriate.
“I really want our school districts to start trusting the politicians and the people who work for us again,” she told KUT.
Romans acknowledged the role All in LISD PAC played in helping him get elected.
“It was really great to see how much people in this area really care about their schools and want to be involved and they want to see them improve,” she said. “And for me, as a first-time applicant, I wouldn’t be here if not for the help I’ve received.”
Romans was also endorsed by run for somethinga national PAC that helps recruit and support young progressives running for office.
Two candidates backed by All in LISD – Elexis Grimes and Joseph Gorordo – lost to Paul Gauthier, who ran on a list of four Conservative candidates for the school board.
Another conservative list of candidates approved by the Texas Parents United PAC did not win any school board seats.
Is this the new “normal”?
Cousar said it’s too early to tell what future school board races will look like.
“I think it’s very hard to predict, but one thing we’ve seen…is there’s just a lot more money coming into politics at all levels,” he said. -he declares. “If this trend continues, we could end up seeing more money invested in school board races.
“If this happens, I think it will change the way people think about school boards and if [or] they’re not really non-partisan boards.”