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Grieder: Local issues should inform Houston ISD runoff voters

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 12/8/2021 By Erica Grieder, Staff writer

Turnout was low in Houston-area elections last month. But it would be misleading to call the resulting runoffs “sleepy.”

Four members of the Houston Independent School District’s board — Elizabeth Santos, Sue Deigaard, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung — were forced into runoffs.

Their fates will likely be decided by several hundred votes, at most. After Monday — the penultimate day of early voting — just 18,790 ballots had been cast in person or returned by mail across Harris County, which has roughly 2.5 million registered voters. Election day for runoffs is Saturday.

Most voters, in other words, are apparently not paying attention to these races. But they’ve attracted the interest of powerful and well-heeled interest groups, including the Republican Party of Texas, which on Monday announced it had launched a local government committee to work with county parties on nominally nonpartisan local races — school board races in particular.

In HISD’s District 5, the most recent mailer I’ve received from Deigaard highlights the work the board has done since she was elected in 2017 — improving special education services, expanding prekindergarten, raising teacher salaries, hiring a permanent superintendent and so on.

A mailer in support of challenger Caroline Walter, sent by an outfit called the Houston Region Business Coalition, is more diffuse in its focus.

“Your vote for me is a vote for change; voting for change is voting FOR THE FUTURE!” says Walter, a wife and mom to three children, in a quote for the mailer.

It’s a sentence that contains a lot of popular words and wouldn’t be misplaced on a coffee mug, but what does it actually mean? Aren’t all votes for the future, in some sense?

And are HISD students still allowed to ask such questions, which are rooted in critical thinking — an exercise that has something in common, at least superficially, with the once-obscure academic discipline called critical race theory?

On Monday, Deigaard explained that she was a first-time candidate when she decided to run for a spot on the school board in 2017, after attending many board meetings while her children were HISD students.

“I had been so involved for many years before I ran, that there was a sense of responsibility,” Deigaard said. “Our students needed adults at the table that were there to be their voice.”

They need that even more this year than they did in 2017. Over the past two years, adults have raised noisy and often angry voices at school board meetings across the country, often clamoring about issues that aren’t actually under the purview of the school board, such as the aforementioned critical race theory.


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The latter has emerged as a flashpoint in school board races across the country, including in the Houston region, where several incumbents in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and Klein ISD were unseated in November by challengers who made the issue a priority.

The result of this national trend has been a certain diffusion of focus away from the actual condition of our schools and the quality of the education they provide not to mention the possibility of a state takeover of HISD, which the district is fighting.

And that, in itself, is a reason for all voters to take these runoff elections seriously and turn out if they haven’t already.

After all — shiny objects and national political folderol aside — there are plenty of practical issues facing HISD students, parents and employees.

“I have knocked on over 3,200 doors of voters since Aug. 31,” Deigaard said. “In those conversations with the voters I talk to who have children in our schools, the concerns are local. They want a great teacher. They want a great school. They want enriching programs.”

It’s a similar story in District 7, according to Sung — whose runoff opponent, Bridget Wade, has been endorsed by the Harris County GOP, Houston Young Republicans and conservative gadfly Steve Hotze, among others. Wade has said that her campaign is about “getting politics out of the classroom.”

“I renounce any attempt by our public schools, whether formal or informal, to teach our children that one race is better than the other,” Wade, a former president of the Briargrove Elementary PTO, said in a statement.

Sung told me Tuesday that she meets monthly with PTO presidents and other parent leaders across District 7. “I’ve done that for years. I knew going into this election that there were the usual education concerns.”

Many parents, she added, have understandable worries as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are concerns about safety, the future of the district’s mask mandate and its plans to address the learning gaps incurred over this period.

But in knocking on doors, Sung continued, she occasionally has met voters who raised concerns about critical race theory — which isn’t taught in district schools and which isn’t among the issues she hears about from families that are directly involved with HISD.

“We’re closest to our parents, right?” said Sung. “If a tree falls by a school campus, I get an email.”

Local issues should be the focus as voters decide whether to re-elect or oust incumbents.

In District 1, Santos, who attended and taught English in HISD schools, will face energy consultant Janette Garza Lindner, a mother of two district students and the only challenger endorsed by the Chronicle’s editorial board. And in District 6, Flynn Vilaseca, a former early childhood teacher and the board’s first vice president, is running against pastor Kendall Baker.

Harris County voters should take the opportunity to weigh in on the school board runoffs, which will affect all of us, directly or indirectly.

“Whether you have a child in Houston ISD or not, strong public schools are the foundation of our democracy and the engine for our economy, so it’s important to vote in this election,” Sung said.

That’s all the more true when our public schools have become the focus of intense partisan inquiry.

erica.grieder@chron.com

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