With Piles of Campaign Cash, Christian Activists Make North Texas School Board Races a State Battleground

Visitors filled the room at a Keller ISD school board meeting last month. The district is one of four in Tarrant County where big money is being spent on Saturday’s school board races. (Shelby Tauber / The Texas Tribune)

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KELLER — As Tarrant County continues moving away from its perch as one of America’s reddest urban counties and public schools increasingly serve as battlefields for culture wars, school board races in four North Texas districts have quickly transformed from traditionally low-profile contests into high-stakes political conflicts.

The races include the kind of heated debates — about how America’s history of racism should be taught and what books kids should be able access on campuses — that have recently become typical in Texas and across the country. But the four Tarrant County districts’ school board races, which voters will decide Saturday, also feature something rare for Texas’ nonpartisan and typically sleepy school board races: hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions and campaign spending.

That’s largely driven by Christian cellphone company Patriot Mobile, which has put $500,000 into a political action committee supporting conservative candidates in the Carroll, Grapevine-Colleyville, Keller and Mansfield school districts. What’s more, Patriot Mobile Action is led by a seasoned local political campaign expert and has contracted with top conservative political consulting firms that usually focus on statewide races and presidential campaigns.

The Grapevine-based company and its political arm aren’t shy about their goals and plan to expand such activism beyond Tarrant County.

“Patriot Mobile Action is a new entity created to put Christian conservative values into action,” said a statement from Patriot Mobile’s vice president of government and public affairs, Leigh Wambsganss, who also runs the PAC. “We will take action in supporting organizations and candidates that exemplify these values.”

Conservative parents in Tarrant County who are backing the same candidates as Patriot Mobile Action believe the races are a chance to save their kids from a harmful liberal indoctrination. They’ve packed school board meetings to insist that books about LGBTQ people have made pornography rife within schools and that lessons about American history and current events are subversively promoting so-called critical race theory in a way that intends to make white children feel guilty about the country’s history of racism.

Meanwhile, parents opposed to the conservative candidates are fighting an uphill battle as Saturday’s elections approach. They argue that critical race theory, a graduate school-level legal concept, isn’t being taught in schools and distracts from more pressing needs like dealing with pandemic learning loss and the state teacher shortage.

Students accept awards in arts and academics at a Keller ISD school board meeting. School board meetings across the state have seen high attendance, becoming political battlegrounds for a variety of social issues. (Shelby Tauber / The Texas Tribune)

The parents fighting to make “school board meetings boring again” are also afraid that local school board candidates, if elected, will serve the interests of PACs and big-money donors.

“We’re not interested in changing anybody’s minds,” said Laney Hawes, whose four children attend Keller Independent School District. “We’re interested in reaching the voters who don’t realize what’s at stake.”

Texas has more than 1,200 school districts, which are largely independently run by their elected boards. About 47 districts across the state have school board elections Saturday, according to Ballotpedia.

The North Texas school board races are microcosms of larger fights playing out statewide. Since at least last year, state officials and lawmakers have stoked fears about the “indoctrination” of children in classrooms. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have made parental rights a priority as they both seek reelection in November. Patrick has also vowed to push for a “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Texas, mirroring Florida’s conservative push to limit classroom discussions about LGBTQ people.

This comes after the Texas Legislature passed a law last year limiting how race, slavery and current events are taught in schools. They dubbed it the “critical race theory” bill, even though the legislation never mentioned the term. Critical race theory is a university-level concept that examines how racism shapes laws and policies. Public education experts, along with school administrators and teachers, say the theory is not taught in public schools.

But to some parents, like Keller ISD mom Carly Alacahan, vilifying equity and inclusion efforts and criticizing attempts to teach history from multiple perspectives is overly politicizing public schools.

“I don’t ever want my kids to hear the school board meetings because it definitely feels like I’m a criminal — like we’re criminals just for getting where we are,” said Alacahan, who is Latina. “We don’t hate white people. We don’t hate anybody. We just want to be able to tell the story so that we can understand each other.”

Still, much of the money pouring into Tarrant County school board races stems from fears that schools are teaching young white children lessons that make them feel discomfort about their own race.

“As a parent, I will say that critical race theory in and of itself is racist, and I’m not a racist, neither is my son or my family,” said Patriot Mobile Chief Marketing Officer Scott Coburn, who is white. “My son, who has been in Southlake schools his entire life, has never seen anything racist at all, systemically or otherwise, within the schools.”

Visitors attended a Keller ISD school board meeting last month. (Shelby Tauber / The Texas Tribune)

A shifting county

Tarrant County has long been a bastion of American conservatism. When the Tea Party movement swept American politics in the early years of the Obama administration, a northeast Tarrant chapter was formed that included members from suburbs like Collevyille, Grapevine, Keller and Southlake. It quickly became a powerhouse in Texas politics and played an outsized role in shaping the state GOP as it helped elect local conservatives to the Texas Legislature.

In the 2016 presidential election, Texas’ larger counties moved deeper into the Democratic column. But Tarrant emerged as America’s most conservative large urban county. Republican Donald Trump won there with an 8.6-point margin, his largest victory among the country’s 20 largest counties.

But two years later, Democrat Beto O’Rourke narrowly beat Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in Tarrant. In the 2020 presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden narrowly beat Trump by 0.2 percentage points.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the conservatives pouring money into local school board races are doing so as a counteroffensive to the inroads progressives have made in areas that were once Republican strongholds. “These are counties that are no longer rock-solid conservative and in the way that we would have characterized them maybe 10 years ago,” Jones said.

Tarrant includes Southlake, an affluent suburb that drew national attention after a 2018 video of white high school students chanting a racist slur prompted dialogues on the treatment of Black students at Carroll ISD, the area’s public school system.

After the video went viral, the district introduced what it called a Cultural Competence Action Plan to address racial discrimination. Then came the backlash.

Through the Southlake Families PAC, Carroll ISD’s conservative parents worked successfully to stop a plan they deemed would “ingrain woke racial politics in the schools.” Last year, with support from the Southlake Families PAC, the two school board candidates running in steadfast opposition to the district’s diversity plan won seats on the board.

Wambsganss, who is now leading Patriot Mobile Action, helped start the Southlake PAC in 2011, a Southlake document obtained by The Texas Tribune shows.

“She runs our PAC and she’s got 30-plus years in political consultant experience and managing money in campaigns,” Coburn said of Wambsganss. “She’s really well versed in all of this. She’s using all of the same tactics that you would see like a political consultant company that would come in and help somebody organize and manage a campaign.”

And while the amount of money Patriot Mobile Action is spending on local school board races is a sharp departure from convention, Rebecca Deen, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said it’s not unexpected.

“It doesn’t surprise me because they’re right next door to Southlake,” Deen said. “They had a front-row seat.”

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, sits on the House Public Education Committee and co-sponsored the GOP’s so-called critical race theory bill last year. Before he was a lawmaker, he served on the Humble ISD school board. Yet even he is in disbelief that the North Texas school board races are pulling in dollar figures usually seen in statewide campaigns.

“It’s perplexing to some degree that there is a lot of outside interest coming,” Huberty said. “I ran for school board because my kids were going to public school, and I wanted to try to make a difference [in] their potential education. It wasn’t because I had a political philosophy.”

A patriot’s phone plan

Grapevine-based Patriot Mobile bills itself as “America’s only Christian conservative wireless service provider.” The money it donates to conservative causes and organizations comes from customers’ phone bills. Patriot Mobile has over 60,000 subscribers nationwide, a number that is expected to almost double by the end of the year, said Coburn, its chief marketing officer whose son is a Carroll student in Southlake.

Ahead of Saturday’s election, Patriot Mobile Action PAC has raised over half a million dollars, coming almost entirely from its phone company, and had about $125,000 cash on hand as of the end of April.

Since the end of March, the PAC has spent about $390,000 on the four Tarrant County school districts’ 11 conservative candidates. That includes nearly $200,000 on direct mailers, about $145,000 on canvassing costs and $30,000 on digital ads, according to campaign filings.

Patriot Mobile Action has spent $38,500 in advertising and canvassing for each candidate from Mansfield ISD, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD and Keller ISD. In Mansfield, the PAC has backed candidates Craig Tipping, Bianca Benavides Anderson, Keziah Valdes Farrar and Courtney Lackey Wilson. In Grapevine-Collevyille, it is supporting Tammy Nakamura and Kathy Florence-Spradley. In the Keller races, Patriot Mobile Action is backing Micah Young, Joni Shaw Smith and Sandi Walker.

The PAC has spent $20,875 on the two Carroll school district candidates it’s backing: Andrew Yeager and Alex Sexton.

The 11 candidates Patriot Mobile Action is backing either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

The company’s political arm was devised after Patriot Mobile founders Chris Wilson and Glenn Story noticed a San Francisco-based phone carrier called Credo Mobile. It promised customers that 1% of their phone bills would go to liberal causes and candidates. In 2012, Credo Mobile created its own political action committee and raised almost $2.5 million to oppose Tea Party Republicans in Congress. According to media reports, one of the targeted conservatives was Allen West, who at the time was a Florida congressperson. He recently led the Republican Party of Texas and unsuccessfully challenged Abbott in the March Republican primary.

“Our founders saw that the Credo on the left was having a major influence on political movements and getting candidates elected just by getting people to sign up for their cellphone service,” Coburn said. “And they said, well, we don’t have anybody on our side that’s doing that.”

According to Coburn, Patriot Mobile allows its customers to receive phone service without directly supporting “Big Mobile,” which he says donates to left-leaning organizations through corporate responsibility programs. But Patriot Mobile pays T-Mobile a wholesale rate to use its phone towers and infrastructure and then repackages the service by handling subscribers’ customer service and billing needs.

Patriot Mobile has supported organizations like the National Rifle Association and conservative youth movement Turning Point USA. The phone carrier will donate $1.5 million to conservative causes in 2022 and expects that number to double next year, Coburn said.

Coburn said the launch of the Patriot Mobile Action PAC allows the phone company to “get involved in local elections” with the goal of eventually expanding into statewide races.

“We are inserting ourselves into the issues because that’s what our customers want,” Coburn said.

In the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of door hangers and direct mailers in the North Texas races, Patriot Mobile Action warns parents of the presence of “critical race theory” in their school districts and endorses the candidates who are “saving America.”

“Keller ISD exposed our kids to explicit, ‘Woke’ Books,” one mailer reads. “The far-left agenda has infected KISD and it’s hurting our kids. It’s time for a new school board.”

Visitors applaud after a parent said that the banning of LGBTQ books in school libraries will inevitably be harmful to students. (Shelby Tauber / The Texas Tribune)

A PAC-less fight

As more and more conservative money is poured into these races, some Tarrant parents are working to oppose the PAC-backed candidates — even if that means receiving online attacks and lies.

Hawes, whose four children attend Keller ISD, has been called the “expert in Libtardville” on Facebook by parents who support the three conservative candidates. She’s also been labeled as an extremist in private Facebook groups where she’s accused of working with a liberal organization in Austin to influence the Keller elections.

Hawes has gathered the support of 500 other Keller parents and started a grassroots effort ​​to combat the conservative money.

The aim of the group, Hawes said, is to reach those who usually don’t vote in school board elections. But she said she knows that a group of parents who go door-to-door delivering at-home printed flyers will have a hard time competing against a much more sophisticated political apparatus.

“The challenge here is we’re not well funded,” Hawes said. “They’re just a bunch of parents busy with a bunch of kids, paying for soccer teams and dance classes.”

Craig Allen is a Keller school board member seeking another term. He is running against Micah Young, whom Patriot Mobile Action is supporting. He said that when he first won a seat in 2008, candidates needed less than $1,000 to mount a successful campaign.

This time around, Allen has raised over $10,000 — a number dwarfed by his opponents’ PAC-stocked war chests. None of his money has come from PACs, and about half has come in over the last few weeks as he makes a final push. Allen said parents have a right to be involved in their children’s education, but political issues should not be relevant to school board elections.

Julie Nors is running for a Keller school board seat against Joni Shaw Smith, who is supported by Patriot Mobile Action. Nors, who has raised less than $2,000, said the amount of time administrators are spending on political issues takes away from helping students recover from pandemic learning loss.

Allen said he “never would’ve dreamed” that he would need to raise so much money for a school board seat.

“This wildly exceeds what I would have guessed even a few weeks ago,” he said.

Dialing in on the money

Patriot Mobile isn’t the only big money player in the Tarrant County school board races. Southlake Families PAC and KISD Family Alliance PAC have also raised tens of thousands of dollars to push anti-CRT candidates in their school board races.

KISD Family Alliance spent almost $25,000 on political consulting and advertising in April. On Monday, prominent Texas GOP donor Monty Bennett gave $10,000 to the PAC, filings show.

“Many of our schools have unfortunately been taken over by ideologues who care more about pushing their outlandish agendas than in providing an excellent education to our kids. That needs to change,” Bennett said in a statement late Thursday.

And filings indicate the Southlake Families PAC, which says it is “unapologetically rooted in Judeo-Christian values,” spent almost twice as much — at least $45,000 — on Carroll ISD school board races from March 29 to April 27.

Conservatives believe that if they don’t fight back at what they see as a liberal agenda making its way into schools, then they will have lost, said Jones, the Rice University professor.

“If you really want to win, you need the money to do it,” he said.

Coburn said Patriot Mobile chose four districts it considers to be “at risk” or on the “front lines” of the critical race theory battle. He said the point of the local races is to ensure the “right people” hold power to combat alleged attempts to push “liberal ideologies” like critical race theory.

“We’re going to stand up and fight against that all day long,” he said.

Jason Beeferman and Brian Lopez are reporters at The Texas Tribune, the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared on May 5 at TexasTribune.org.

Carla Astudillo and José Luis Martínez contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Facebook, Rice University and the University of Texas at Arlington have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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