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Divided North East ISD school board interviews candidates for vacant seat

Four women in business clothing stand in front of a counter as a woman with her back to the camera hands them paper.
Camille Phillips
The four remaining candidates for NEISD's vacant trustee seat draw for their interview order on Oct. 23, 2023. From left to right: Jacqueline Klein, Tracie Shelton, Nan Richie, and Rhonda Rowland.

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After more than a month of meetings that showcased the divided opinions on the North East Independent School District board of trustees, NEISD’s single-member District 2 is one step closer to regaining representation on the board.

Trustees interviewed the four remaining candidates for the position Monday evening in open session. The second round of candidate interviews were originally scheduled for Oct. 2, but they were canceled after the board’s conservative members objected to NEISD’s usual practice of holding closed session interviews.

Two of the four candidates, Jacqueline Klein and Rhonda Rowland, ran for the seat in 2022, but incumbent Terri Williams narrowly defeated them. Williams died in August following a long illness, leaving her seat open.

A woman in a green shirt and black pencil skirt gestures as she speaks into a microphone seated in front of seven seated board members.
Camille Phillips
Jacqueline Klein makes a point during her interview for the vacant trustee seat on the NEISD board October 23, 2023.

During her interview Monday, Klein said she was the only conservative that ran for the seat in 2022, and that voters showed they wanted a change by only giving Williams 40% of the vote. Klein lost the 2022 election by less than three percentage points. She said at the time she was motivated by mask mandates and schools being closed during the pandemic, but she said her biggest concern now is that NEISD schools are chaotic and unsafe.

“Children are not going to be successful, and they are not going to thrive in a chaotic environment,” Klein said. “And so, the number one thing for me would be restoring disciplinary rights to the teachers, letting them take control of their classrooms again. Restorative justice does not work, and it has no place in our classrooms.”

Restorative justice is a practice introduced in schools to counteract suspension policies that disproportionately impact Black students.

Terri Williams was NEISD’s only Black board member. Two of the four candidates, Nan Richie and Tracie Shelton, are also Black.

A woman in a light yellow suit jacket and black pants smiles as she listens to a board member question.
Camille Phillips
Nan Richie helped the incumbent trustee Terri Williams with her re-election campaign in 2022. Williams died in August, leaving her seat vacant.

Richie is a friend of Williams who helped with her re-election campaign. She said she applied to fill Williams’ seat because she wanted someone like Terri to fill her seat.

When Trustee Steve Hilliard asked Richie what she thought of a paragraph on Texas education policy that said it was important to teach students to be patriotic and understand the U.S. and Texas constitutions, Richie said she agreed that it was important to teach Texas history, but it needed to be holistic and uncensored.

“Some of it's not pretty. Some of it's messy, but that's our state," Richie said.

Trustees also asked candidates for their opinions on school vouchers, how they would respond to outside interests, what they thought of parent rights, and what they would do to reduce the district’s budget deficit.

All four candidates said they opposed school vouchers, although Tracie Shelton said she wouldn’t be against them if public schools were also getting enough funding.

A woman in a red pantsuit sits next to her walker as she answers a question.
Camille Phillips
Rhonda Rowland is a retired school principal.

Retired educator Rhonda Rowland said she opposed book bans, but she didn’t think LGBTQ books belonged in school libraries.

“The books that are specifically lesbian or bisexual or gay oriented, personally I don’t think they have a place in our media centers,” Rowland said. “They may have a place in the home … where parents can discuss those with their children. That's their prerogative, and they can certainly do that under the guidance of their home and what their morality and their faith calls for with them.”

Rowland said the one thing she’d change about NEISD is the division on the board.

“I see so much sadness on the board right now,” Rowland said. “I want you all to be together, and I want you all to find compromise.”

Shelton also said she would work to unify the board.

A woman in a black floral skirt, yellow shirt and tan cardigan leans forward onto her crossed arms.
Camille Phillips
Tracie Shelton is a business owner who grew up in Houston and has sent her kids to both private, charter, and public schools.

I think you bridge the gap by asking questions,” Shelton said. “You come in with an opinion, but not something that you're married to. Because when you're married to it and there is no other way like this is the way it's got to be, then there's nowhere to go.”

Both Klein and Shelton have school-aged children, but they don’t attend NEISD schools.

Klein said she moved her children to a charter school “as a last resort.”

My children are in a charter because of something that happened over an ongoing period of time in a single member District 2 campus. I went to the police. I went to the principal. I went to the assistant principal. I got a campus transfer. And at the end of the year, when I applied for school choice to keep my child at the school he was transferred to, I was denied,” Klein said.

Shelton said her family previously lived in Alamo Heights, and she kept her son at Alamo Heights High School after they moved to NEISD to give him continuity.

The seventh seat on the NEISD board will remain vacant until at least Friday. After meeting in closed session for two hours to discuss the interviews, trustees pushed back a vote until Friday morning at 8:30.

The trustee the board appoints could flip the balance of the board. NEISD is currently split down the middle between conservative and moderate members. 

The candidate selected will serve in the position until the May 2024 election.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.