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North East ISD candidates; PACs spend big ahead of Saturday school board election

Campaign flyers for NEISD candidates spread on a table.
Camille Phillips
Campaign flyers for 2024 NEISD school board candidates spread out for attendees at a Northeast Neighborhood Alliance meeting in April.

Saturday’s municipal election is particularly high stakes for the North East Independent School District, and the most recent campaign filings showed that candidates — and their donors — have put equally high levels of funding up in the hope of securing a win.

According to campaign finance documents, the 12 candidates vying for five open board seats have spent more than $66,000 combined. Political action committees backing NEISD candidates have spent more than $77,000.

TPR interviewed all 12 NEISD school board candidates, and attended forums for the candidates hosted by the North East Council of PTAs.

The most recent campaign finance filings were due eight days before the election; final tallies won’t be available until after the results are in.

However, the totals available so far greatly exceeded the levels raised for previous NEISD school board elections. Between 2016 and 2018, four races were uncontested, and candidates were able to win without spending any money at all. Candidates in contested races in 2016 and 2020 raised $3,000 to $4,000 all-in.

That’s in line with what most school board candidates raised in Texas up until 2020, said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

“Typically, the amount would be little or nothing. Certainly under $5,000 would be the norm,” he said. “It's really only in recent years that we've started to see the culture wars issues enter in [and] real ideological divisions take shape with regard to these school board elections. And therefore, PACs form and outside groups get involved who have some money to throw around.”

With the attention of political action committees, Wilson said it hasn’t been unusual for school board campaigns to raise $10,000 to $20,000 — two to four times the usual amount spent prior to 2021.

2022 was a banner year for conservative school board PACs, often with donations pouring in from across the country as part of a coordinated effort to shape local education policy.

“Once upon a time it would have been sort of silly to even think about different ideological factions on the school board, because it's really about kind of mundane administration and competence — management issues,” Wilson said. “It's really only in recent years that we've started to see concerted national efforts to shape school board politics in a variety of different jurisdictions, largely as school boards become the battleground for people on different sides of culture war issues about gender and sexuality and race and the narratives of American history.”

A new conservative PAC called Parents United for Freedom also formed at NEISD in 2022, although most of its donors were local.

This year, fundraising for NEISD’s school board elections surpass even the elevated levels generated in 2022, when the wave of new PACs first popped up and helped elect conservative school board members across the country, including two at NEISD.

In 2022, the newly-formed Parents United for Freedom PAC raised $19,000 for the NEISD election; so far this year the conservative PAC raised $48,000 and spent $47,000 to help elect the three candidates they’ve endorsed: incumbent Steve Hilliard and newcomers Dick “Raz” Rasmussen and Michael Gurwitz.

The Friends of the San Antonio Family Association, an older — and more old-school — conservative PAC, has also put big money in the NEISD election this year: $35,000 raised and $22,000 spent to get the word out about their endorsed candidates: Rhonda Rowland, Jack Hoyle and Chris Evans. SAFA has also published material in support of Steve Hilliard and Michael Gurwitz.

A brand-new PAC backing moderate NEISD candidates called the Bexar County Champions for Public Education has raised a more modest $14,000 this year. But moderate candidates have far outraised their conservative opponents in individual fundraising. Four of the five candidates endorsed by the Bexar County Champions for Public Education have raised more than $10,000. Terri Chidgey, who’s campaigning to represent the affluent Stone Oak area, raised $25,000.

Two of the conservative candidates backed by Parents United for Freedom have raised more standard amounts of around $5,000. Michael Gurwitz did not submit documents for the most recent deadline.

Candidates backed by the Friends of SAFA PAC have largely been financed through in-kind donations provided by the PAC. Chris Evans and Jack Hoyle both reported more than $7,000 in in-kind donations from SAFA; Rhonda Rowland has not submitted documents for the eight-day deadline.

Jaqueline Klein, who was endorsed by Parents United for Freedom in 2022, has raised $4,600 independently this year and loaned her campaign another $15,000. Many of her donors continue to overlap with Parents United for Freedom, and her talking points align with the priorities of the PAC's endorsed candidates.

Klein’s moderate opponent, Tracie Shelton, has received more than 40 small-dollar donations in addition to higher amounts, giving her $13,600 total.

Outside of NEISD, state and national attention on school board races has dropped from the intensity of 2022. Wilson said the attention of donors — and of analysts like himself — has shifted towards the presidential race and the battle to control the Texas Legislature (and decide the fate of school vouchers).

Even the relatively high-dollar amounts raised for the 2024 NEISD school board races pale in comparison to the money raised for the March Republican primary in Texas.

The state legislative primaries attracted millions of dollars for TV ads. Most of NEISD’s candidates continue to spend their money on mailers, social media boosts, and yard signs. However, some candidates did pay consultants to help them analyze voter data. Klein spent $2,000 on a production crew for videos posted online.

Despite the added funding, North East ISD's school board races will likely continue the historical trend of low voter turnout. Less than 2% of Bexar County registered voters participated in early voting. Low voter turnout often means school board elections can be decided by a handful of votes.

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.