EducationJudicialLocal NewsAmid State Lawsuit, Round Rock ISD Mask Mandate Debacle Dredges Up Malfeasance Allegations

While school tension over masks is hardly new, the district's fight comes during its first recent F rating, a lawsuit, and serious claims.
September 16, 2021
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Like school districts across Texas and the country, the Round Rock Independent School District (RRISD) has grappled with the legal issues surrounding mask mandates for months. However, at RRISD, the local mask imbroglio has exposed divisions among the school board and dredged up allegations against the superintendent.

After flirting with a parental opt-out system, RRISD adopted a mask mandate that allows exceptions for children with medical reasons. This mandate expires tomorrow, prompting the board to put the possibility of a lasting mandate on the agenda for the September 14 meeting.

The proposed mandate would be a mask “matrix.” Under the proposed matrix, RRISD would adjust mask requirements based on Austin Public Health recommendations, which gauge the threat of COVID-19 in five possible stages. For example, a Stage 4 or 5 — the yellow and red options, respectively — would mean required masking at RRISD under the matrix. The Austin area has been in Stage 5, the highest stage, since early August.

However, amid a ruckus in the hallway and disagreements between members, the school board decided to table this item until September 18.

A number of attendees thronged outside the door of the meeting room, held at bay by RRISD police officers. The board was streaming a video feed of the meeting in an overflow room down the hall, but several attendees wanted to be in the meeting room with the trustees.

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The board voted 5-2 to keep the limited seating arrangement. The two nay votes came from Trustees Mary Bone and Danielle Weston, outspoken critics of the district’s past mask policies. Bone and Weston left the meeting afterward, with Bone expressing frustration over the seating rule.

“They’re not upholding law. They’re upholding policy,” Bone said of the board’s decision to bar the attendees in the hall from entrance to the meeting.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently ended a suspension of the Open Meetings Act made necessary by COVID-19. Certain provisions of the law were paused during the pandemic to allow government bodies to keep crowds out of meeting rooms. This pause ended September 1.

A district media representative defended the enforcement of overflow seating as compliant with the Open Meetings Act.

“Round Rock ISD abides by the Open Meetings Act and did not violate the law in any way Tuesday evening. The law allows local governments to set reasonable capacity standards in meeting rooms. Current capacity is limited, with seats spaced six feet apart, due to the fact that we are currently in the highest COVID-19 risk phases (Red Phase and Stage 5) in both Williamson and Travis Counties,” RRISD Public Affairs Chief Jenny Caputo stated.

“The public had access to the meeting room until capacity limits were met and also to an overflow area where video and audio of the meeting were live-streamed. Community members had the opportunity to address the Board either in person or via Zoom. There was ample space in the overflow meeting room throughout the meeting. As always and in compliance with state law, the meeting was live-streamed on the Round Rock ISD website and recorded.”

Backstage drama surrounding RRISD Superintendent Hafedh Azaiez thickens the plot.

Similar to other votes, Weston and Bone were the only two trustees to vote against hiring Azaiez, who raised eyebrows after becoming the district’s lone finalist in a hiring process that the two trustees and some parents called opaque.

Weston and Bone also issued a press release notifying the public that a woman claiming to be Azaiez’s mistress told the school board that he had assaulted her.

Jeremy Story, a Round Rock father active in Republican circles who has confronted the school board at public meetings before about these allegations, said he brought the issue to the attention of the Round Rock Police Department yesterday and the Williamson County Sheriff today.

Story was also one of the attendees at last night’s meeting. He was blocked and held by a police officer while trying to enter the meeting room and claims the board has targeted him for probing allegations against Azaiez.

“I did not aggress against them. They wouldn’t answer any of my questions. Nothing. My offense was walking through the door to get into the open meeting, public meeting, of a school board,” Story said.

With regards to mask mandates, Weston and Bone also accused the district of enforcing “a policy that does not exist in April. The board voted to codify the superintendent’s mask protocol that administrators and principals had been treating as a requirement though it said masks “should” — not “must” — be worn, leading to confusion among parents.

Other board members have argued that popular pressure from community members, lately a recurring event at RRISD meetings, should not outweigh considerations of science in health protocols.

“Our community should not be making decisions about safety for other people’s children,” Trustee Tiffanie Harrison said at one meeting.

“We are still in the middle of a global pandemic, and whether or not y’all want to acknowledge it, there have been several threats made tonight, and none of this is productive towards what we actually need to be accomplishing.”

Paxton sued RRISD six days ago for its mask mandate, which defies Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order forbidding government mask mandates.

The Texas Education Agency also just appointed a monitor at the district to report on the activities of the school board and superintendent following a 2019 complaint against the previous board president.

Regardless of what the district decides, federal and state data both paint a relatively optimistic picture for schoolchildren, showing that the risk of youth death from COVID-19 is much smaller than in other age groups. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youths make up 439 of the nation’s 658,000 COVID-19 fatalities. According to Texas Health and Human Services, Texans under the age of 20 make up 74 of the state’s 58,330 COVID-19 deaths.

RRISD scored its first F in recent years on the state’s last annual financial accountability rating. An F is a rare grade; only 12 other traditional school districts out of more than a thousand in the state failed the rating.

Students at RRISD have performed better than the Texas average on the state’s standardized test according to the Texas Education Agency’s database. Round Rock ISD high schoolers scored above the state average in Algebra I, Biology, U.S. History, and English I in the spring of 2021. The state average scores for those subjects can be found here.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.