Five of nine seats on the beleaguered Houston Independent School District (HISD) board were on the ballot in November, but only one incumbent, Myrna Guidry, won her race outright while voters pushed four other seats into runoff elections.
Of the four runoffs, conservative backed candidates Kendall Baker and Bridget Wade successfully captured single-member districts 6 and 7 while left-leaning incumbents Elizabeth Santos and Sue Deigaard held onto their seats representing districts 1 and 5.
While public school districts across the state and nation have been embroiled in controversies over COVID-19 masking and school closure policies, as well as concerns over critical race theory (CRT) and obscene materials in school libraries, additional scandals have plagued the urban Houston district responsible for educating more than 196,000 students.
Following years of chronically underperforming schools and an investigation into multiple ethics violations by the board of trustees, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) moved to take over HISD in 2019, but a court injunction has blocked the plan while a district lawsuit remains pending before the Supreme Court of Texas.
School board elections are nominally non-partisan and candidates are not identified by party affiliation, but both Republican and Democrat officeholders and groups have waded into public school board races in Houston and other parts of the state.
A well-known local pastor, Baker had garnered endorsements from both the county and state Republican parties, as well as other conservative organizations and a slew of Republican officeholders including state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).
Incumbent Holly Flynn Vilaseca, who was specifically named in a scathing Texas Education Agency report alleging board misconduct, had the backing of the Houston Federation of Teacher’s union as well Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX-07). She lost to Baker by a narrow 78-vote margin.
Likewise, District 7 challenger Wade touted endorsements from the Harris County Republican Party, the Conservative Coalition of Harris County, and Houston Young Republicans, with even Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) recording a get-out-the-vote message for her campaign, while incumbent Anne Sung had been endorsed by the teacher’s union, a lengthy list of Democrat groups, Fletcher, and multiple other elected Democrats.
Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said in a statement that the results indicated voters were ready for a change.
“Harris County GOP made contact with thousands of voters across Houston leading up to the election and voters heard conservative candidates’ message for a better education for our kids and a stronger voice for parents.”
Baker credited his win to support from not only conservative groups, but many HISD teachers who helped him connect with parents and voters in the district and says that his number one priority will be to empower parents.
“I will immediately work to set up systems that will give parents a more powerful voice in our schools from curriculum to discipline protocols, as well as hiring processes,” Baker told The Texan.
“As Governor Abbott said about my election, parents matter when it comes to education and they are tired of mask mandates and critical race theory.”
In regard to the district’s continuing struggle to improve basic reading and math skills, Baker said while the superintendent must execute policy, the board needed to continue to address student achievement by increasing funding for innovation in third-grade reading and math instruction especially.
Wade, who also campaigned on addressing HISD’s floundering student achievement rates and budget concerns, captured nearly 54 percent of the vote in her race.
After thanking her supporters Sunday, Wade said she looked forward to a “smooth and collaborative transition.”
A third conservative-backed candidate, Caroline Walter did not fare as well in her attempt to unseat incumbent Deigaard. While Deigaard did not receive the endorsement of the teacher’s union, she enjoyed support from Fletcher and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and took 64 percent of the runoff vote.
Santos, with endorsements from Hidalgo as well as the teacher’s union, held her seat by a paper-thin 41-vote margin against left-leaning challenger Janette Garza Lindner.
Regarding the potential state takeover, Baker said HISD would “comply with the law.”
“If the courts allow a state takeover, I will work to ensure as much as I can within the law that parental voices will continue to be heard and that students aren’t adversely affected.”
Baker, a former City of Houston employee and mayoral candidate, said that he was anxious to get back to serving the community and the district.
“I am determined to turn around our failing HISD schools, be a voice for our children and parents, and return the focus to academics instead of divisive ideology,” said Baker. “This is my first love and passion: to serve the community.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.