EducationLocal NewsCritical Race Theory, Trustee’s Social Media Posts Heighten Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Election Turnout

The state’s third-largest school district has been embroiled in controversy after passing a resolution condemning racism and a trustee has been accused of posting anti-police and racially tinged statements.
October 15, 2021
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Controversy over a trustee’s social media posts and allegations of critical race theory (CRT) elements in school curricula have drawn multiple challengers for three incumbents on the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD) Board of Trustees this year. 

Parents in the state’s third-largest public school district have been asking questions about curriculum since the board adopted a “Resolution Condemning Racism” in September of 2020.

Written by trustees John Ogletree, Julie Hinaman, and Gilber Sarabia, the resolution states that the district will “lead through policy and practice to eliminate racism, systemic racism, discrimination, injustice, and inequality in any and all its forms,” and commits to hiring a third party to conduct an “equity audit” in order to develop equity policies.

According to documents obtained by The Texan, CFISD has contracted with Millennium Learning Concepts (MLC) for an estimated $75,000 to conduct an equity analysis and to “provide recommendations on how to alleviate the policies and practices that are contributing to inequitable experiences and outcomes for students.”

President and owner of MLC, Roger Cleveland, is a professor of education who frequently presents to schools and districts on implicit bias and using equity to ensure that “equality is the outcome.”

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Since then, parents have voiced opposition to plans to show a video on “implicit bias,” a Black Lives Matter protest video shown to third graders, and materials from controversial professor Tyrone Howard used in teacher training materials. Trustees have vehemently denied that the district uses any curriculum under the CRT label, but parents say ideas derived from CRT are presented to students under the guise of anti-bullying and anti-racism materials.

Critical Race Theory has roots in Marxist philosophy and examines society with race and racial hierarchy as the primary concern for societal ills. Drawing on Marxist philosopher of education Paolo Freire’s theories asserting that teaching is never neutral but always political, materials containing elements of CRT seek to use education to deconstruct institutions and culture deemed racist.

Ogletree has also come under community scrutiny for a slew of social media posts that invoke racial conflict. In one case Ogletree posted a Washington Post opinion piece comparing police officers to the Ku Klux Klan. In other instances, he shared a racially tinged comment about GOP congressional candidate Wesley Hunt who is black, and a comment reading, “This country was built on bad theology with white men holding Bibles.”

This week, CFISD resident William Ely filed a formal complaint alleging that Ogletree’s posts conflicted with the district’s ethics policies for board members. Ogletree has since removed the controversial posts, and the district no longer displays the “Resolution Condemning Racism” on its website. 

During a Monday night public meeting, CFISD General Counsel Marney Collins Sims did not permit Ely to address the board because she said Ely had not signed up for the correct portion of the agenda. CFISD policy is to randomly select only ten constituents to speak during the public meetings.

Neither the district nor Ogletree responded to requests for comment on the social media posts or the formal complaint.

Ogletree has served on the CFISD board since 2004, has drawn multiple challengers to his quest for reelection this year. 

Candidates challenging Ogletree for Place 5 are:

  • Natalie Blasingame, a former teacher and principal who has previously run for CFISD board
  • Grace Horner, a PhD marriage and family therapist and Navy veteran
  • Xavier Leal, an assistant principal, who did not attend this week’s candidate forum
  • Todd LeCompte, a business owner and CFISD parent
  • Courtney Spradley, a businesswoman and former CFISD teacher

In addition to Ogletree, trustees Don Ryan and Bob Covey are up for re-election this year and have also drawn multiple challengers.

For Place 6, incumbent Ryan, who has served for 21 years, faces three challengers:

  • Chris Harrison, President of SAS Facility Management
  • Scott Henry, a business executive who also serves as a Municipal Utility District (MUD) director
  • Ryan C. Irving Jr., a University of Houston student who has interned for Mayor Sylvester Turner

Place 7 incumbent, Covey, was elected in 2005 and is the CFISD board president and second vice-president of the Texas Association of School Boards. He has three challengers, although only one attended this week’s candidate forum, Lucas Scanlon.

Scanlon is an adjunct professor and consultant who attended Rice and Harvard universities and previously worked as a music educator. 

Other Place 7 candidates include Michael V. Perez and Craig A. Jacobs.

While Ogletree has been endorsed by the left-leaning teacher’s union Texas American Federation of Teachers, Blasingame has garnered the endorsements of the Harris County Republican Party (HCRP), the Conservative Coalition of Harris County (CCHC), and business political networking organization BIZPAC.

Although actively campaigning for Ogletree, the Texas AFT declined to endorse Place 6 incumbent Ryan. Instead, the union has thrown support to Irving. 

The incumbents, Ogletree, Ryan, and Covey have been running as a “slate” and distributing campaign materials that include all three names.

Three challengers, all endorsed by the HCRP, CCHC, and BIZPAC, are also running as a slate: Blasingame, Henry, and Scanlon. 

During a forum hosted on district property last week, candidates were not asked any direct questions about CRT or recent controversy over district plans to write its own internal “character education” program, but several challengers took aim at the politicization of curriculum.

“Our schools have no room whatsoever for politics, this is the kind of stuff that should not be in the system,” said Horner.

In answer to a question on what “equity” means, Blasingame said, “The goal is not equity, equity has become synonymous with this idea of bringing the top down and the bottom up to some middle line, the goal is equality of opportunity for every student to achieve their full potential.”

Ogletree countered, saying, “It is not just giving everybody an equal opportunity, it is making sure once the opportunity is given, we meet the needs of every student,” but Ogletree also criticized injecting partisan politics into school board races.

When asked about the greatest challenges facing public schools and boards, Covey said that in addition to finances and teacher recruitment and retention, “misinformation” was a problem.

“I’m also very concerned about misinformation and outright stories that just aren’t true without checking the facts.”

In response to parents challenging school boards over issues such as CRT-like curricula and mask mandates, the National Association of School Boards recently requested intervention from federal agencies, and Attorney General Merrick Garland has instructed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to coordinate with the nation’s 14,000 public school districts to develop “lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response.”

Last month, Round Rock ISD parents Jeremy Story and Dustin Clark were arrested and jailed overnight for allegedly “hindering proceedings with disorderly conduct,” a Class A misdemeanor.

After community outcry over CFISD plans cited in the Resolution Condemning Racism to use materials from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to designate every school in the district a “No Place for Hate” campus, the board suspended the ADL program and announced it would develop an internal character education program.

Referencing concerns over character education, Scanlon said students should be taught to solve problems and take responsibility for their own actions, but he objected to plans that included a teacher “coaching a child in how they should feel, who they are, or their identity.”

Covey defended district plans for the development of character education saying that the superintendent would be talking with senior high school students selected to be part of an advisory council to talk about “what is important to them.”

“Then [the superintendent] is going to bring in the parents to look at what they talked about and then share it with the community.” 

Spradley said while she thought it was “great that we’re listening to some high school students,” but added that input should come from all stakeholders including teachers, parents, and local employers.

In addition to CFISD, contentious school board elections in neighboring Houston ISD and Klein ISD have drawn attention and endorsements from unions and political groups in Harris County.

Early voting begins Monday, October 18, and Election Day is slated for November 2, 2021.

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Holly Hansen

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.