AUSTIN (KXAN) — The race for a local school board seat has led to both contentious debates about diversity and record fundraising.
Jen Stevens is facing off against incumbent Jennifer Champagne for Place 5 in the Eanes Independent School District.
KXAN Education Reporter Alex Caprariello sat down with both candidates to talk about some of the topics they are most at odds about.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Following continued complaints about racism and discrimination within the district student body, the Eanes Independent School District hired Dr. Mark Gooden in 2020 to become the diversity, equity and inclusion consultant.
Since then, Dr. Gooden has formed a diversity committee and has led professional development sessions. He’s also hosted focus groups that allow students to share their feelings and open up about problematic situations that may have made them feel uncomfortable in the past.
Stevens said hiring Dr. Gooden as a DEI consultant was rushed, didn’t include input from the community and wasn’t fiscally responsible. She said the district should have undergone a bid process and that the committee, which Dr. Gooden has assembled based on an application process distributed by the district, is ironically lacking in diverse voices.
“If you believe in DEI, then you should be appalled in the way Eanes ISD has handled it up to this point,” Stevens said. “It’s a conversation that is important to have, but it’s a conversation that has to include everybody, each member of our community so that we can get buy in and work toward tangible goals.”
Champagne, who has been a trustee since she was elected in 2015, disagreed. She backed the decision to bring Dr. Gooden onboard and said he is making significant progress with both students and staff. She said Steven’s approach to the topic comes across as combative and hurtful to minority students, parents and staff.
“That’s not a way to lead. That’s not the way to provide the best outcomes for students. I think if we want to maintain the education excellence in Eanes ISD, we need to make sure that every student feels safe in our schools,” Champagne said.
Champagne has been heavily involved in Eanes ISD affairs for more than a decade. Elected in 2015, she has served as both the board president and vice president. She is running on a platform of experience, saying that she has provided a solid structure and foundation as the district has approached divisive topics like DEI and in-person student attendance during a pandemic.
“The board needs experience, it needs stability and it needs the ability of someone to be able to collaborate with others,” Champagne said. “Because if you can’t collaborate and you come to consensus in a non-combative way, then the work of the district doesn’t get done.”
“Combative” was the way Champagne described Steven’s behavior during this campaign. Stevens, in comparison, said it’s her ability to challenge the status quo that makes her the ideal candidate.
She said she has met with community members who are frustrated with the way the board has historically moved forward with decision making, saying that far too often, there isn’t diversity-of-thought. She said by injecting her opinion into the most important topics surrounding EISD, it will allow the board to consider alternatives and think critically.
“This community is very frustrated. They are very frustrated with this board. They feel like it’s a do-nothing board. They feel like it’s a 7-0 vote board. They feel like they are not being heard,” Stevens said. “I want to understand all perspectives. I want to consider them all, but at the end of the day, I will make the decision that I think is right. And I will represent you to the best of my ability.”
One of the most stark contrasts between the two candidates was their ability to finance their campaigns.
Stevens, who claims she never held a fundraising event, earned nearly 10 times the amount of contributions as Champagne.
According to campaign finance records submitted to the district 30 days in advance of the election, Stevens had raised a record $99,276. In comparison, Champagne raised just $11,254. Stevens’ largest donation was a whopping $25,000 which Secretary of State records traces back to a person by the name of Michael Ajouz.
KXAN asked Stevens about her relationship with Ajouz and how she was able to garner approximately 25% of her campaign financing through one person.
“We met through a mutual friend, he expressed his support and here we are,” Stevens said. “He expects me to have an open mind, answer calls, ask tough questions, get our budget balanced again, to bring common sense to the board, speak up and voice concerns and not go along to get along. I think everyone in this community is very tired of that.”
Ajouz, along with three other donors, singlehandedly helped Stevens raise $60,000. Champagne said this gave her opponent an unfair advantage, allowing her to use targeted mail-in ads to reach more people.
“We’ve all seen races where votes are bought, to a certain extent. I’ve seen it with my opponent in the mailings that she sent out,” Champagne said. “That gives her the ability to reach out to folks that aren’t paying quite as close attention to this race.”
Stevens said that there is nothing unethical with her fundraising and that it should be interpreted as a true reflection of the people’s desires for EISD.
“I think the expression of support is on par with the frustration level with a lot of the people in this community,” Stevens said.
Early voting for the Eanes ISD school board and other May elections is now underway. Election Day is scheduled for May 1.