2 Williamson County school districts may lose out on millions in funding due to book controversies

Williamson County

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Two school districts in Williamson County could be excluded from receiving a portion of $14 million in federal funding under the CARES Act because of recent controversies about books.

On Tuesday, Williamson County commissioners approved the dispersal of funding for all county school districts except Round Rock and Leander ISDs. Commissioner Valerie Covey explained the court wouldn’t approve the funding for the districts in Leander and Round Rock, because they didn’t support how those districts have handled these books.

“I think we send a clear message to school districts that we’re not okay with sharing our tax dollars with people who put smut in the room,” Covey said. “It’s ridiculous.”

The commissioner said they hoped to hold off on distributing funding until they could meet with these districts and get “some resolution.”

“It’s not about the kids — that I’m not supporting — and I want that message clear today. It’s about what’s happening in those districts,” she said.

In addition to Covey, Commissioners Cynthia Long, Russ Boles and County Judge Bill Gravell all approved withholding the funds to the districts. Commissioner Terry Cook did not approve the motion.

“The commissioners court lost authority over the school districts in the 50s. We are outside of our lane if we try to micro-manage the ISDs,” Cook said. “This is federal dollars, and they desperately need this to help. A lot of this is augmenting the education that is available today for the students, and that — by golly — we need to let that happen because students are struggling.”

Molly Segrets, the parent of a Leander ISD high school student, told KXAN “every little bit” of funding helps, and she believes withholding it would only hurt the students.

“It’s like a waking nightmare. Now, we are at a place where we are withholding funds from kids — withholding funds from kids over someone’s opinion,” she said. “We have to do better.”

Segrets went on, “I don’t understand, as a parent within this district, how I’m asked to trust a county commissioner to hold opinions and decisions about our curriculum, but not our administrators and our teachers.”

Others applauded the court’s decision, including Marcia Strickler-Watson, a county resident who has been working with parents to get many of these books removed from libraries and reading lists.

“Get those books for your children at Christmas and put them under the tree and keep them at home. They don’t belong in public schools,” she said. “Enough is enough here.”

Strickler-Watson said they worried about pornographic depictions and graphic descriptions still on the shelves and available to students.

“Reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and sure, some classic books, all that is great. But they should not be teaching this type of perversion in our public schools,” she said.

School districts respond

A spokesperson for the Leander school district released a statement in response to the commissioner’s court decision, saying they would coordinate discussions with the commissioners and Judge Gravell.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have been working hand-in-hand with our county officials to keep schools open as safely as possible. The CARES Act was intended to help fund economic relief during the pandemic, including offsetting the costs incurred by school districts to keep classrooms open for in-person instruction and to provide remote learning opportunities for students. Our teachers and staff have worked tirelessly to go above and beyond for students during this time, and we hope to minimize the financial impact and improve the long-term stability of our district with tools such as the CARES funding.”

Last week, Leander ISD announced it would remove certain books and graphic novels from its classroom libraries after complaints about sexual content. After a review, 11 titles were taken out, including the graphic novels “V for Vendetta,” “Y: The Last Man” and “The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel.” However, the titles will still be available in the school’s main library.

In their statement, Leander ISD also laid out more actions they have taken over the past 15 months:

  • completed a year-long review of the reading options in our high school book club curriculum
  • approved a diversity, equity, and inclusion policy to ensure all students have equitable access to opportunities
  • adopted an instructional materials policy to give our community more voice in selecting and reviewing materials used in our classrooms
  • continued to strengthen partnerships with our families on improvement and refinement strategies

The district had previously told KXAN it spent the first round of CARES funding it was given on PPE, such as face shields, sanitizer, masks, disposable surgical gowns and floor decals. They also said they purchased some learning software for remote learning, air purifiers, electrostatic sprayers, zoom licenses, chrome books and other technology outlays for remote learning. They reported receiving roughly $2.3 million — an allotment of $100 per student.

It was unclear if Round Round ISD had some of the books mentioned removed from its classroom libraries.

Jenny Caputo-LaCoste, the district’s chief of public affairs and communications, released a lengthy statement Tuesday afternoon expressing disappointment about the commissioners’ vote and hope that the funding will ultimately be approved.

“We are happy to address any concerns Commissioners have related to library books and instructional materials and feel certain we can clear up any misunderstandings. In fact, we met with Commissioner Russ Boles today and had a very productive conversation explaining our process,” Caputo-LaCoste wrote.

“All parents and members of the public in Round Rock ISD have complete access to the entirety of our school library catalogue. Parents always have the right to determine what books their students are able to access. Round Rock ISD has an established process for addressing parental objections to instructional resources. Any parent who has a concern with a particular book that is available on their campus is encouraged to contact their campus staff directly, and if the campus staff is unable to address their concerns, the parent may file a formal objection. If, after review by a reconsideration committee, the parent is unsatisfied with the conclusion, the parent may continue through the formal complaint process which includes an opportunity for complainants to receive a Board of Trustees decision regarding the complaint. Additionally, parents always have the right to contact their campus and ask to inspect any instructional resource used by the school with their student.”

Next week is Williamson County’s last commissioners court meeting before the end of the year.

Commissioners Boles and Covey were tasked with discussing the issue with Leander ISD to be approved for funding next week. Commissioner Long and Judge Gravell are discussing with Round Rock ISD. The commissioners will revisit the funding regarding these two districts next week. Commissioner Cook is tasked with talking to Travis County. 

If the money isn’t approved by next week, the two districts will not receive a second round of funding.

Money going back to feds

Williamson County leaders said Tuesday they will likely return about $7 million worth of coronavirus relief funds to the federal government.

The county reported that’s comprised of $3 million for small businesses, $4 million for cities, $2 million in rent and utility assistance as well as $1 million in other expenses related to COVID-19. County leaders, though, suggested they may put some of this unspent money into the additional $14 million now set aside for local schools.

County Treasurer, Scott Heselmeyer, said this new allotment — plus the first round of funding for schools —was a significant portion of their total CARES Act funding.

“Since we had already done a first program, we knew we wanted to do more. But we wanted to get to the end before we did it to make sure that some other urgent need didn’t come forward,” he told KXAN. “Then look at what’s left and allocate what we can to help our schools.”

In total, Williamson County initially received about $96 million in CARES Act funding.

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