ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — The races for five spots on Round Rock ISD’s school board could be the finale to a turbulent year for the district. That history includes a trustee’s resignation, court orders and a slate of conservative candidates looking to oust the district’s superintendent.
In Tuesday’s election, Places 3, 4, 5 and 6 went before voters. A special election was also listed on the ballot for Place 1.
Incumbent Amber Feller won re-election in this race with 52.41% of the vote (39,475 votes).
Feller is a licensed professional counselor and has been a trustee since 2018. She is currently the board’s president. Her trustee biography said she is active in the community, serving in her capacity on the RRISD board, at church and her children’s extracurricular activities.
There were two other candidates in the race: Orlando Salinas and Maryam Zafar.
Salinas is an employee with the Texas Department of Public Safety and is backed by political action committee One Family Round Rock (OFRR), which has endorsed candidates in four other trustee races. The slate of five candidates push conservative values and have gained attention for slogans like “ABCs not CRTs” in their campaign materials. He received 28,022 votes (37.20%).
Zafar is also a political newcomer and at only 20 years old has filed for election. She is believed to be the youngest person to ever file for a trustee election in RRISD. She is currently a student at the University of Texas at Austin and is a graduate of McNeil High School in RRISD. On Oct. 15, she posted on her Twitter she was withdrawing from the race and said she was supporting Feller. She received 7,824 votes (10.39%).
Alicia Markum won this place by garnering 43.20% of the vote (32,474 votes).
Markum is a stay-at-home mom and has two children. Her campaign site said her oldest child has a disability. She credits the experience of raising her son as an inspiration for wanting to improve collaboration between schools and parents of disabled children.
Three other candidates hoped for this trustee seat: incumbent Cory Vessa, Linda Avila and Jill Farris.
Vessa was elected to the board in 2018 and is currently the director of a nonprofit. Her campaign platform is largely running on improving funding for public schools. She cites her education in finance as credibility for her position. Vessa received 6,430 votes (8.55%).
Avila is an educational diagnostician. Her campaign site said she has worked in public education for 30 years. Her platform emphasizes a focus on students from underrepresented communities. She received 17,020 votes (22.64%).
Farris is also endorsed by OFRR. Her campaign biography said she is a homemaker and has been a longtime volunteer in the district. She has previously served as a literacy partner and classroom parent. Farris received 19,247 votes (25.60%).
Incumbent Amy Weir won re-election for this seat by garnering 56.26% of the vote (41,383 votes).
Weir was elected in 2018 and is currently the secretary of the RRISD school board. She works as a grants manager, according to her candidate paperwork, and has been a volunteer in the district since 2004. Her platform emphasizes maintaining district facilities.
Three other candidates filed for Place 5: Stefan Bryant, Joshua Billingsley and Christine Slape.
Bryant is also a grants manager and previously served as an assistant principal in the McNeil Learning Community in RRISD. He wants to improve academic support for students with low performance in the district. He received 6,193 votes (8.42%).
Billingsley is a business analyst and filed for the general election on Aug. 10. He since endorsed Weir for Place 5 on the school board. He received 3,768 votes (5.12%).
Slape, endorsed by OFRR, is a professional organizer, according to her campaign filing. Her campaign biography said she is a former educator and wants to promote partnerships between parents and the district. She received 22,218 votes (30.20%).
Incumbent Tiffanie Harrison won re-election for this seat by collecting 62.43% of the vote (47,811 votes).
Harrison is currently the vice president of the board and was elected in 2020. She works as a consultant but was employed by the district for nine years as the marketing teacher at Round Rock High School. Her platform promotes diversity and equity for students.
“As long as we continue to make sure that we’re supporting each and every Round Rock ISD student, honoring them with dignity and humanity, then we can absolutely work together,” Harrison said Tuesday.
This summer, Harrison said her campaign was targeted with crude packages, and the contents of one allegedly contained used feminine products. She said since being elected, she has faced similar harassment that is intensifying in the final months of the election.
Harrison was running against candidate Don Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, endorsed by OFRR, works as an engineer and has previously held public office. He previously served on the Austin City Council, with his term taking place from 2015-17. His platform largely focused on key conservative talking points like library book content and critical race theory in public schools. He received 28,777 votes (37.57%).
“Round Rock ISD is going to start looking like Austin ISD with fewer and fewer students, higher recapture and equity payments, it’s deeply concerning. I’m going to predict that thousands more students are going to leave,” Zimmerman told KXAN Tuesday.
Special Election, Place 1
Four candidates raced for this spot on the board which was vacated by trustee Dr. Jun Xiao earlier this year. He cited pandemic challenges and intense pressure from parents as his reasons for resigning.
Estevan Jesus “Chuy” Zárate won the election, garnering 47.93% of the vote (35,538 votes).
Zarate is listed in his campaign filing as an actor, director and teacher. His platform centers on promoting equity for students in the district. He said if elected, he would promote “calm discourse” on the board.
Incumbent Dr. Kevin Johnson was placed on the board after the exit of his predecessor. He is an Army veteran and currently works at a nonprofit. He has also previously worked in public education, serving as an assistant principal and teacher in Austin ISD. He received 13,237 votes (17.85%).
John Keagy, endorsed by OFRR, is an engineer and has previously volunteered in the district. His platform aligns with conservative views. His website emphasizes a focus on excluding materials involving transgender rights and anti-racism from the district. He received 20,423 votes (27.55%).
Yuriy Semchyshyn is a software engineer and lecturer with three young children in the district. His campaign website read he would work to keep “politically divisive” topics out of the classroom. He received 4,941 votes (6.66%).
Looking back: A turbulent year for Round Rock ISD
The pandemic highlighted weak points in every industry, but one of the more obvious was public education.
School districts across the U.S. were forced to figure out how to teach students remotely, navigate the heated political landscape around COVID safety protocols and supplement a teaching force that was leaving in waves.
Round Rock ISD is still coping with ongoing teacher shortages linked to the pandemic.
Masks on, gloves off
The debate over mask mandates in Round Rock ISD became increasingly ugly over several months last year continuing into 2022.
In September 2021, the school board had to postpone a vote on such a mandate after their meeting was continuously interrupted.
Two parents were taken out of the room by police officers.
A Williamson County Court became involved in the dispute over the district’s mask mandate after a judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking RRISD from implementing its policy.
An Appeals Court would reverse that ruling, awarding the district the authority to enforce masking, but the trouble would not stop there.
Tensions among trustees
After this animated meeting, members of the board considered censuring trustees Mary Bone and Danielle Weston. The draft of the censure claimed actions by the trustees led to the fated meeting’s disruption.
A Williamson County District Court issued a temporary restraining order, which blocked the board from voting on the censure. The matter would eventually be dismissed in the spring of 2022.
A different censure would make it before the board for Bone and Weston in the summer of 2022, claiming the pair broke meeting decorum at an August meeting. This vote failed.
The infighting was amplified on a national scale in November 2021, when Weston appeared on Steve Bannon’s podcast to discuss the claims against her and ask for donations. She said she was “representing families.”
Allegations made against superintendent
In January, the board voted to place Superintendent Dr. Hafedh Azaiez on administrative leave after recommendations from the Texas Education Agency.
This was connected to allegations of threatening behavior and assault by a third party against Azaiez. KXAN obtained documents of an agreed permanent restraining order granted the prior December, but no record of any filed criminal charges.
The superintendent would later be reinstated in March, but division on his fitness to lead still runs deep among trustees and candidates.
Trustees Bone and Weston remain steadfast in their opposition against the superintendent. The candidates endorsed by OFRR also indicate a first move if they take a majority of the board will be to try to oust Azaiez.