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When Roxanne Martinez launched her campaign for a seat on the school board in 2020 she thought that if she won, she could help schools tackle the problem of students' learning gaps following more than a year of disruptions caused by the pandemic. Or she could help look for new ways to support teachers during this difficult period.
What Martinez had not counted on was a disruption of a different sort, mainly from elected state leaders.
Since her election this past summer to the Fort Worth Independent School District board, the 41-year-old's entry into local politics has been a scorching trial by fire, thanks to the Legislature's focus on how racial inequity is taught in public schools and whether or not schools require students to wear masks during class.
“There's been all of this distraction going on this year when our educators have been working double duty just to educate our students,” she said.
During Martinez's short tenure, she has seen the explosion of criticism over how schools operate. The back and forth between school districts and the governor's office over whether students must wear masks while attending classes was one fight that many could understand since the state and the nation are still trying to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.
Martinez — like countless other school board members across Texas — has experienced what it’s like being on a school board during a time of social and public health reckonings. Where the first hours of meetings devoted to public comment used to center on improving student success, they have now become venting sessions. And every move by a school board seems to catch the ire from those in Austin or Washington, D.C.
“There's a lot of politics being brought into the board meetings,” she said. “I sometimes see these tweets from the lieutenant governor and all these folks, all having some say about Fort Worth ISD but they’re not the ones here doing the work.”
Across the nation, as the coronavirus' delta variant surge dissipated, the louder discussions over how racism is taught or even brought up in class have dominated school board meetings. There are complaints about how any discussion of racism is evidence of how critical race theory is being forced upon students.
Critical race theory, which holds that racism is embedded in legal systems and other policies, is a university-level subject and not one that has been introduced in any secondary school in Texas. But CRT has become shorthand for some members of the public who label any discussion of race as “critical race theory.”
And now a vague new Texas law keeps teachers from being forced to discuss a "controversial issue of public policy or social affairs" emboldening parents and other critics to root out what they see as unwanted discussions of race forced upon students.
But classroom discussions about race were not the only thing state lawmakers in check. On Oct. 26, lawmakers began looking into the type of books Texas schools have on library shelves. Gov. Greg Abbott has called for investigations into whether students have access to what he described as “pornographic books” in Texas public schools.
Martinez knew the critical race theory debate had been playing out in surrounding North Texas cities like Southlake, the affluent suburb that sits between Fort Worth and Dallas where a school diversity and inclusion plan — as well as how parents opposed to the plan started a political movement there — were the subject of a seven-part NBC podcast released earlier this year.
And in nearby Colleyville a Black principal resigned in November after being put on paid administrative leave in August amid accusations he was teaching and promoting critical race theory.
Now, about six months after Martinez was elected, these fights among the community haven’t stopped. The Texas Republican Party announced it formed a new Local Government Committee to work with county parties on backing candidates in nonpartisan local elections.
Back in Fort Worth, divisiveness has reached such a fever pitch and led to a doxxing incident in which the addresses of more vocal community members were released on the internet by the former co-chair of the school district’s Racial Equity Committee. In response, former co-chair Norma Garcia-Lopez received death threats and was doxxed herself. Ironically, the committee formed in 2016 to bridge the gap in learning inequalities.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick himself has commented on the Fort Worth school district’s committee, calling for the resignation of the committee’s co-chair.
“What's happening in Fort Worth ISD is a reflection of a greater narrative that's going around nationally,” Martinez said. “I just kind of walked into it as a new trustee.”
A polarized community
The sharp divide in Fort Worth can be traced back to a particularly heated late June school board meeting over so-called critical race theory that stretched a two-hour meeting to nearly five hours.
In the following months, tensions flared up even more when Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner defied Abbott and enacted a mask mandate in early August without a vote from the board.
Days after, four parents sued the district saying the mandate was illegally put in place and successfully gained a temporary injunction while the lawsuit continues to be resolved.
While the parents — for now — have successfully blocked the mandate, this prompted backlash from Garcia-Lopez, then the co-chair of Fort Worth ISD’s Racial Equity Committee. Weeks before she was appointed, Garcia-Lopez expressed her frustration by calling one of the parents on the suit and leaving a profanity-laced voicemail. She also posted information online about the parents, which she says she found on the suit. The posts have since been taken down.
“Some people find my choice of words in that message offensive,” she said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “What’s really offensive is that four white parents can flex their privilege — risking children of color in the process — and expect to do it with impunity. That should be a red flag to everyone.”
Fort Worth ISD serves about 76,000 students with a majority being Hispanic and Black. Data and research has shown that the pandemic has disproportionately affected these two groups.
Following Garcia-Lopez’s actions, Fox News wrote an article detailing what she did and then the death threats came her way. Soon after, her inbox was filled with vulgar, racist threats and others with sexually explicit messages.
Some told her to come to another school board meeting so that they could “come in droves to fat shame” her. Eventually, someone published her home address on the internet, and she said she was forced to move, fearing for her family’s safety.
Garcia-Lopez stepped down as co-chair of the committee on Dec. 8, saying that it was a necessary step so the committee can continue its work without distraction.
“My departure follows more than three weeks of relentless attacks by white supremacists who lied, threatened death and sexual violence, spewed vile hate speech and harassed members of my family,” Garcia-Lopez said in a written statement. “It was fueled by international coverage in extremist media outlets and by a state-level elected official.”
Garcia-Lopez said in a statement that she was devastated by the silence of the Fort Worth school board. The district said in a statement that “Ms. Norma Garcia-Lopez is a community member, not an employee of the District, and has voluntarily relinquished her position as co-chair of the Racial Equity Committee.”
Todd Daniel, one of the parents on the suit, said challenging the mask mandate is just the beginning for him and several other parents who are organizing to root out what he terms critical race theory in Fort Worth ISD.
Daniel said the masking and the conversations of race go hand in hand.
“They're tying our desire to not have to make our kids wear masks at school for eight hours to ‘We’re racists, we’re white supremacists,’” he said.
Jennifer Treger, another parent on the lawsuit, said in a statement that it’s been disheartening to see that people have tied mask mandates to one's race.
“The color of one’s skin plays no part in my belief that families should have the option to choose whether they mask their children or not,” she said. “We should all be able to disagree and still remain respectful of one another’s opinions.”
While they wait for the lawsuit to be resolved, Daniel said critical race theory is indeed in Fort Worth ISD. The district itself has claimed it does not teach the theory in classrooms.
But the district does offer instructions for teachers about critical race theory.
The school district’s online handbook mentions an introductory course for teachers on critical race theory. The 45-page handbook provides an overview of the district's Division of Equity and Excellence, which is meant to “ensure equity in all practices and at all organizational levels in FWISD.”
The district did not immediately respond to questions about the handbook. In the district’s resource page, articles such as Critical Race Theory and the Whiteness of Teacher Education are made available. For Daniel, this promotes divisiveness in the community.
“We're not liking all this race division and hate ... in the name of getting rid of systemic racism,” he said. “We're actually putting systemic racism back in our district.”
Republicans make their move
Outside the Fort Worth school district, state Republican lawmakers have been closely following the fights in school boards there and elsewhere. And they’ve expanded their opposition to discussion in classrooms to books included in school libraries that focus on sexuality and race.
And in turn, some parents have been emboldened by the politicization of school board issues and the subsequent content battles. Last month, Keller, a city near Fort Worth, was in the spotlight after parents successfully got a book removed because it had sexually explicit content in it.
To push the issue further, the state Republican Party announced on Dec. 6 it had formed the Local Government Committee to work with county parties on backing candidates in nonpartisan local elections, where hot-button issues like mask mandates and the teaching of so-called critical race theory have become political stances.
"That's really been the match that totally" ignited this, said Rolando Garcia, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee who chairs the new group. "School board races have always been important, but it's been hard to get the attention and resources to them, and so they've been sleepy affairs."
More recently, the Texas House Freedom Caucus called on Texas school districts to leave the National Association of School Boards after that national organization called on the Biden administration to consider some recent parental hostility toward school board members as acts of "domestic terrorism."
The national organization apologized for the language it used and took down its request. The organization declined to comment on the situation. The Texas Association of School Boards, for now, isn’t planning on leaving the national organization but will be monitoring how it rebuilds trust with communities and school board organizations across the country.
Dozens of other state school board organizations have left the national organization thus far.
State Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, the man who wrote to the state school board association asking them to separate themselves, said the National Association of School Boards attacked parental rights, especially for those fighting “critical race theory” in schools.
“The radical left is pushing and fighting conservative values more than they ever have,” Middleton said. He added it may be time for a parental Bill of Rights to make sure they are having their voices heard.
“If the school district is going to ignore the law — is going to ignore the voice of local parents that come to the school board to make their voice heard — then they need to be able to have the money follow the child and go somewhere that works for them,” he said.
So far, no Texas school district has offered instruction on critical race theory to students.
Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said as school board races have become more partisan, less attention could be paid to greater local problems.
“This is squeezing local school boards and their ability to operate from a local issues perspective and superimposing national politics where it may not fit,” he said.
While school board races have often been seen as an entry point into a political career, this move to bring party politics in what has traditionally been nonpartisan races. For Republicans, this is a chance to deepen their political bench as the party seeks to grow its list of viable candidates, Rottinghaus said. Parental rights and issues on race and diversity are the new focal points for the Republican party.
Rebecca Deen, political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said savvy politicians often swoop in when they see a hot-button issue surface, but she worries the division and politics will scare away capable nonpartisan candidates from even running in school board elections.
As she goes into the tail end of her first year in office, Martinez said she is determined to keep her focus on students. As a Latina who went to school in Fort Worth, she believes her representation on the school board matters. She knows the struggles Latino students face. And she’s not worried about politics — she’s worried about figuring out the best way to recover from the pandemic that still rages on.
“I’m not here for politics. I’m here for the kids,” she said.
Disclosure: Texas Association of School Boards, University of Texas - Arlington and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.