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The Texas Education Agency is considering changing the way it vets vendors who train new school board members after finding out that a recently approved provider — who has pitched his training as a conservative alternative to “woke” programs — is a felon.
Earlier this fall, the TEA approved James Dunn and his organization, Angleton-based Gulf Coast Community Action Agency, to start training school board members as a registered provider. Dunn is Gulf Coast’s executive director.
Public records indicate that Dunn was convicted and sentenced to 33 months in federal prison in 2009 for filing false reimbursement claims with the U.S. Department of Education. His now-dissolved company, Rehab Specialist Inc., had been hired by the now-defunct Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services to provide vocational education to people with mental and physical disabilities, but it never did.
One year later, Dunn was indicted for his part in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs housing scheme. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 27 months in prison, according to federal court records.
When asked by The Texas Tribune about the convictions, Dunn denied they were related to him but declined to elaborate or provide proof.
“That is not me,” Dunn said during a phone call in November.
The Tribune reviewed public records that tie Dunn to both the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency and the 2009 and 2010 felony convictions. The Tribune also reached out to federal prosecutors involved with Dunn’s indictment to verify his identity.
After finding out about Dunn’s criminal records, TEA officials said they don’t have the authority to conduct background checks on people applying to become trainers and can’t prevent anyone from registering as one as long as they show proficiency in their training.
“TEA does not have the authority under current [State Board of Education] rule to deny registration. However, the Agency is currently exploring possible rule changes and process improvements in this area with the SBOE,” said TEA spokesperson Jacob Kobersky.
After the Tribune questioned Dunn about the records, Kurtis Renfro, who identified himself as chair of the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency, reached out to the Tribune and said Dunn was instructed not to communicate with reporters anymore.
Dunn “has performed extraordinarily well and has been effective as the administrative leader of this non-profit organization,” Renfro wrote in a text message.
Before school board members’ first day on the job, the state requires these elected officials in Texas to learn the basics about the oversight and governance of their local public schools. The trainings can last anywhere from a couple of hours to whole workdays, depending on the needs of each school district.
To help the state’s 1,025 school boards find trainers, the TEA has a list of more than 600 registered providers. And to become a registered school board trainer, a person must submit an application with the TEA and must show proficiency in the material they’re teaching. Registered providers are allowed to give training on the Texas Education Code, team-building, board development and identifying maltreatment of children.
In Dunn’s application, obtained by the Tribune via a public records request, he stated that his organization possessed extensive knowledge of the public education field in Texas.
“The non-profit organization currently has a division consisting of former Texas public school administrators and former charter school administrators with a combined 75 years of experience,” Dunn wrote.
Dunn included an extensive resume in his application. It states that he worked at Texas schools and colleges, including the Houston Independent School District and the Houston Community College system.
However, a spokesperson for the Houston ISD said the district has no record of Dunn working there, and a public records request found no record of him working in the district. Records do show he worked for Houston Community College.
TEA officials did not immediately respond to questions about the steps they take to verify applicants’ employment history.
Dunn did not mention his criminal record in his application — and the TEA did not require him to do so.
Dunn’s application also omitted his role running conservative school board candidates’ political campaigns, though those services are listed on the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency’s website.
On a podcast for the conservative group County Citizens Defending Freedom, Dunn said he has helped elect over two dozen “conservative Judeo-Christian” Republicans to school board seats.
“We’re very proud of that,” Dunn said on the podcast. “We want to do more because we know that education and the education of our children, specifically, is of paramount importance, and we want to make certain that we keep them grounded in Judeo-Christian values and principles.”
The TEA said in a statement that there is no “prohibition in statute and/or rule” barring its trainers from working as campaign managers.
Training draws conservative ire
Typically, school boards go through their training with the Texas Association of School Boards, the state’s largest education training vendor. But as school boards have become increasingly politicized, TASB has turned into a target of conservative criticism.
Some conservative groups called on TASB to separate from its parent organization, the National School Boards Association, after the national group wrote a letter asking the federal government to consider some parental hostility toward school board members as acts of “domestic terrorism.”
TASB initially refused but broke from the NSBA last May, when an internal investigation uncovered that the national group had considered asking for the National Guard to be sent to school board meetings as tensions between parents and school boards skyrocketed across the country.
But the departure has done little to improve conservative groups’ opinion of TASB. Conservative lawmakers and education activists who have recently opposed gender-inclusive policies in school districts have criticized TASB’s training because it offers optional programming, like sessions during some of its events, on LGTBQ topics. TASB describes the training as helping “districts ensure compliance with current state and/or federal law,” TASB spokesperson Sylvia Wood said.
“Because LGTBQ issues have recently been the topic of federal and state guidance, litigation, state legislative activity and increased public awareness, there’s often a lot of confusion at the school district level on legal requirements and best practices,” she said.
TASB says it has tried to stay away from the partisan politics that have shrouded school boards over the last two years.
Dunn said his training is designed for conservative school board members trying to get away from TASB’s “woke” trainings on LGBTQ issues.
“We teach policy. We're not gonna get involved in training our trustees to get into the social issues of governance,” he said.
It is unclear how many people Dunn’s organization has trained so far. Dunn hosted a training session in Southlake about two months ago, and some school board members in Conroe ISD said they would train with Dunn’s group instead of TASB. He charges between $500 to $1,500 for each session, he told the Tribune.
“Everything that’s been available has been very woke, very much agenda-driven. So, our whole focus is to get back to the basics — to get back to reading, writing, science, math — and leave the cultural experiments out of the classroom,” Julie Pickren, a board member of Dunn’s Gulf Coast organization who won a seat on the State Board of Education in November, told The Dallas Express. (Pickren lost reelection to the Alvin ISD board of trustees last year after it was reported that she traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol.)
In the last two years, school boards have emerged as a new political battleground as conservative groups and well-funded political action committees have sought to champion some parents’ concerns about how gender and race are taught in schools.
Some candidates running for school board seats have campaigned on false claims that school libraries are rife with pornography and kids are secretly being taught critical race theory, a graduate school-level framework that examines racism in American law and its systems.
Disclosure: Houston Community College and the Texas Association of School Boards 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.