Round One at Round Rock

Is the noisy suburban school battle an omen of things to come?

Round One at Round Rock
Illustration By Doug Potter

The story so far: When the Round Rock ISD put a $349 million bond package before the voters in March, it crashed and burned, big time. The episode included much yelling and screaming from supporters and opponents, accusations of lying on both sides, and a ruckus over a whether a $13,000 video the district created was legal "education" or illegal "promotion." Subsequently, the school superintendent quit, and an ethics complaint filed against a bond-opposing trustee cost her her state job. Oh yeah, and another trustee resigned after he was caught trying to exchange his legal services for the chance to see some girl-on-girl action between a client and her friend.

And they say Austin is weird.

This is a story about the current campaign for three open seats on the Round Rock school board. It's also a story about rumors, accusations, insinuations, and hate. Not surprisingly, the piss-and-vinegar issues that shaped the bond debate are back, big and ugly as ever. In one corner are three bond opponents, running together as "The Sensible Ticket." In their view, the porky bond package the district proposed was just one example of rampant fiscal mismanagement and arrogance represented by the district administration under outgoing Superintendent Tom Gaul (who announced his resignation after the defeated bond vote). In the other corner are those Round Rockers, including many bond supporters, who question the ticket's motives, both in defeating the bond and in their declared goal of "taking over" the school board. Pointing to connections with anti-tax groups and school voucher supporters, they wonder if the ticket really has the needs of public schools at heart. While much of what is flying around on both sides is rumor, allegation, and the vitriol of well-nursed grudges, the dynamics of the race suggest that Round Rock also represents the latest front in partisan battles over education reform.


The Sensible Ticket

Although Round Rock's suburban population – at 80,000 with a bullet – is getting hefty, at election time it would appear that everybody knows everybody, and a lot of them hate one another. At a candidate meet-and-greet at Brushy Creek (one of those subdivisions where all the streets are dead-ends and the trees are still shrubs), a fortyish blonde dressed in red urges me to make clear in my article that "Dan McFaull," the school-board candidate, isn't "Dan McFall" of Brushy Creek, a landowner who has made a whole lot of people mad.

Round Rock is that kind of place.

The blonde is Carol Bernhard, who has also made a lot of people mad. She's a local activist, the president-elect of Austin Republican Women, and she's proudly been a burr in RRISD's saddle for years. Her wake-up call came, she says, when her daughter's brand-new elementary school was offgassing formaldehyde and other chemicals in 1992. She says the district knew about the problem, but didn't inform parents or fix the problem. (The district admits, but says it addressed, air quality complaints at Jollyville Elementary.) Thoroughly disillusioned, Bernhard has since then challenged the district's finances and purchasing policies, and most recently was among those slugging hard to defeat the bond. Others – speaking only on condition of anonymity – describe her as having a "vendetta" against the district after she failed to win the bid to be the official class-ring vendor in 2001, and subsequently went on an open-records rampage to get her hands on competitors' bids. "Yeah, I have a vendetta," Bernhard snorts. "I have a vendetta against kids being poisoned."

On that score, you can believe who you wish. The point is, it's that kind of place.

Bernhard is supporting the three candidates who call themselves "The Sensible Ticket" – the choice for those who thought the bond package was a beefed-up, bloated outrage. Standing before tall windows overlooking the Brushy Creek community center's pristine grounds, candidates Debbie Bruce-Juhlke, Dan McFaull, and Vivian Sullivan stumped their message: The district is mismanaged. The bond proposal was an insult. We need more money to go to teachers, and less to fancy buildings and administration. We can meet the district's capital needs with a bond package in the $150 million range.

When they were done, John Gordon, another prominent bond opponent who introduced himself to me as the "Father of the Republican Party in Williamson County," urged attendees to "finish the job" started by defeating the bonds. That means getting all three Sensibles elected to join anti-bond trustee Elizabeth Elleson to form a majority on the seven-member board. "We can't get there with just two," he said. "We need all three working with Elizabeth to effect the change we need."


The 50 Cent Rule

The changes demanded by the Sensibles fall into two categories. First, since RRISD's 35,000-student population is growing at a rate of 1,200 students a year, a new bond proposal is unavoidable. But the upstarts want to put together a much leaner package that cuts the "fat" from the $349 million package that 62% of voters opposed in March. The unpopular pudge includes a $38 million investment in technology, including laptop computers for 3,000 high school seniors. And instead of a $91 million high school – denounced by critics as a "Taj Mahal" – the Sensibles say they can build a mighty fine school for just $56 million.

That echoes Elleson, the only trustee to publicly oppose the bond package, which sent her colliding with Superintendent Gaul and bond supporters. Elleson says the dispute extends into a history of mismanagement, as well as an administrative reluctance to open the district's books to parents and taxpayers.

"I want more transparency," Elleson says. "When I asked questions about the budget, it was very frustrating to get answers. The answers they were giving were too vague and general to be of use to me." Elleson wants a line-item budget, so she can scrutinize exactly what the district is spending money on, and move more money "into the classrooms," where (according to one interpretation of school expenditures) only about 50 cents of every education dollar currently goes.

Republican activist and longtime Round Rock ISD critic Carol Bernhard at a recent RRISD board meeting
Republican activist and longtime Round Rock ISD critic Carol Bernhard at a recent RRISD board meeting (Photo By John Anderson)

Finally, the Sensibles say they want the district to stop resenting and ignoring teacher and public input. They aren't alone: Denouncing a so-called "culture of intimidation," Place 6 candidate Mark Maund earned himself a healthy round of applause at one forum when he declared, "The chalk line of silence is over." As parent Maureen Moore Scheevel put it, "A lot of parents have concerns about how the district is run."

But the extent to which those concerns are substantive – reflecting true mismanagement rather than run-of-the-mill inefficiencies that will plague any institution, public or private – is not nearly so clear.


One High School – To Go

Is Round Rock ISD a mismanaged, secretive bureaucracy that fails to educate its students and ignores community input? Even some of Gaul's supporters admit there may be some truth to some of the claims. "I never found Tom Gaul to be an intimidating person," said veteran trustee and Place 6 candidate Raymond Hartfield. "But he had a mission, and was driven by that mission, so maybe others interpreted that as not listening." However, they also say that the district's mission brought results. The district points with pride to the fact that 97% of its seniors passed the exit-level TAKS (compared with 89% statewide), and that it just won a "What Parents Want" award from an educational consulting firm for the 14th year in a row. As for line-item budgets, RRISD financial officer Mike Estes says the district has little control over the format of its budgets, which are mandated by the Texas Education Agency. Plus, the district is audited by an outside firm every year, and those audits are also submitted to the TEA. "If there was a problem, it would have turned up in one of those audits," said Diane Cox, a candidate for Place 3 on the board. She adds that in her experience, she's never had a problem getting information from the district.

Finally, that 50 cent figure beloved of public education critics is more than a little misleading. While it's true that just 56% of the RRISD funding (about the state average) goes directly to what the TEA calls "instruction" – defined as teacher salaries and classroom materials – it's not as though the rest is being devoured by administrators or waste. Only 7% – not exactly an extravagant percentage – is spent on central office and campus administration. The remainder underwrites such wasteful assets as libraries, cafeterias, utilities, transportation, maintenance, and counselors. True, they're not teacher salaries "in the classroom," but it's pretty hard to run a school without them.

But how about that apparently beefy bond package? Was it simply a reflection of Superintendent Tom Gaul's hobby horses? Doug Slade, one of 22 community members who served on the "Project KIDS" committee that developed the bond proposal, says the bond wasn't some central-office boondoggle: It was the considered expression of a community voice. As a parent and taxpayer, he believes there was virtually no fat in the package. "The reality is, everything in that bond package is needed. I don't think anything can be carved out, short of trustees deciding how far to go on their technology investment," he said.

To Place 1 candidate Karla Sartin, who like Diane Cox also helped develop the bond proposal (Sartin in Project KIDS, and Cox on the technology planning group that advised Project KIDS), the after-the-fact criticisms ring a little hollow. She wonders where the critics were when the bond proposal was being prepared. "I'm the only one in my race who stepped up when those volunteer cards came up," said Sartin. "I'm the only one who sat through those meetings. I hope in the future more people get involved in the front end."

The fact that the Sensibles, like many bond opponents, didn't participate in the long process of soliciting public input does raise the question of whether their ideas for a $140 million package are realistic. They propose a $56 million, 2,400-student high school – the one in the failed package would have been $91 million and house 3,000 – based on the national average of $1.40 per square foot for a 400,000 square-foot facility. And, as McFaull likes to point out, Leander just built a beautiful, fully furnished high school for $65 million.

Well, sort of. According to Bill Britcher of Leander ISD, that school was unusually cost-effective because it was co-located with a middle school, so the facilities could share major infrastructure like drainage ponds, and the district could bid construction materials in greater bulk. But more importantly, he said, the school was built starting in 2001, while RRISD won't start the high school until 2007, which means six extra years of inflation for steel, concrete, and petroleum. Construction cost increases – Britcher says he's seeing 9% this year alone – are clobbering construction budgets nationwide. In other words, the days of the $65 million high school may well be over.

"I'm sure our next high school will cost more than that, because that's the real world," said Britcher. "We're very concerned."

Finally, the question remains whether cutting bond packages to the minimum is really sensible over the long term. Unlike bonds, Texas school districts' annual budgets are capped by the state. So, districts often use bond money – which is limited only by community willingness to pony up, but can only be spent on capital investments – to invest in pricey features that save money over the long term. (For example, plentiful windows can reduce lighting costs, and high-quality floor coverings won't need replacing as often.) The Sensibles' slimmed-down bond package would also build fewer and smaller schools, and would squeeze the most out of existing ones through boundary adjustments and busing – which require driver salaries and gas – and continued reliance on portables, which themselves cost $65,000 a pop. All that money for maintenance and utilities and buses and portables means less money for teachers. In other words, if your goal is get more money in the classrooms, building schools on the cheap is a bad way to go about it.


Sinister Forces?

In that light, the Sensible Ticket's promise of a $56 million high school or a couple of $12 million elementaries may sound taxpayer-friendly, but it sure doesn't sound realistic. And – because this is Round Rock, and because this is that kind of story – that gets people wondering about motives.

In the early days of the battle over the bonds, parent Tricia Greim went to a Vote No rally, and was shocked to find many of the people around her were from outside the Round Rock school district, with one speaker coming in all the way from Fort Worth. "I became concerned about why they were there and why they cared about our little school district," she said. "I'm Republican, so it's not like a Democrat-Republican thing," she added. She's also not a gung-ho public school fanatic: Always skeptical of public schools, she planned to enroll her kids in private school until she saw the quality of Forest Creek elementary.

Greim started investigating. She found a national group called the Republican Liberty Caucus, with a Texas chapter that was paying for radio spots and signs in opposition to the bonds. It looked pretty fishy to her that a partisan organization was spending thousands to influence the bond vote. The whispering grew louder. Maureen Moore Scheevel, who thought the bond package was too big but voted for it anyway, heard it too. "Money was coming in from outside the district for ads to defeat this bond," she said. "I would like our community to make our own decision."

The Sensible Ticket looking to take over the RRISD board on May 7 (l-r): Dan McFaull, Debbie Bruce-Juhlke, and Vivian Sullivan
The "Sensible Ticket" looking to take over the RRISD board on May 7 (l-r): Dan McFaull, Debbie Bruce-Juhlke, and Vivian Sullivan (Photo By John Anderson)

Since the bond opponents included people like Peggy Venable of Americans for Prosperity, a Republican-dominated national group that supports spending public education funds on private school vouchers, and über-Republican activist John Gordon, the whisperers began assigning sinister motives to the bond opposition. And once the bond opponents got behind the Sensible Ticket – whose unapologetic goal, as Vivian Sullivan said at one candidate forum, was to "take over the school board" – the rumors really started to fly. Was the whole thing a plot by voucher proponents? The Sensibles scoff. "People want to paint us as puppets of a lot of different groups, political groups," said Sullivan at a forum. "[But] none of us knew each other when we filed. Being fiscal conservatives, we decided to pool our resources and run together."

Speaking of their resources, none of the three candidates had filed required campaign finance statements, due 30 days before the May 7 election, as of April 21. ("I know, I know, I'm behind. I have to do that really soon," said McFaull.) Nevertheless, the group has somehow come up with enough money to go on the radio – not too common in a school board race – although, as Sullivan points out, there are three campaign coffers footing the bill. Playing fast and loose with campaign finance rules only feeds rumors that the ticket has something to hide – specifically, shadowy backers probably tied to voucher proponents. Those rumors recently percolated into the public discussion. Discussing his resignation in a Round Rock Leader article, Gaul expressed concerns about the ticket's "platforms, including their support of school vouchers and charter schools."

That may be a bit of a stretch. At a candidate forum where the topic came up, only Vivian Sullivan expressed enthusiasm for vouchers, and only in "very limited circumstances." The Sensibles insist that vouchers simply aren't an issue for school boards. After Gaul's statement in the Leader, McFaull sent out a threatening statement in the name of all three candidates demanding an apology. "We demand an immediate apology from Dr. Gaul. If he does not apologize and we are elected, his tenure will not last until July 31st" (when his contract currently expires), they wrote.

Carol Bernhard takes the credit – or blame – for the fuss over vouchers. "Everyone in this community knows I'm supporting this ticket, and I'm one of the biggest voucher supporters in the state," she said. However, bringing it into the race, she says, is simply a "scare tactic," since her position on vouchers – or anything – is irrelevant to what the candidates think. "This is just my opinion. I support these candidates, but they're not beholden to me," she laughed. "I don't give them big bucks or anything."

And despite the Sensibles' loosey-goosey approach to campaign finance rules, it's definitely an exaggeration to say that there's some kind of national conspiracy targeting Round Rock with fat wads of cash. Sure, the RLC is tied to a national group, but it's also run by Round Rock anti-tax activist Don Zimmerman. He has a long history of using the PAC to support "taxpayer friendly" causes like opposing the Travis County Hospital District or the ACC annexation election. And remember that mysterious speaker from Fort Worth at the Vote No rally? That's Zimmerman's brother.

As for the question of why prominent voucher supporter Peggy Venable or GOP big boy John Gordon are so concerned about the issue – well, they live in Round Rock. If you spend most of your time opposing what you see as wasteful government spending, and your local school district has put forth a great big bond proposal that you consider wasteful government spending, and it's going to raise your taxes to boot, it's really not too shocking that you might jump on the Vote No bandwagon.

Nevertheless, all that is not to say that school board races don't have larger implications that may, in some ways, validate the whisperers' fears.


In the Shadow of the Lege

On Thursday, April 21, their last meeting before the May 7 election, the RRISD board of trustees appointed a replacement for Place 7, the seat Steve Copenhaver vacated when he got busted on the sex-for-legal-advice charge. Bernhard and friends showed up to urge the trustees to allow the new board to fill the seat after the election. Trustees said the prospect made them nervous: If incumbent Place 6 trustee Raymond Hartfield is not re-elected, the board would have a sum total of three years of experience – three brand-new trustees, one with two years' experience, and two who were just elected last year. Four of the six trustees said they felt responsible for making absolutely sure that Place 7 was filled by someone with experience. "The learning curve of a new trustee is phenomenal," said outgoing president John Romano.

Three speakers were not convinced, and said so in none-too-pleasant terms. "Tonight you're trying to stack this board because you're scared you'll have the same results as the bond," said local resident Michael Gieringer, continuing, "Your ego and your elitism are pathetic."

But trustees stuck to their guns. Hartfield said that for everyone who urged him to let the new board decide, there was someone else urging him to appoint someone right away. Plus, the fact that he was getting threatening phone calls and e-mails from "one side of the issue" helped solidify his opinion. "Would that be the same talent, the same character, that would be represented if the trustee was appointed after the election?" he asked.

The board ultimately appointed former trustee Brig Mireles to fulfill the remainder of Copenhaver's term, which expires in May 2006, and opened the floor for comment. Four subsequent speakers all spoke in support of the board, thanking them for their time and service to the community, and expressing bewilderment at the previous speakers' "angst and bitterness." "We've got a community right now that's divided. We've got to come together," said Danny Navarro (trustee Diana Maldonado's life-partner). "I think the only problem we've got is a communication problem."

Many in Round Rock no doubt hope that is true. However, changes brewing in the Legislature may make consensus an increasingly elusive goal, in Round Rock and elsewhere. HB 2, the big school finance and reform bill, would require school boards to hold their nonpartisan trustee elections alongside the general elections, opening the door to joint campaign events and endorsements, and much more rancorous, partisan-tinged board races.

Plus, even if vouchers don't matter in this school board race, they may well matter in the near future. Of the three voucher bills in the House, the one with the most support is HB 1263 by Irving Republican Rep. Linda Harper-Brown. She pitches the bill as a very limited pilot voucher program, applicable to only 0.5% of public school students. What doesn't get talked about is a tiny, little provision that states that in 2010, any school district can participate in the program if the trustees decide to do so. If that bill passes, get ready for a lot more sparks to fly.

After Mireles was appointed, I asked Bernhard her opinion of the whole affair. "I adore Brig Mireles," she said with a bright smile, and confidently added, "This is a victory for our side."

Democracy depends on people speaking their minds and debating differing opinions. But when a school community is bitterly divided, and with well-defined sides that win and lose, its hard to see how anyone can claim true victory in the larger struggle to make schools that work for everyone. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

education, Round Rock ISD, Carol Bernhard, Tom Gaul, John Romano, Raymond Hartfield, Round Rock bond, Peggy Venable, John Gordon, Don Zimmerman, RLC-TX PAC, Republican Liberty Caucus, Tricia Greim, Maureen Moore Scheevel, Karla Sartin, Round Rock board election, Diane Cox, Doug Slade, Mark Maund, Debbie Bruce-Juhlke

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