Has Round Rock ISD Hit Rock Bottom?

Maybe not yet

Illustration by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

Jack Chiles says he received a suspicious manila envelope in August, 5 by 7 inches, from an address in Northwest Austin. Part of Chiles’ work as a network administrator for large, online companies involves the provision of information security, software tools that keep data safe from malware. It’s this background, he told the Chronicle, that helped him see that something about the small package wasn't right.

"So this is like a badly written scam email come to life," Chiles said. "I bring it inside, get gloves and a mask, and open it on my workbench. And I expected just some stupid shit. But not tampons …"

Chiles told us the envelope held four used tampons darkened with dried human blood. He documented the envelope and its contents in a series of photographs that he has shared with the Chronicle and later posted online. He called the police.

“I’ve received so many threats and so much terrible stuff [working] in RRISD that I live somewhere that’s undisclosed … I was really shaken because no one should have my address.” – Round Rock School Board Trustee Tiffanie Harrison

As Chiles' photos show, the envelope's return label read, "A Gift From Tiff." He assumed this referred to Round Rock ISD Trustee Tiffanie Harrison, one of those, along with Chiles, working to stop Christian nationalists from taking over Round Rock's public school system.

A week later, Harrison received an unsolicited package. She told the Chronicle in a wide-ranging interview that like Chiles, she felt the package was suspicious, so she delivered it, unopened, to law enforcement officers who found that it contained a dildo. Harrison believes the package was an attempt to intimidate her, sent by someone who disapproves of her support for the school district's minority and LGBTQ students. It frightened her that the sender had found her address. "I've received so many threats and so much terrible stuff [working] in RRISD that I live somewhere that's undisclosed," she said. "So I was really shaken because no one should have my address. My friends don't even have my address."

Days later, Mark Costenbader, a campaign donor to Harrison, told us he also received a package labeled "A Gift From Tiff," which also contained used tampons. According to Chiles, the packages are now in the possession of officers with the United States Postal Inspection Service; he adds that he has identified three possible senders in his conversations with authorities.

Harrison is a lifelong resident of Round Rock and a two-time Teacher of the Year in its school district. Along with keeping her address secret, she says she gets help from friends who follow her to and from school board meetings because she fears being attacked. She told us she wore a dress and tennis shoes to a September 2021 meeting so she could run from the room if necessary. "I feel like my tolerance for how horrible things are is pretty high, because I experience concerning things all the time," Harrison said. "I feel like I'm in danger on that dais all the time. People are threatening in public comment, people are harassing. I feel like this is an increasingly violent environment."

School boards are among the smallest building blocks of democracy, the most basic components of our representative government. Their meetings, in a normal universe, can be exceedingly dull. But that is no longer the case in the Round Rock Independent School District. Video archived on RRISD's website shows that screaming, accusations, and meetings that last until 2am have become common – fomented, Harrison says, by a pair of far-right school board trustees, Danielle Weston and Mary Bone, who have served since late 2020.

This fall, five candidates – allies of Weston and Bone – are running to take complete control of the board in the November 8 election. (The Chronicle contacted Weston, Bone, and candidates Linda Avila, Christie Slape, and Don Zimmerman for this article. Weston chose not to speak with us. As of press time Wednesday, we had not received responses from the rest.) Campaign finance reports show that members of what's called the Round Rock One Family slate have received significant funding from billionaires outside the district. As laid out in the CNN documentary "Deep in the Pockets of Texas" and other media sources, these billionaires are evangelicals who believe that Christians should "have dominion" (as in Genesis 1:28) over modern American life, particularly the education of its young people.

Harrison, her supporters, and her fellow board members told us that since becoming trustees, Weston and Bone have echoed the values of Christian nationalism. The opposition of the pair to COVID safeguards and the accommodation of LGBTQ students have become focal points of RRISD Board meetings. They've denounced their five fellow board trustees and, several trustees say, tacitly invited the Texas Education Agency to take over the school district. They've transformed school board meetings by encouraging the activism of a loud, rude, and threatening minority of community members. These community members, though small in number, have tried to intimidate those with whom they disagree – in person and, as the "gifts from Tiff" may illustrate, through the mail and online.

This intimidation by opponents has a racist, homophobic, and xenophobic cast, as Harrison, who is Black, knows only too well. In a common trope of the far right, she has repeatedly been called a racist. "This is an example," she said, "an email that says, 'You're on the radar. Thanks for letting everyone know what a racist shitbag you are. While we're at it, Black people suck much more than white people. Want to compare violent crime stats? Remember, we haven't played cowboys and n----rs yet but keep on running your fat racist n----r mouth.'" (The email spelled the slur out. We've censored it per Chronicle policy.)

Danielle Weston (l) and Mary Bone during RRISD meetings (Photos via Round Rock ISD / Getty Images)

Board Meeting Battles

"I'll just say that a lot of people were hoodwinked, for lack of a better term," said board President Amber Feller of Weston and Bone's elections in 2020. "Danielle even got the endorsement from the Williamson County Democrats. But she was not real genuine in her campaigning efforts, if you ask me, because it is very obvious that she leans one way and only one way." (After publication, the Williamson County Democrats informed us they did not endorse Weston, but Round Rock Democrats Club did).

Feller's three children have been educated in Round Rock's public schools and she has held various positions in the district in the last two decades. She told us she never encountered Weston and Bone in her work in the district until 2018 and doesn't remember either of them expressing a strong negative opinion of RRISD's mask mandate during their 2020 campaigns. Their positions became clear in April 2021. With COVID continuing to kill people and vaccines just becoming available to adults, then-Trustee Jun Xiao, the founder of a company working with viruses and vaccines, urged the board in emotional language to continue the mandate, per archived video. He, Harrison, and Feller, with Trustees Amy Weir and Cory Vessa, voted to extend the mandate. Weston and Bone voted against.

“[Facebook commenters] were making attacks of a type I’ve never seen before, bringing in just so much racism.” – Krista Laine, RRISD parent and co-founder of Access Education RRISD

Days later, Xiao posted a Facebook message praising a science experiment by a group of district middle schoolers. The post, which the Chronicle has reviewed, was immediately swamped with racist and xenophobic responses. Several accused Xiao, who grew up in China, of being a "Chicom," a Chinese communist spy. One wrote, "We need to be going Ramsey Bolton on him and ALL like him," referring to a sadistic character from the TV series Game of Thrones who is fed to a pack of dogs.

The Facebook commenters, "were making attacks of a type I've never seen before, bringing in just so much racism," said Krista Laine, a parent who would soon help found Access Education RRISD. "There were actual threats made against him. And it was all at once, just boom, boom, boom. It really looked like some sort of group had decided to target him, some group that wasn't local."

After the attacks, Laine and other community members organized a town hall to support the district's Asian community, which makes up 20% of RRISD students (the student body is also 36% white, 30% Hispanic, and 10% Black – quite diverse). Jack Chiles says he began submitting open records requests, looking for evidence of impropriety in Weston's and Bone's email exchanges. He also bought expired domain names connected to the pair (electdanielleweston.com, drmarybone.net) and to Zimmerman, the former Austin City Council member who is now running against Harrison. In the months to come he used these domains as sites to make his findings public. Others began digging into the social media interactions of Weston, Bone, and their supporters, reporting what they found via Twitter accounts like RRISD Truth and Mystic Crusader.

Those on the other side organized too. Social media posts show they founded a chapter of Moms for Liberty, a national group that presents itself as a movement of concerned parents but that Mother Jones, Media Matters, and others describe as deeply connected to the modern Republican Party of QAnon and election denial. Focus on Education in RRISD – a group that Laine says is a front for Moms for Liberty – appeared with the same values and much of the same membership.

In the months that followed, Moms for Liberty and Focus on Education became active presences at district meetings, something that board secretary Amy Weir told us changed their tenor. "They were having prayer circles and pizza parties and all this stuff to try to film themselves," Weir said. "We had people with Confederate flags out in front of our meetings. It did not feel like a safe space for a lot of our constituents to come to … when you have a small group of people trying to alienate others out in front, then it makes it where people don't feel safe coming."

RRISD video shows that disagreements over COVID protocol kept school board meetings tense through the summer of 2021. In August, Weston told her fellow trustees during a recorded meeting that she had received an "exemption" from her doctor; she and her children would refuse to wear masks. Visibly struggling to control her anger, she announced, "I'm part of the elite class. I don't have to wear a mask and nobody can make me."

In September, RRISD cameras and Facebook livestreams captured the fury of the right-wing community when the district, during a COVID spike, limited the number of people allowed into the meeting room. In what Harrison calls "the mini-insurrection," community members banged on the walls, argued with officers stationed at the doors, and chanted, "Let us in!" As the meeting got underway, Weston and Bone repeatedly interrupted the proceedings, bringing the meeting to a standstill. An audience member was escorted from the room after repeated outbursts. Weston and Bone then walked out in protest.

Weston and Bone walked out again last June, in what Feller, Harrison, and others believe was a calculated attempt to sabotage the district. The meeting had been set to pass a budget for the upcoming year, a legal requirement that, had it been left undone, could have resulted in lawsuits and left RRISD employees unpaid indefinitely.

Feller said she'd seen signs that Weston and Bone were plotting the walkout. Because Xiao had recently resigned and Weir was recovering from COVID and had said she would skip the meeting, a walkout would have caused the board to lose quorum; the trustees would not have been able to pass the budget. Feller says she devised a contingency plan to bring Weir into the meeting if necessary.

"I talked to the superintendent, like, 'Okay, if we have to bring Amy in, I want it for the shortest amount of time possible,'" Feller said. "'I want her set up on the opposite side of the room with an industrial air purifier right next to her. I want everybody else to move to the other end of the room.'"

Video shot by Jack Smith, a parent who has become an expert at tracking RRISD's far-right community, shows Weston and Bone in attendance as the meeting gets underway. At the two-minute mark, Weston looks across the dais to Bone and gives a barely perceptible nod. The trustees bend down for their purses, rise, and exit.

With quorum lost, Feller called Weir. She drove to the meeting, double-masked, to provide the vote to pass the budget. In the meeting's aftermath, Feller came to the conclusion that Weston and Bone were trying to create proof of the board's dysfunction that they could show to the Texas Education Agency, hoping TEA would appoint a conservator to take over the district and, ultimately, dismiss the democratically elected majority.

"I truly believe they want a conservator," Feller said. "And they felt like if they pulled this stunt we wouldn't be able to pass a budget. They didn't think we would be prepared. They didn't think that Amy would be able to come in. It backfired on them." Weston declined to comment for this article; Bone has not responded.

Superintendent Struggle

School trustees in Texas have three major responsibilities. They set the tax rate for the district, pass its budget, and coordinate the hiring of its superintendent. Meeting footage shows that Weston and Bone have walked out of the only tax rate hearing they've been part of, along with the June budget meeting. Feller, Harrison, and others say the pair have also worked assiduously to undermine the district's superintendent, Dr. Hafedh Azaiez.

Azaiez is a Black and Muslim educator who previously worked as a superintendent in the Rio Grande Valley. He has vowed to support COVID science and be an inclusive leader. He was hired on a 5-2 vote in June 2021, over the dissents of Weston and Bone, who argued that he wasn't experienced enough to lead the district. Far-right community members spoke against Azaiez's hiring at that meeting, as demonstrated on RRISD video, denying that their opposition had anything to do with his race or religion – while bringing these details up repeatedly. The remarks of Russell Collins, who ran against Tiffanie Harrison in 2020, went a little further than most. "[Y]ou won the diversity lottery," he told the board. "I mean, you got the trifecta: He's African, he's Muslim, he speaks multilingually. If he was crippled and trans you'd have the whole thing."

Soon after Azaiez got to work, a woman claiming he'd been her partner in an extramarital affair sought a protective order against him, alleging physical abuse. Laine described how the far-right community seized on the allegation: "[Public commenters] stood up in board meetings and they said, 'I am in contact with her. I know everything that's going on and this is the situation.' And they insisted that she's carrying his baby" – Laine and others are unconvinced the woman was ever pregnant – "and they fundraised for her, they gave her money to continue pursuing allegations against him."

In September the Texas Education Agen­cy appointed a monitor to oversee the district's operations, ostensibly for unrelated conduct by a previous trustee. The monitor recommended that the board put Azaiez on administrative leave, which they did. Meanwhile, three separate investigations were launched, one by the Travis County Sheriff's Office, one by an investigator for the TEA, and one by RRISD itself. No charge of abuse has yet been substantiated.

The TEA investigator, while being unable to identify any crime in her final report, recommended that the superintendent be fired, writing, "Dr. Azaiez, in my opinion, could not come back into his position and be effective." In a normal environment, that might have been enough for the board to dismiss Azaiez. But considering everything that had come before, the board reinstated him in March of this year, in yet another 5-2 vote (Weston and Bone being the two opposed). Since Azaiez's return, Feller, Harrison, and others say he has been an effective leader, helping the trustees pass a significant pay raise for teachers, librarians, and staff in April.

In Weston and Bone's opposition to Azaiez, as in their walkouts, Laine, Harrison, Feller, and Weir see one organizing principle: an effort to persuade TEA to appoint a conservator. "They would try to create that impact that they were talking about," said Laine, "so they could say, 'We're gonna end up in conservatorship if we don't get our act together.'

"And we actually will end up in conservatorship if they keep up their shenanigans. That's what these people are doing. They are a small number of people who have a special agenda. They want to undermine trust in our neighborhood schools so that we'll switch our children to charter schools, private schools, or home schooling. They're going to bring all the power, people, and money they can to make that happen."

(l-r) Estevan "Chuy" Zárate, Access Education preferred candidate for Place 1; Kevin Johnson, Place 1 board member; John Keagy, the One Family PAC candidate for Place 1 (Photos via Round Rock ISD / candidates' campaigns)

The Election

Round Rock ISD's far-right activists will have the opportunity to take over the district the old-fashioned way, by election, in November. Five of the board's seven seats are on the ballot, all of them save those held by Weston and Bone. In June, a group of candidates sprang up to run for the positions, fully formed, seemingly from nowhere. Large signs advertising the "One Family" slate appeared along roadsides. The One Family website introduced them. One name stood out: Don Zimmerman.

Zimmerman is a character who has picked at the edges of local politics for two decades. He narrowly won an Austin City Council seat in the council's first 10-1 elections in 2014, only to be defeated two years later; since then, he's run losing campaigns for both the Texas House and Senate. As amply demontrated on his Facebook page "Texans for Zimmerman," he's known for berating his opponents as "racist," "stupid," "idiots," "abominations," and "lunatics." He is running against Tiffanie Harrison with the slogan, "Teach ABCs + 123s, Not CRTs & LGBTs," something Harrison says dehumanizes a large segment of the student population.

In September, Zimmerman posted a particularly harsh attack on Facebook. The headline said in bold, "Child Porn Lovers Guide to Board Elections." Below were pictures of Harrison and fellow candidates Estevan "Chuy" Zárate and Alicia Markum. Zimmerman's critics reposted the attack to illustrate his character. Some linked to a 2014 Austin Bulldog article documenting allegations of child abuse against Zimmerman, followed by his agreement to forgo visitation rights to his then-teenage daughter. (Zimmerman sued the Bulldog for libel over that article, and lost.)

Harrison says she's aghast that a man accused of child abuse is running for a position to safeguard the welfare of children. "Why would you put someone like that on a school board?" she asked. "And he's running on a slate with four other people. So that should just knock out those other four people."

John Keagy, running for Place 1 against Chuy Zárate and Kevin Johnson, has publicly echoed Zimmerman's criticism of the accommodation of LGBTQ students, writing on social media that "LGBTQ concerns" are "a big reason why so many of our students are not ready to be successful in their life." Orlando Salinas, running for Place 3 against Amber Feller, recently defended Zimmerman on Facebook, saying, "He stands up for what he believes in, and that takes courage."

Jill Farris, running for Place 4 against Alicia Markum and Cory Vessa, also has a past indiscretion that critics say should be disqualifying. According to court documents obtained by Jack Chiles and shared with the Chronicle, Farris pled guilty in 2006 to a third-degree felony for forging checks. She did not disclose the felony on her ballot application. Farris has not responded to request for comment.

(l-r) Alicia Markum, Access Education preferred candidate for Place 4; Cory Vessa, current Place 4 board member; Jill Farris, One Family PAC candidate for Place 4 (Photos via Round Rock ISD / candidates' campaigns)

And then there is Christie Slape, running for Place 5 against Amy Weir. Slape looks the part of an elected official and sounds reasonable on camera, but RRISD video shows that she believes the district's libraries contain "obscene" content and she has questioned the separation of church and state on social media.

Yet another candidate, Linda Avila – also running for Place 4 against Farris, Vessa, and Markum – has been endorsed by Moms for Liberty and Focus on Education, demonstrating that a split has opened between Round Rock's far-right activists. Avila appears, from her use of acronyms like WWG1WGA on social media, to be a follower of QAnon, a group claiming that Donald Trump is secretly fighting a cabal of pedophiliac, baby-eating Democrats. In addition to endorsing Avila over Farris, Moms for Liberty and Focus on Education are offering no public endorsement of Zimmerman.

Amy Weir told us that most of the Round Rock ISD voters she encounters, many of them Republicans, view Avila and the One Family candidates as extremists. "Among those that are plugged in, those that understand – our teachers, our librarians, active parents, active business owners – I don't think there's any support for this nonsense," Weir said. "But that's where that extra money is going to come in handy, to sway the uninformed voter."

Weir is referring to the cash and technical support flowing to the One Family candidates and their allies. She told us that Weston and Bone appeared on Steve Bannon's podcast and Fox and Friends last year when they were running, and each raised tens of thousands of dollars, most of which came from outside the district. The 1776 Project PAC, a New York group opposing critical race theory and LGBTQ accommodations, is lending its support to the One Family candidates, per the PAC's website. And campaign finance reports released in October strongly suggest that One Family is receiving indirect support from a pair of West Texas billionaires – Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks. Weston received $18,000 and Bone $13,000 from Dunn and Wilks' Defend Texas Liberty PAC on Dec. 11, 2021. Then, this summer, Bone donated $6,000 and Weston $9,200 from their own accounts to the RR One Family PAC, per campaign finance reports on file with the Texas Ethics Commission.

The CNN documentary "Deep in the Pockets of Texas" is one of several media profiles of Dunn and Wilks. It describes them as oilmen and preachers who believe in dominionism, the philosophy that Christians should control government, education, and the media – really, all of modern life. "Deep in the Pockets" owes much to independent researcher Chris Tackett, who has demonstrated the importance that Dunn, Wilks, and other far-right billionaires place on "flipping," or gaining conservative control of, school districts.

The best-known example of a flipped district is that of Carroll ISD in the Dallas suburb of Southlake, which has been reported on extensively by NBC's Mike Hixenbaugh. Hixenbaugh has detailed how conservatives took over Southlake's school district in 2021 after students were caught chanting the N-word and administrators tried to implement diversity education. To gain control of the board, monied interests used what Hixenbaugh (after Austin teacher Frank Strong) has referred to as the "Southlake playbook."

In the playbook, wealthy conservatives supply local leaders with cash, directly and through PACs. Then they broadcast their views on conservative media outlets like Texas Scorecard, the Leander-based propaganda/news hybrid that spun off from the Tea Party-aligned lobbying group Empower Texans. (Dunn gave millions of dollars to the Empower Texans PAC.) Next, the financial and ideological support inspires grassroots extremists to crash local school board meetings to vent about improprieties real and, more often, imagined – like the nationwide complaints by Moms for Liberty members about pornography in libraries, or urban legends about schools that are setting out litter boxes for students who identify as cats. The takeover of a district is complete when the far right triumphs in school board elections.

“People are scared. People are scared to even put signs out.” – Board secretary Amy Weir

The One Family candidates released a statement in September saying they want to re-create the Southlake takeover in Round Rock, vowing to pass rules that would remove books from libraries and compel teachers to refrain from mentioning gender identity.

Weir is uncertain if she and her allies are being outspent by conservative money coming from outside the district, but she sees anecdotal evidence of large-scale advertising by the One Family slate: "They've already done thousands of door hangers, they've already done mailers, full-color, full-page ads … They will have people to walk around and put fliers on everybody's door. As truly locally funded candidates, we're not going to have those kinds of funds."

(l-r) Mary Bone, Place 2; Amber Feller, board president and Place 3; Amy Weir, board secretary and Place 5; Tiffanie Harrison, vice president and Place 6; Danielle Weston, Place 7 (Photos via Round Rock ISD)

In a district as large as RRISD – 110 square miles with 200,000 registered voters, about 40% of whom live in Austin – the conservative money won't buy a nuanced understanding of the candidates' positions. But even if the advertising is primarily to establish name recognition, Weir worries it could be enough to swing a nonpartisan election in which most voters are unfamiliar with the candidates and issues. "When they get down to the bottom of the ballot, if they have no idea – because we're not going to have an 'R' or 'D' or an 'Independent' or 'Crazy' next to our name – they're not going to be able to tell who is who," she said.

While the money being spent is one difference in this year's election, the other difference – the intimidation – can't be ignored. The Chronicle has reviewed a screenshot of the far right's doxxing efforts against Chiles and heard accounts from Laine about the harassment of PTA members and librarians. Activists continue to insult their opponents during the public comment portion of board meetings. District video shows that on Sept. 19, Fabian Cuero, a Black parent whose children graduated from Round Rock schools, spoke about the upcoming election, saying, "Some of the candidates have aligned themselves with Christian nationalism, trying to bring their ideology to the schools." As Cuero returned to his seat, a white man called him a racist. Another said, "Take your Black Panthers and go."

Harrison, Feller, Laine, and Weir told us the intimidation has made some citizens withdraw from the process. "People are scared," Weir said. "People are scared to even put signs out."

Weir has had her own fears to face. Like Harrison, she says she has received a death threat, in an email with the subject line, "One in the Chamber." Below were the words, "Your time is coming." She says she withdrew from social media after the threat and only began posting again when she decided to run. "I did actually have to think about it," she said of her decision. "All the walkouts, all the everything, just realizing how horrible it was. Even my husband was like, 'I really don't want you to do it because it's so awful and stressful – but you have to.' So I decided I'll go again. We'll see."

In our interviews with Weir, Harrison, and Feller, each expressed their devotion to the district's students and their belief in the importance of public education. Each told us that the election of even one of the far-right candidates could damage Round Rock's school district. One additional far-right trustee would make it easier for Weston and Bone to sow chaos by breaking quorum, the trustees said. Two more would give them outright control of the board.

"We really need reasonable people elected," said Harrison. "We really need people who can collaborate. We really need people whose intentions aren't to be abusive and harmful. Because this is a moment where Round Rock could go the way of Southlake, to reject the diversity of our community. But what I know about Round Rock, having lived here for 30 years, having been educated here, is that's not our community. I don't care who you vote for, that's not our community. It's just a portion of our community.

"But they're powerful, they're connected, and they're nasty. And we need people to know what's on the line and what's at stake. We cannot lose one seat this November."

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