A political action committee whose stated goal is to advance parental rights in education has thrown its support behind three candidates for the North East Independent School District board of trustees in an effort to unseat the incumbents, part of a nationwide trend of parents targeting board elections to influence schools.

The San Antonio-based Parents United for Freedom PAC has raised more than $10,700 to back three candidates for the NEISD board, according to the most recent campaign finance report filed by the committee. With two weeks before early voting begins in the May 7 election, the PAC has spent just $32 in unitemized expenses.

“Parents United for Freedom is a grassroots effort to defend and protect parental rights within the school system and to reclaim our schools from the harmful agendas being promoted,” the PAC’s website states. “Through coalition-building within our communities, we are fighting indoctrination in the classrooms throughout San Antonio, Texas.”

The largest contribution of $10,000 to Parents United for Freedom came from Jason DeSouza, a local injury attorney. He did not respond to a request for comment. Paula Hilliard, wife to District 6 trustee Steve Hilliard, donated $200 to the PAC. Steve Hilliard also did not respond to a request for comment.

The three PAC-supported candidates — Marsha Landry for District 7, Jacqueline Klein for District 2 and Diane Sciba Villarreal for District 3 — did not respond to requests for comment either.

The Parents United for Freedom website and each candidate’s websites repeatedly state that they want to be the voice of parents on the school board, but they don’t list any specific academic issues or concerns. The PAC’s website says “with your help we can make education great again” and “we don’t co-parent with the government,” a phrase often invoked by public commenters at board meetings who oppose mask mandates and challenge the veracity of other COVID-19 protocols.

District 2 trustee Terri Williams, who is seeking a second term, said she doesn’t know much about the PAC but understands it wants parents to have more say in school issues. She said the board has listened to parents at meetings, such as at the six-hour meeting in August when trustees voted 5-1 to implement a mask mandate after listening to more than 100 parents. Hilliard cast the sole dissenting vote.

“A lot of school board issues are hot issues, not just in San Antonio but across the country, and we’re no different,” Williams said. “We’ve had folks come to our school board meetings, of course, about the hot issues — mask mandates, books, sex education — and we feel we’ve addressed each issue and have had ample opportunity for parents to be involved.”

Sandy Winkley, who is also seeking a second term in District 7, said she could not speak to the PAC’s goals.

“PACs that are focused on single issues lose sight of the larger issues involved with educating a diverse student population. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer in public education,” she said. “My experience on the board has taught me the importance of doing my homework to discover who is behind any political group or special interest group. We need to assure the agendas they are pushing truly support all students in our district and benefit their education.”

The PAC’s talking points mirror those of other PACs that have formed across the state in recent years as the coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on how schools are operated and what is taught in classrooms. Republican politicians, including Gov. Greg Abbott and state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), have added fuel to the fire by labeling school library books that discuss race and LGBTQ issues as “pornography” that should be criminally investigated.

In NEISD, librarians removed 110 titles from shelves as part of a review process of 432 books targeted by Krause, citing poor professional reviews, a lack of reviews or outdated content as grounds for removal. The district finished the review last month after pulling hundreds of books.

Northeast of Austin, the Lake Travis Families PAC also opposes “political indoctrination” in schools, while other PACs like Southlake Families in North Texas claim critical race theory is taught in schools. Critical race theory is an academic concept taught at the university level that racism is interwoven in legal systems and policies; it is not taught in K-12 schools, although community members have spoken out against CRT at local school board meetings.

In her blog, Landry, the PAC’s District 7 candidate, writes about parents needing to take action to advocate for their children’s education and that she will be “the voice of parents” on the board and “hold our educators accountable to the education our children are receiving.” Landry has three children enrolled in NEISD schools, according to her website.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, the incumbents raised more money than the three candidates backed by Parents United for Freedom.

In District 2, Klein received $500 from Parents United for Freedom, bringing her total contributions to $1,989. She spent $316 on her website, campaign signs and T-shirts. Williams, the incumbent, raised $4,089 and spent $2,852 on her website and campaign signs. Another candidate, Rhonda Rowland, spent $34 on business cards but listed no contributions.

District 3 incumbent Omar Leos, who did not respond to a request for comment, raised $1,000 and spent $275 on his campaign website. Villarreal received $500 from Parents United for Freedom, bringing her total contributions to $815. She spent $1,965 on campaign signs, fliers and a website, using $1,303 of her own money.

Winkley, the District 7 incumbent, raised $2,150 and spent $3,662 on campaign signs. Her PAC-supported opponent, Landry, listed $288 in contributions and $268 in expenditures. Another candidate, Joseph Trevino, reported $476 in expenditures and no contributions.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.