San Antonio has been lucky. So far.

Our school board meetings have not become bloody battlefields in the culture wars that have erupted in school districts around the nation. 

With 19 independent school districts in Bexar County, we don’t lack opportunities. And during the emotionally raw times of the worst of COVID-19 there were some raucous meetings over mask mandates.

But while the state’s elected leaders in Austin have considered it good politics to paint school librarians as pornography purveyors, teachers accurately presenting the state’s history of slavery as reverse racists and parents of transgender youth as child abusers, the local political discourse has been relatively free of such hysteria.

If there was massive anger toward our school boards and staffs, our largest suburban school district, Northside ISD, would not have been able to pass a nearly $1 billion bond program with 57.4% of the vote. And one of our poorer schools districts, Harlandale ISD, wouldn’t have been able to pass a $125 million bond program despite the fact that it involves a 7-cent tax hike that will cost the owners of a typical house valued at $87,844 about $60 a year. 

Meanwhile in the Alamo Heights ISD’s only board seat on the ballot, an ophthalmologist ran as a culture warrior and lost decisively. Dr. Jane Lindell Hughes didn’t raise or spend much money to campaign against her opponent, incumbent Brian C. Hamilton, but used her website to attack a district’s program on “equity” as something of a stealth effort to infuse the district with the dreaded, if undefined, “critical race theory.” 

“I do not believe that most parents feel that the mandate of the school regards their child as a captive audience to adult socio-political agendas,” she said.

In a video on the site, Hughes continues, “Last spring there was an equity training for our teachers. Equity, as you may recognize from diversity, equity and inclusion, is part and parcel of the tenets of the critical race theory, which very few people use that term anymore, but they are the three basic tenets of that theory.”

As you can tell from a PowerPoint presentation on the “equity” program for which Hughes provides a link on her website, it was neither a “teacher training program” nor a gateway drug to “critical race theory.” Her effort at linkage would compete for a gold medal if the Olympics had a competition for “long jump to a false conclusion.”

In real-life competition, she fared more poorly. Hughes lost to Hamilton, 58.7% to 35.74%, with a third candidate taking the remainder.

The contest for three seats on the North East ISD’s board, however, showed how a well-funded campaign can be very effective. In that race, three incumbents were challenged by Diane Sciba Villarreal, Marsha Landry and Jacqueline Klein. 

I was unable to learn much about the candidates. All three declined during the campaign to talk to reporters. 

Only Villarreal had a campaign website, and it gave no hint that she is a culture warrior. Her website copy says nothing with which anyone could disagree. As close as she gets to raising an alarm is this: “Friends, we have problems in our schools today that call for a fresh approach.”

Villarreal is for more parental involvement and wants “teachers to love teaching again.” Her Facebook page mentions her campaign but offers no other clues about her agenda.

Klein’s Facebook page did offer some clues. While criticizing her opponent for being endorsed by Democrats and unions, she said she was nonpartisan but posted endorsements by Republican groups and other conservative organizations.

The three challengers did not run a coordinated campaign, but a small political action committee ran one for them — and did an excellent job. Parents United for Freedom PAC raised about $13,000 from just 14 persons, with $10,000 coming from attorney Jason Desouza.

The PAC donated $500 each to candidates Klein, Landry and Villarreal. But more importantly, they spent more than $4,000 on advertising, mostly to iHeart Radio, as well as just under $400 on behalf of each of the candidates to Salem Media of Texas, which has a Christian station and a conservative talk show station in San Antonio. According to its filing with the Texas Ethics Commission the PAC also spent $4,600 on printing posters, door hangers and other materials and $1,800 on block walkers.

People affiliated with the PAC also showed up to work the polls.

In highly targeted school board races with very small turnouts, $12,000-plus well spent can make a big difference, and it did in this case. Villarreal defeated Omar Leos, who had been appointed to the board in 2019, with 57.8% of the vote. Landry barely squeaked by with 41.6% of the vote over incumbent Sandy Winkley, a margin of only 35 votes out of 3,377 cast. (There are no runoffs in these races.) The third candidate on the ticket, Jacqueline Klein, lost a close race to incumbent Terri Williams. 

It remains to be seen what impact the election will have on the district. The two newcomers will join trustee Steve Hilliard, who was elected two years ago with the backing of the San Antonio Family Association, another small but active socially conservative group. Hilliard has not been particularly disruptive on the seven-member board, but if the three form a coalition, they could be.

It is not unheard of for school board critics to become constructive when they are actually faced with the challenges and complexities of operating a school system, and that could happen at NEISD. The danger is that they could become the tools of politicians who see personal profit in turning our schools into social policy war zones. (For example, U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, who recently alleged that Northside ISD violated a new state law regarding how teachers deal with historical and other issues.)

The best defense is for parents and taxpayers who don’t see teaching history accurately as attempting to turn children against America, who don’t see fighting bigotry against young gay people as “grooming,” who don’t see school librarians as porn pushers — for these parents and other citizens to organize in support of their candidates the way a small group organized in this campaign. 

Note to readers: This is my last column for a while. I am taking a summer sabbatical to work on other projects and to escape the South Texas heat. I look forward to returning.

This article has been updated to correctly identify Dr. Jane Lindell Hughes as an ophthalmologist.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.