WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas — On Tuesday, the Williamson County Commissioners Court discussed how to distribute CARES Act funding to different school districts within the county.
"We had a dad come not too long ago and read us excerpts from some books that were allowed in the Leander school district, and I'm not just saying Leander's the only school district, but I'm saying that that was what was presented to us and it was appalling. It was embarrassing to hear him read it. It was not right," Commissioner Valerie Covey said on Tuesday.
Commissioners identified Leander Independent School District and Round Rock Independent School District as two districts that will not receive any additional CARES Act funding because of the so-called inappropriate reading material available to students. Covey called some of the content "X-rated."
"I want to help the students. I know that some of our schools, some of the school districts in my precinct took money out of reserves to help during this time," Covey said. "I'm not OK with giving money to school districts that teach critical race theory or that allow books in their library – especially in the classroom library where there's no there's no supervision, really, a child can walk up and grab that book – books that we would consider X-rated."
Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell and the commissioners court agreed to visit with both districts in the coming days about the reading material available for students. Gravell threatened to withhold the funding indefinitely if the two districts "choose to go a different path."
"I just simply want to say to the superintendents of those two school districts, we will be approaching you this week, but you'll have an opportunity to make a decision," Gravell said. "You can choose to listen and receive what is said and what the community has voiced in a powerful and vociferous way … And I want to say to our superintendents, if you choose to go a different path, that's your choice. But we, as a court, will choose to take the balance of those funds next week and go perhaps in a different course as well, too. And I just want to make that clear to both of those school boards and to both of those superintendents."
In recent weeks, Leander ISD removed 11 books from the high school book club reading list. None of the books removed were mandatory reading for any students and are still available on campuses. It's not a new practice for the district after administrators created a policy on how to evaluate whether books should be available to students.
Ashley Perez, who wrote "Out of Darkness," one of the books removed from the book club reading list, said people who complain about her book now are taking content out of context. Perez's award-winning book was published in 2015 but only now has been scrutinized by Central Texas school districts.
"It certainly reflects the selective nature of which books have been targeted and described as 'X-rated,' 'pornographic,'" Perez said.
Perez has a solution of her own to prevent more books from being removed prematurely, citing other school districts in Central Texas that she has talked with previously.
"They require parents to submit a written complaint. They require them to read the book," Perez said. "In the overwhelming number of cases, the challenges end because the parents haven't engaged with the whole book, and they don't want to."
Some parents say withholding funding over optional literature content is too far.
"To be honest, a lot of these same parents have been going to the county commissioners meetings weekly, so it doesn't surprise me that the county commissioners have done something because they do have reelections coming up next year," said Katie Schaffer, a parent with a fourth-grade student in Leander ISD. "It's not surprising to me that they would pander to a specific crowd that's caused a lot of noise. I'm disappointed, but I'm not surprised. I'm not surprised they made this political."
"What I thought happened with the county commissioners was really a slap in the face for me," said Joel Bercu, a parent with a student in high school in Leander ISD. "To me, these are social issues that are more political in nature, and none of the kids have really signed up for this."
Commissioner Terry Cook aired her own disagreements during the commissioner meeting Tuesday.
"We are outside of our lane if we try to micromanage the ISDs," Cook said. "We can use the bully pulpit to stress what we think is important, but it is ultimately the school boards and the administration that makes those decisions. This is federal dollars and they desperately need this to help."
In written responses to KVUE on Tuesday evening, both districts voiced their disappointment with the county judge and commissioners.
From Round Rock ISD: "We were disappointed that CARES funding was not approved by Williamson County Commissioners today. We are hopeful the funding will be approved next week, as we know the Commissioners are eager to support our schools. We are happy to address any concerns Commissioners have related to library books and instructional materials and feel certain we can clear up any misunderstandings. In fact, we met with Commissioner Russ Boles today and had a very productive conversation explaining our process.
"All parents and members of the public in Round Rock ISD have complete access to the entirety of our school library catalogue. Parents always have the right to determine what books their students are able to access. Round Rock ISD has an established process for addressing parental objections to instructional resources. Any parent who has a concern with a particular book that is available on their campus is encouraged to contact their campus staff directly, and if the campus staff is unable to address their concerns, the parent may file a formal objection. If, after review by a reconsideration committee, the parent is unsatisfied with the conclusion, the parent may continue through the formal complaint process which includes an opportunity for complainants to receive a Board of Trustees decision regarding the complaint. Additionally, parents always have the right to contact their campus and ask to inspect any instructional resource used by the school with their student."
From Leander ISD: "We will be coordinating discussions with our County Commissioners and Judge Gravell regarding their decision to withhold CARES funding from our students and classrooms. Throughout the pandemic, we have been working hand-in-hand with our county officials to keep schools open as safely as possible. The CARES Act was intended to help fund economic relief during the pandemic, including offsetting the costs incurred by school districts to keep classrooms open for in-person instruction and to provide remote learning opportunities for students. Our teachers and staff have worked tirelessly to go above and beyond for students during this time, and we hope to minimize the financial impact and improve the long-term stability of our district with tools such as the CARES funding. As our parents and community know, we have been undergoing several efforts to meet our community’s hopes and dreams for student success. Over the past 15 months, our Boarde of Trustees and administration have taken several actions regarding instructional materials and curriculum to meet our community’s vision for public schools, including:
- completed a year-long review of the reading options in our high school book club curriculum;
- approved a diversity, equity, and inclusion policy to ensure all students have equitable access to opportunities;
- adopted an instructional materials policy to give our community more voice in selecting and reviewing materials used in our classrooms;
- and continued to strengthen partnerships with our families on improvement and refinement strategies.
"We have more work to do. Our students and community deserve stellar public schools. We look forward to our continued partnership with Williamson County to provide Leander ISD students with a world-class experience in our schools."
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