Conservative challengers make gains on HISD Board of Trustees, but the effect on the district is unclear

Bridget Wade beat incumbent trustee Anne Sung handily in Saturday’s runoff elections, while Kendall Baker edged out incumbent trustee Holly Flynn Vilaseca.

Composite Photo
Clockwise from top left are HISD board candidates Elizabeth Santos, Bridget Wade, Holly Flynn Vilaseca, Sue Deigaard, Caroline Walter, Kendall Baker, Anne Sung, and Janette Garza Lindner.

Conservative challengers defeated two Houston Independent School District (HISD) board incumbents during runoff elections over the weekend, but it's unclear how much of an impact that will have on the functioning of the board and the district.

Kendall Baker edged out Trustee Holly Flynn Vilaseca in HISD District 6, while Bridget Wade handily defeated Trustee Anne Sung in District 7.

"What a lot of conservatives both here, locally, and across the country have been running on are [issues] that are not necessarily within the purview of the school board," said Jasmine Jenkins, executive director of Houstonians for Great Public Schools.

Baker and Wade both ran as opponents of mask mandates and the teaching of critical race theory. Neither of those issues falls under the responsibility of the board.

"A lot of Houstonians who may be watching in the near future will probably be interested to find out that much of what the school board does not fall along the traditional left-right spectrum," Jenkins said.

The contests illustrate how even local races, such as for school boards, have become subject to national politics, according to Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University.

"I looked at the vote for [former president] Donald Trump and the vote for the two challengers that beat the incumbents on the west side, and that's probably one of the strongest correlations you can find,” Stein said.

In other contests, Trustee Elizabeth Santos narrowly defeated Janette Garza Lindner in District 1, while Trustee Sue Deigaard trounced challenger Caroline Walter in District 5.

"My sense is two new members are not going to shift the center [of the board]," Stein said. "They may bring a voice to those [conservative] constituents, but my sense is the district has far more problems than some of the more conservative or anti-incumbent candidates articulated."

Those problems include the ongoing threat of a takeover of the district by the Texas Education Agency and the replacing of its elected board of trustees with state appointees. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has been pressing for a takeover for the past two years, in response to the low performance of a number of HISD schools and a scandal involving several trustees' alleged violation of the Open Meetings Act.

The latter dealt with five then-trustees meeting in a 2018 "walking quorum," outside an HISD board meeting, in an unsuccessful attempt to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan. Three of the trustees involved in that alleged violation – Anne Sung, Holly Flynn Vilaseca, and Elizabeth Santos – were among those up for reelection this past weekend. The remaining two, former board president Diane Dávila and Sergio Lira, were defeated for reelection in 2019.

Another major problem facing the new board is the need to pass a bond in order to replace or repair crumbling school buildings. The last time the district held a successful bond election was more than eight years ago. Stein said that the combination of high inflation and low public trust in the HISD board and administration means "this is probably one of the most difficult environments in which to try to pass a school bond."

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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