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Partisans Are Politicizing Our Schools

A network of consultants, PACs, and political activists has quietly infiltrated school board elections.


A version of this story ran in the January / February 2024 issue.

Part 2 of the series “The School Board Backers

This series was funded in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

An unusually tense discussion ensued in the wood-paneled boardroom of the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District (ISD) in June 2022.

Some newly elected conservative trustees supported a proposed policy on “classical social and emotional learning” that targets social issues such as “critical race theory,” “gender fluidity,” and “potentially pornographic material.” 

But others questioned why a politically connected attorney had been quietly hired to help craft that proposal: Tim Davis. Davis isn’t just any lawyer—he also serves as the general counsel of the Tarrant County GOP. The district had previously worked with a different firm. Trustee Becky St. John now wanted to know why a new firm had been hired without her knowledge or any public vote.

“This is an expenditure of district funds for legal opinion, so I have some questions,” said St. John, whose public inquiry was cut short when then-board president Casey Ford moved the discussion to a closed executive session.

Such behind-the-scenes connections between paid Texas Republican Party operatives and school board trustees have become increasingly common amid a coordinated push by political action committees (PACs) and their preferred consulting firms to secure ultraconservative majorities on school boards across Texas, a recent investigation by the Texas Observer revealed.

It’s a part of a national trend that’s seen historically low-budget, nonpartisan school board elections from California to Pennsylvania turned into high-dollar, professionalized political battlegrounds where ideological hot-button issues displace the more mundane concerns of school districts. Through consulting on campaigns, forming PACs, and in some cases even providing paid legal advice, current and former Republican party operatives have been key players in these ideological efforts—and often receive big bucks for their work. 

The Grapevine-Colleyville school board’s decision to hire Davis did not appear on a school board meeting agenda until after he began advising the board on the “classical social and emotional learning” policy. A copy of the contract between Davis’ firm, then Cantey Hanger, and Grapevine-Colleyville ISD is dated June 13, a month prior to a public decision on the contract, which passed on a four-to-three vote. 

Joseph Larsen, a lawyer who sits on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which works to protect the state’s open meetings and open records laws, told the Observer that it is highly irregular for a district to sign a contract to employ a lawyer before holding a public vote on the matter. “It appears that some sort of action was taken outside an open meeting,” Larsen said.

“It’s worrisome when a board takes a really clear partisan position in the sense of hiring a political operative. I think it really erodes the public’s trust.”

The trustees’ move to hire Davis seemed unnecessary and partisan to some critics, especially given that another law firm that previously counseled the district, Brackett & Ellis, had already provided a 48-page legal review with a long list of concerns that generally poured cold water on the proposed policy. 

“It’s worrisome when a board takes a really clear partisan position in the sense of hiring a political operative,” said Carrie Douglass, co-founder of School Board Partners, a national organization focused on recruiting and training anti-racist school board members. “I think it really erodes the public’s trust.”

Grapevine-Colleyville is among the 35 school districts that have been targeted by an extended network of consultants and PACs, which collectively have spent over $1.5 million to back more than 105 hard-right candidates in the last two years. These same players, working together or independently, helped secure ultraconservative majorities in eight districts, including Grapevine-Colleyville. 

As previously reported by the Observer, several PACs and candidates who paid these consulting firms were funded by billionaire donors who support school privatization. 

Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert with Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, reviewed the data collected by the Observer on Texas school board races. He sees the proliferation of PACs in these hyper-local contexts as clearly coordinated partisan activity. “And it puts the political consulting firms in a perfect position to wield a direct influence over the lawmakers and the candidates,” Holman said.

The linkages among Republican party operatives, political consultants, and ostensibly nonpartisan school board trustees are particularly notable in North Texas, where Davis is one of several politically connected professionals who played key roles in remaking school boards. In Tarrant and Collin counties, Davis was hired by four conservative-majority school boards, including Grapevine Colleyville, that feature new members elected with the backing of partisan consultants and PACs.

Davis did not respond to requests for comment. The law firm where he is now a partner, Jackson Walker, declined comment via an email from Jim Wilkinson, a PR consultant and firm spokesman. 

Across the state, high-profile Republican consultants are taking an active role in school board takeovers—and sometimes bragging about those activities in press releases. 

One such press release describes Nick Maddux, a partner at Axiom Strategies, as playing “a vital part of the emerging national interest in school board campaigns, winning major victories in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Houston, and statewide in Texas.”

“By boasting about their victories, they identify who they’re working with.”

“It’s a bit humorous,” said Holman, the campaign finance expert. “By boasting about their victories, they identify who they’re working with. And that can point directly towards coordination as well as where some of the money’s coming from.”

School board races may seem like small potatoes for national firms and nationally known players, but they have proven lucrative for them. Maddux, who also serves as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s chief political adviser, has been described as “an instrumental part of Senator [Ted] Cruz’s successful reelection bid over challenger Beto O’Rouke” in 2018—the same year he began working for Axiom Strategies. And Axiom Strategies, with a presence in multiple states, earned more than $196 million in revenue and $22 million in profit in 2022. It was founded in 2005 by Jeff Roe, a longtime political consultant who has been described as “Ted Cruz’s Karl Rove.” 

Since the beginning of 2021, Axiom and its subsidiaries, Vanguard Strategies and Remington Research Group, have been paid more than $1.3 million in fees by school board-focused PACs and the candidates they support in 13 school districts. Simultaneously, Axiom received more than $1.25 million in fees directly from the Republican Party of Texas.

Maddux did not respond to requests for comment.

Other party activists and consultants have gotten involved in school board races in the Houston metro area. 

Christopher Zook Jr., a former Harris County GOP field director, got his start in politics working for Cruz’s campaign. He founded CAZ Consulting in December 2021, just seven months after he founded Texans for Educational Freedom—a PAC that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on school board elections. Zook later formed Tripple Threat Strategies as a subsidiary of CAZ Consulting in early 2023, according to corporate filings.

Texas Ethics Commission filings and school board campaign finance reports show that CAZ Consulting and Tripple Threat Strategies have done campaign work almost exclusively for Texans for Educational Freedom; that PAC had paid them more than $200,000 for consulting on school board races as of mid-October. 

Zook initially agreed to address written questions but stopped responding after being provided questions via email. He did post on the social media site X in response to the Observer’s reporting on efforts to politicize school board campaigns. “Thank you for the great coverage,” Zook wrote. “Just a week ago, parents successfully flipped Cy-Fair ISD, the third largest district in the state. Let’s keep focusing on improving student outcomes, empowering parents, and supporting our teachers.” 

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Located in northwest Harris County, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD was one of the first districts where Texans for Educational Freedom supported ultraconservative candidates in 2021. In 2023, the PAC supported three candidates, who also received endorsements from Cruz. All three won their elections in November.

There’s also Erik Leist, who lives in Keller and founded the consulting firm Edgerton Strategies in 2021. After getting his start in Republican politics over 10 years ago as a field director for the Wisconsin and Minnesota Republican parties, Leist pursued a career in marketing, eventually rising to partner at a firm called 221B Ingenuity. 

In 2021, Southlake Families, a well-funded PAC founded by the former chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party, paid 221B Ingenuity to help set up a website for a campaign that turned the local school board election into a bitter fight over so-called critical race theory—an academic framework that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions that has become a catchall buzzword for any lessons focused on race—and in the process drew national attention to Southlake.

A dark-haired woman gestures with a handful of paperwork as she speaks.
Grapevine Colleyville trustee Becky St. John speaks during a school board meeting. (Emil Lippe for NBC News)

Leist, however, would largely remain behind the scenes, even as his firm began consulting and campaigning on behalf of PACs and candidates in at least 14 school districts. As of October 2023, Edgerton had brought in over $660,000 in fees for campaign consulting. 

Leist, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, rebuked our prior investigative report about his role as a school board campaign consultant in a post on X. 

“Investigative ‘Journalism’—The act of creating a narrative for the conclusion the author has already reached,” Leist wrote. “Parents deserve a voice and will not be deterred by leftwing attacks or unhinged conspiracy theories. Thanks for the positive coverage.”

When the Observer asked how he ended up working for so many school board PACs and candidates so suddenly, Leist replied with a shrug emoji.

Nearly 40 percent of Edgerton’s campaign consulting fees in Texas from 2021 to 2023 came from PACs like Patriot Mobile Action, the political arm of a Christian Nationalist cellphone company, and others focused on school board races. Another 20 percent came from Republican Party organizations—including the Tarrant County GOP, which is provided legal counsel by Davis, the lawyer hired by Grapevine-Colleyville school board trustees whom Leist helped get elected.

Like most political consulting firms, these companies and their operatives rarely draw media attention, though they played apparently pivotal roles in school board campaigns in the last three years and deployed highly politicized rhetoric that aligns with the talking points of state and national Republicans.

“I think the professionalization of these local races is new,” said Daniel Laurison, associate professor of sociology at Swarthmore College and author of the book Producing Politics: Inside the Exclusive Campaign World Where the Privileged Few Shape Politics for All of Us. “And I think that exacerbates all the polarization we see in the first place.”

In Texas at least, many of the key consultants and advisors of conservative school board candidates and trustees are white, Christian, college-educated men. 

“I think it’s really important to note that the people crafting these messages and policies often don’t look like the people that they’re supposed to be talking to.”

“I think it’s really important to note that the people crafting these messages and policies often don’t look like the people that they’re supposed to be talking to,” Laurison told the Observer. “Even if it’s in a relatively well-off suburb, there’s still more gender and racial diversity often than there is among political consultants.”

The lack of coverage regarding the role of well-connected Republican consultants in formerly nonpartisan school board elections has obscured just how coordinated the attack on public schools has been. It’s also made it difficult for people to know who’s behind the efforts. 

“It’s important because there’s a whole sort of ecosystem of people who cycle through different jobs in politics,” Laurison said. “They’re in these really powerful roles. … And when you have this kind of professionalization and advertising, elections can turn it into yet another battlefield in the conservative versus liberal fight.”

That fight has landed squarely in districts like Grapevine-Colleyville, where the “classical social and emotional learning” policy that Davis reviewed for the Grapevine-Colleyville school board in 2022 was eventually adopted by the conservative majority, instating, among other things, a total ban on employees engaging in any discussion of what the district defines as “gender fluidity.”

A short-haired Latinx man folds his hands and closes his eyes as if frustrated.
Former Grapevine Colleyville trustee Jorge Rodriguez reacts to a tumultuous school board meeting. (Emil T. Lippe for NBC News)

That same policy has since been promoted to other schools by Texans for Excellence in Education (TEE), an organization with ties to Monty Bennett, a billionaire funder who has donated to several school board candidates and PACs.

The Observer reviewed two different versions of the “classical social and emotional learning” policy featured on the TEE website and identified two people credited as authors: Ali Williams, an employee of Davis, and Tony McDonald, general counsel for Texas Scorecard, a right-wing website funded largely by West Texas oil billionaires. 

According to a contract document obtained by a public records request, Davis was hired again in March 2023 to provide legal counsel to the Grapevine-Colleyville school board after he moved to another law firm. This time, the contract came after a public vote, approved on another four to three split vote. As of this writing, the district has racked up significant legal bills: $244,000 from Cantey Hanger and $142,000 from Jackson Walker.  Most of the items on invoices acquired via a public information request are redacted, providing little insight into what exactly the district has paid Davis to do aside from reviewing the policy and a couple of lawsuits. The only invoice that was not entirely redacted showed that Davis was charged with helping revise the proposed policy.

McDonald recently represented a local Republican precinct chair in a 2021 First Amendment lawsuit against Grapevine-Colleyville ISD regarding the district’s enforcement of a policy disallowing criticism of school employees by name during the public comment segment of school board meetings. The plaintiff wanted to speak out against former high school principal James Whitfield, who had been accused of promoting so-called critical race theory in the district but was not allowed to do so. The case ultimately resulted in a settlement, costing the district $115,000. Court records show that Davis and McDonald attended the mediation where the agreement was established.

Newly elected conservative majorities in nearby Carroll ISD and Keller ISD, where conservative candidates won with the support of Edgerton Strategies and Axiom Strategies, have also hired Davis to provide legal counsel in connection with new policies the board adopted that restrict access to books and roll back accommodations for LGTBQ+ students. The recently elected conservative majority in Princeton ISD in Collin County also hired Davis and voted to join TEE.

Such legal advisors are not the public decision-makers on policy, but they play a key role in managing the relationship among candidates, elected officials, and voters. 

Former Grapevine-Colleyville board trustee Jorge Rodriguez told the Observer that he worries about the trend of newly revamped school boards hiring political advisors and then passing policies vetted by Republican party operatives. Like St. John, Rodriguez didn’t learn about the decision to hire Davis as a legal advisor until after the fact.

“After we found out this guy had links to the GOP, it looked pretty obvious in terms of what was going on,” Rodriguez said. “A quid pro quo, in my view. This is the new way of doing business on the school board, where the majority keeps the others in the dark.”