A Texas public school district under investigation for telling employees they were “expected” to vote “for” a billion-dollar bond now says a likely illegal electioneering message was a “miscommunication.”
Northside Independent School District was forced to respond Monday after documents surfaced over the weekend showing Superintendent Brian Woods and an unnamed campus principal sent district communications pressuring staff to vote for a $992 million bond on the May 7 ballot.
The San Antonio school district said an email sent by the principal ahead of early voting, claiming to share the superintendent’s directive to support the bond, was intended to encourage voting, not coerce or intimidate employees.
“As per Dr. Woods, all employees will be expected to vote for this year’s Bond,” the principal’s April 18 message to campus staff read.
In the weeks before the election, Superintendent Woods sent multiple messages “strongly” urging district employees to vote and describing the benefits of passing the bond, as well as “budget cuts” likely to occur if the bond didn’t pass.
The official communications, exposed by Corey DeAngelis of the American Federation for Children, also showed the district was tracking which employees did and didn’t vote in the election.
“We should all be doing our part and advocating for our NISD students,” the principal wrote. “Central Office will be monitoring campus percentages for employee voting stats in the next weeks to come and will be expecting ALL employees to vote.”
Gov. Greg Abbott said Saturday the communication is “likely a crime,” and the Texas Education Agency will work with the Texas Attorney General’s Office “to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute this matter.”
It’s a violation of the Texas Election Code for school districts to use taxpayer resources to advocate for or against political candidates and measures. It’s also a crime to coerce a voter to vote a certain way.
On Monday, the TEA confirmed the district’s actions are under review, while the district downplayed the communications and said they had “adhered to all legal requirements and guidelines,” according to a report by local CBS affiliate KENS 5:
District officials received information on April 28 that messaging sent by a campus principal in an April 18 newsletter was directing staff to vote “for” the bond. This miscommunication was immediately addressed by the principal’s supervisor, and the principal, a veteran and well-respected leader, took corrective action.
Meanwhile, a high school teacher in the district took to social media to say “maybe it should feel intimidating” for a supervisor to pressure employees to vote “in an election that would directly impact your job,” complaining that turnout is typically low.
The high school teacher and his principal also tweeted about “running a shuttle from campus during early voting to take staff and/or students to cast their ballot. Super exciting!!”
But the teacher later said the shuttle—an improper use of district resources if paid for with tax dollars, according to a legal opinion issued by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton—was canceled after a complaint was filed with the Northside American Federation of Teachers.
The local teachers union called out the district’s other shenanigans as well, though they eventually endorsed the bond.
“Our union did communicate with our members in regards to their concerns about voter intimidation and surveillance” and “communicated the concerns to district leadership on multiple occasions,” Northside AFT said in a statement on Monday. “Our union condemns voter intimidation, coercion, or illegal electioneering whenever and wherever it occurs.”
James Quintero with the Texas Public Policy Foundation noted that Northside ISD staff had also made bond presentations during school hours.
“A sign that #txlege needs to strengthen laws governing ISD electioneering,” Quintero tweeted.
In 2019, lawmakers proposed legislation to better define illegal electioneering practices used by school districts desperate to pass massive bonds and tax increases. The bill passed the Senate but failed to advance in the House.
On Tuesday, DeAngelis shared video of a teacher in the district speaking at the April 26 school board meeting:
You care about us so much you are essentially threatening to reduce our current salary or go years without a raise if the current bond proposal doesn’t pass. … You’re pressuring our principals to try to get us to vote.
Northside ISD’s bond passed with 57 percent of the vote, about a 5,000-vote margin with fewer than 35,000 votes cast. Northside is the fourth-largest school district in the state, with 103,000 students and 12,600 employees.
In an email sent Monday to all district staff, Superintendent Woods called the bond vote “a good outcome” and said “getting this accomplished was a total team effort.”
He also mentioned “very confusing ballot language placed on school bonds by the legislature.”
Because all bond debt must be repaid (with interest) by local property taxpayers, a law passed in 2019 requires school bond propositions to state “THIS IS A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE” on the ballot.
Northside and other districts confuse voters when they claim their bonds don’t raise taxes because they don’t anticipate a tax rate increase—even though rising property values will drive up residents’ tax bills to pay for the bonds.
District voters passed an $849 million school bond in 2018. Local taxpayers are currently on the hook for more than $3 billion in bond debt principal and interest.
With interest, the new bond is projected to cost taxpayers $1.78 billion.
According to the district’s most recent academic performance report, only 46 percent of students read at or above grade level.
Northside ISD is one of 107 Texas school districts that placed a combined $16 billion in bond propositions on the May 7 ballot.
Texas teachers and staff can use a corruption tip line unveiled Tuesday by DeAngelis to anonymously submit evidence of superintendents or other superiors pressuring them to vote for bonds or political candidates.