Right-Wing Extremists Taking Over Carroll School District?
When Jennifer Schutter met her new neighbor two years ago, the mother and physician thought she had met an ally. The neighbor, Hannah Smith, also had a special needs child in the Carroll school district, home to the tony city of Southlake in northeast Tarrant County. Both mothers shared a desire to improve the quality of education for special needs students in their district.
Smith, Schutter said, “was working on special education issues. Another community member asked me to meet with her at a coffee shop. She was reading court documents. She clearly was doing a lot of research. She had a list of open records requests that she was asking other people to submit to the school district on her behalf. It was information related to special education.”
Schutter thought Smith’s doling out open records requests to other parents was odd, but she assumed Smith had her reasons. The self-described “religious freedom” attorney had twice clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court, once for Clarence Thomas and once for Samuel Alito. A search of the Texas Bar Association’s website found no results for “Hannah Smith,” meaning she is not licensed to practice law in Texas. Smith declined to respond to my media inquiries.
At the time, Southlake was in the national spotlight following two related incidents, one in 2018 and another the following year, that both involved videos depicting white Carroll high schoolers chanting the n-word. Public uproar over the incident was followed by personal accounts on the part of Black and brown Southlake families which described a local culture that openly permits racist language and bigoted ideologies. The school board’s seven trustees began exploring policies that would directly address the documented incidents of systemic racism that continue to afflict the suburb.
By the summer of 2020, a tightknit group of mostly white conservative parents and Republican insiders were coordinating an effort to halt progress on the school district’s Cultural Competence Action Plan (CCAP), the school district’s proposed diversity and inclusion roadmap. Critics of CCAP alleged that the roadmap was a plot to indoctrinate students in so-called leftist ideologies. Debunked conspiracy theories about Critical Race Theory (CRT), the academic framework for understanding racism’s past and present influence in American government and society, further fueled the misinformation campaign against CCAP.
Last September and with the financial backing of Southlake Families, a 10-year-old PAC that was first formed by current county commissioner candidate Tim O’Hare, Southlake parent Kristin Garcia filed a lawsuit against Carroll’s school board, alleging that school board members David Almand, Todd Carlton, Danny Gilpin, Sheri Mills, and Michelle Moore broke state open meetings act laws by discussing CCAP outside of board meetings. The lawsuit, currently being appealed by the school board, led to a November restraining order that effectively forbids discussions about race during school board meetings.
On Dec. 1, Smith emailed a member of the District Diversity Council, which was formed in 2018 to address school-related acts of racism, to inform the volunteer that discussions about CCAP were now forbidden among school board groups and committees. The confidential source who provided the email said the document further shows Smith’s direct involvement with the lawsuit.
“I wanted to let you know of a development in the Garcia litigation, which has just come to my attention,” Smith wrote. “The court has just issued a temporary restraining order which forbids any further meetings to do any work on the CCAP.”
Smith began campaigning for Carroll’s school board the following month.
The lawsuit was followed by the April indictments of two school board members, Bob Todd Carlton and Michelle Moore, for allegedly texting each other about the plan, breaking open meetings law. Here and across the country, official matters must be discussed by elected officials and administrators publicly, not privately. Multiple longtime sources describe the indictments as a partisan ploy on the part of the Tarrant County district attorney’s office to tarnish the image of a school board that was considering passing a plan to encourage diversity and tolerance.
Open records requests that we’ve submitted reveal that the Tarrant County DA has never prosecuted one Texas Open Meetings Act violation until now.
Smith, who, along with current school board member Cam Bryan, used Southlake Families funds to successfully run for school board in the spring of 2021, described herself as a legal advisor for the team behind the lawsuit that continues to drain resources from the school that she now represents. A Carroll school district spokesperson said Smith did not disclose any conflicts of interest when she assumed her elected position. On numerous occasions, Smith has publicly stated that she is providing legal advice to the same PAC that is suing the school district that she now represents. According to common practice, school board members have a fiduciary responsibility to always act in the best interest of the organizations they are elected to lead, and several Southlake parents who reached out to me see Smith’s active support of Southlake Families as a breach of that trust.
We have requested information about the legal fees that the school district has incurred as the result of the ongoing litigation but have not heard back.
On a recent episode of Be the People, a far right-wing show on YouTube that’s headed by Carol Swain, a retired Vanderbilt University professor, Smith described the events that led her to run for school board. During the interview, she refers to CRT. The academic theory is frequently misrepresented by right-wing conspiracy theorists who seek to slow or reverse progress on racial equity. CRT is not taught in any elementary or secondary schools anywhere in Texas.
“Right after we moved here, COVID hit,” Smith said. “It was around that time that our school district tried to pass a cultural competency action plan that sought to inject into our district a lot of critical race components, micro-aggression tracking and punishing, audits of our curriculum, metrics for teachers to be evaluated as to how ‘woke’ they are, and a lot of other things that were frightening to a lot of people, so our community banded together. We fought back. The [Southlake Families] PAC was formed so we could raise money and fight back against the CCAP. I was helping out with the legal committee.”
Southlake mother Laura Durant met with Smith and Bryan, who is also supported by Southlake Families, in June to allow Durant to voice her concerns about the mistreatment of LGBTQ+ students at Southlake’s public schools. A student-led group, Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition (SARC), that formed in response to the two racist student videos had brought long-standing frustrations on the part of LGBTQ+ students to the community’s attention. Those testimonials inspired Durant to form the coalition group Love Every Dragon, referencing the high school’s mascot.
Throughout the meeting, Smith allegedly repeatedly pressed Durant to disclose how many Carroll students identified as LGBTQ+. Durant said that she understood that, nationally, around 20% of all students identify as something other than “straight.”
“I don’t think Southlake falls within the national averages,” Smith allegedly responded without providing an explanation. Durant provided me with a copy of her unedited notes from that meeting.
Smith then allegedly suggested that Durant cease working with SARC because the students in that group had called Smith a racist. Durant replied that all oppression is related.
“I have been oppressed for my minority religion” of Mormonism, Smith allegedly replied, seeking to tie her perceived oppression to the higher suicide rates of LGBTQ+ students and too-frequent shootings of unarmed Black men and women by police officers.
“Her disdain for LGBTQ+ students was palpable,” Durant said.
Schutter, whose husband Ed Hernandez unsuccessfully ran against Smith, said school board meetings have devolved into yelling matches and verbal attacks since the religious freedom lawyer assumed office in May.
“I was stunned by the hate and division and horrible things that people were saying” at board meetings, Schutter said. “Cars have been keyed. Personal information about people who support a diversity and inclusion plan has been released publicly by” Smith’s supporters allegedly.
The hardest thing, Schutter added, has been the complete disregard for what students are saying.
A recent poll conducted by K12 Insights describes a large disconnect between Carroll students and adults over racial issues. In response to the prompt “I believe racial tension is not a major problem at my child’s school,” a majority of parents (60%) and staff (69%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement while only 46% of Carroll’s students did not, meaning that 54% of Southlake’s students see racial tensions as a serious issue at the Carroll school district.
One Southlake mother who asked not to be named to protect her privacy said Southlake Families supporters hold focus groups in churches to see which candidates can best further the PAC’s misinformation campaign against equity and diversity progress.
Carroll school board member Bryan, who took office in May, ran on Smith’s coattails during the campaign, the mother said.
“He pretty much repeats anything [Smith] says,” the source added.
Bryan did not respond to questions that I forwarded to him.
During an Aug. 2 school board meeting, Smith advised that the student code of conduct handbook be updated to only allow disciplinary actions when students commit acts that would constitute crimes, meaning that making racist statements could not result in student discipline. Former Fort Worth school board member Ashley Paz told me that Smith’s advice is oddly out of step with other area school board policies, which do not expressly allow students to make racist comments toward minority students.
The original language “is so broad,” Smith argued publicly after citing past rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.
During the discussion about amending the code of conduct, Smith warned the school board that any actions taken by the board that relate to equity and inclusion could be a violation of the ongoing temporary restraining order that resulted from the Southlake Families-funded lawsuit.
“Your recommendation is to remove any reference to cultural competence?” asked board president Moore, addressing Smith. “Your reasoning for that was because of” the temporary restraining order?
“We would be taking an affirmative action against the restraining order by adopting any language that references cultural competence,” Smith replied.
School board member David Almand resigned in July, and a special election to replace the vacated Place 7 seat will be held Tuesday, Nov. 2. Southlake Families-backed board candidate Andrew Yeager has the endorsement of former Tarrant County Republican party chair O’Hare, whose overtly racist press releases caught our attention last month (“ Splitting Hares,” Aug. 11) and led to the Weekly’s ongoing investigation into potential district attorney meddling in Southlake school board dealings (“ Conservative Cronyism,” Aug. 25).
Former Southlake mayor and prominent Republican party fundraiser Andy Wambsganss has also formerly endorsed Yeager. Support from the Wambsganss family, who are longtime Republican fundraisers, is huge, numerous Southlake sources have told me. One former Southlake elected official who asked not to be named to protect his privacy told me that Andy Wambsganss, a lawyer, maintains close connections with numerous Tarrant County judges, both in the civil and criminal courts.
Andy and wife Leigh Wambsganss hosted an October fundraiser for two Tarrant County judges, Republicans Josh Burgess and Susan McCoy, who subsequently ruled favorably for the Southlake Families-backed lawsuit that was filed by parent Garcia (“ Buying Judicial Influence?” Sep. 1). A campaign report that we recently received from the Texas Ethics Commission lists Leigh Wambsganss as one of three contribution decision-makers (meaning they can legally assign positions like treasurer) for Southlake Families when the PAC was formed.
Southlake parent Sravan Krishna said Smith’s victory has galvanized an active minority of families to push back against Southlake Families. Former teacher and community volunteer Stephanie Williams is campaigning against a PAC that has roughly $130,000 on hand, according to recent campaign finance disclosures we reviewed. We reached out to Williams’ campaign for an update on her fundraising efforts but did not hear back by press time.
Williams is a “non-political candidate,” Krishna said. “She is all about putting the children first.”
The Southlake Families agenda, he continued, is focused on defunding public schools by funding board members who support school voucher programs that allow parents to use public tax dollars to subsidize the tuition of private and religious schools. A statewide voucher program that would pull money from public school districts and transfer them to private schools is frequently proposed during Texas legislative sessions but is yet to pass.
As Krishna and his supporters prepare for November’s school board election, the school district’s appeal of the ongoing restraining order remains stalled. We called Tarrant County’s Second Court of Appeals, and a clerk said the judges have heard the details of the case but have not issued a ruling.
One friend of school board president Moore who asked not to be named said lawyers with the local DA recently offered Moore a deal that effectively serves the political goals of Southlake Families’ powerful and well-connected donors.
“Michelle Moore and I had a conversation about how the DA is involved with the criminal charges,” the confidential source said, referring to politicized meddling by county prosecutors. Moore allegedly “said she knew because she was told [by a county prosecutor] that [the charges] would all go away if she would just resign.”
The offer allegedly has been made more than once, the source told me.
Moore, perhaps due to the pending litigation, did not return my requests for comment.
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