The Southlake Playbook
“I’ve been caught up in other people’s agendas,” reads a pinned message on James Whitfield’s Twitter page. “My only agenda is serving kids and making sure that every student walking those halls has access to a great education.”
Grapevine-Colleyville’s school board recently voted to not renew Whitfield’s contract, a decision that effectively means termination. Whitfield’s supporters believe that the board’s vote signifies tacit support for a national right-wing effort to push back on racial equity work within public school systems.
Last year, Whitfield, who was the high school’s first Black principal, penned an open letter to the Grapevine-Colleyville school community. Across the country, emotions were high following the murder of George Floyd that May.
“Education is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism,” Whitfield wrote at the time. “It’s a necessary conduit to get ‘liberty and justice for all.’ ”
The letter was well received by the community at the time, Whitfield recently told the Texas Tribune. The principal was blindsided this summer when parents began trying to discredit him by using the letter and false narratives about Critical Race Theory (CRT), the academic framework for understanding the role of racism in American society and government.
Reporting by the Texas Tribune, Daily Beast, and other publications found the accusations against Whitfield to be baseless. The fake controversy surrounding CRT, according to New York Times writer and noted author Wajahat Ali, is “pure projection” by a white supremacist movement that is emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidency and the slew of Republican leaders who have embraced lies about the “stolen” 2020 presidential election and other false narratives as a means of clinging to power.
“Projection is an unconscious self-defense mechanism in which people attribute their worst motives and inclinations to others,” Ali wrote for Daily Beast. “It allows the person to avoid responsibility as well as feelings of guilt and wrongdoing.”
As egregious as Whitefield’s mistreatment was, no North Texas school district has seen the level of sophisticated attacks on racial equity work that Southlake has. Many of the tactics used by powerbrokers in the tony suburb in Northeast Tarrant County are beginning to surface in Fort Worth, one current Fort Worth school district employee told us.
Last year, Carroll school district’s seven board members, who govern Southlake’s public school system, were preparing to review and potentially implement the district’s Cultural Competence Action Plan (CCAP), which is effectively a road map for addressing lingering racism in the school district. Multiple viral videos of Southlake high school students chanting the n-word in 2018 and 2019 put Southlake in the national spotlight.
Reactionary and affluent Southlake parents were able to effectively halt the implementation of CCAP by targeting alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, the state law that dictates how boards discuss matters of public interest, by school board members. After pooling funds through Southlake Families PAC, which was founded by current county commissioner Tim O’Hare, a tight-knit and well-connected cohort of Republicans filed a lawsuit against Carroll school district that resulted in an ongoing restraining order that prohibits the school board from discussing CCAP and race-related topics (“ Right-Wing Extremists Taking Over Carroll School District?” Sep. 15).
“Three years ago, [the radicalized right] would not have thought they could be that vocal against” the racial equity work Fort Worth school district is also conducting, the employee told us on condition of anonymity. “After Southlake, that all changed.”
Since 2016, the Fort Worth school district has made significant strides in drafting and implementing racial equity language in school policy. The school district’s Racial Equity Committee has actively provided advice to the school board for the past five years. In 2020, the board unanimously passed a resolution that stated that the school district “has the power and the duty to be part of the solution to dismantle institutional racism on behalf of the children we serve and the community in which we all live.”
Rather than openly attack those initiatives, critics of equity and inclusion are going after Fort Worth school district’s superintendent and the district’s lackluster academic ratings, the employee alleges. The district currently has an overall grade of “C,” according to state accountability ratings.
Indeed, public comments by parents at school board meetings frequently weave accusations that CRT is taught in school with criticisms of local public school performance. Around 40 parents rallied in late August to rebuke Superintendent Kent Scribner’s performance.
“The biggest problem that the [district] is facing is failing student performance,” said Carlos Turcios, one of the event’s organizers, during the August meeting.
A cursory glance at Turcios’ Facebook page showed that he attended a recent “Rally for a New FWISD Superintendent!” The post does not mention the exact location and date of the event, but it does list O’Hare as one of the speakers. O’Hare’s press releases are a trove of lies about his opponent, former Mayor Betsy Price, who is widely expected to trounce O’Hare in the upcoming March Republican primary (“ Splitting Hares,” Aug 11). One former Southlake elected official described O’Hare as the mastermind behind the successful effort to halt progress on Carroll school district’s CCAP. Photos from the event show attendees holding posters that read, “It’s time for change. Fire Scribner.”
Fort Worth’s school board recently voted to renew the superintendent’s contract. The school district employee said the upcoming Nov. 2 school bond election offers further ammunition for proponents of CRT misinformation to attack the Fort Wort school district. The $1.49 billion bond package includes four separate propositions that are focused on updating the district’s middle schools. Information about the bond can be found at FWISD.org/Bond.
Discrediting the Fort Worth school district paves the way for flipping board seats in favor of elected officials who are willing to push back against racial equity and pro-LGBTQ+ school policies, the employee said. Currently, he continued, only board members Roxanne Martinez, Quinton Phillips, and Jacinto Ramos understand the ideological battle that Fort Worth’s public schools will face in the coming months and years.
“You have people with lots of money who don’t like the progressive turn of the last five, six years with regards to equity and gender issues,” he said. “I think the [perceived successes] in the suburbs made them rise up.”
Speaking to one of our reporters in July, longtime educator Shawn Lassiter echoed much of what the school district employee told us. After several years of work as a Fort Worth school district administrator, Lassiter was hired by Leadership ISD in 2019 as the nonprofit’s chief of equity and innovation. Leadership ISD trains school leaders on effective equity practices and has worked with several current Fort Worth schools.
“We have been preparing for this type of backlash for a long time,” she said. “If anything, Texas loves to lead the way in stuff like this. We are continuing to build our coalition. We continue to do our work. We are in it for the long haul. I don’t know if the other group is. I think that the [uproar over CRT] will fade away, but it will shape up in another way. It’s about racism. It’s about separating people. It’s about not wanting to tell the truth about history.”
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not necessarily the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions will be edited for factuality and clarity.