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PACs seek unprecedented influence in school races


Partisan politics are involved in a local school board/school bond election like never before in Wise County.

A mass text email message using inflammatory language campaigning for two Decatur School Board candidates prompted a response from the superintendent, and that response now has a local conservative political group claiming he broke Texas Ethics Commission rules on using taxpayer dollars to campaign for or against school board candidates.

But questions also remain around the original text message, including who paid for it, approved it and sent it out at the beginning of early voting.

Decatur voters also received mailed campaign materials from a newly-formed PAC which includes topics popular with conservative advocates around the state, but information about that PAC, including donor and spending information, has also been difficult to locate. One thing we do know is the campaign treasurer is the wife of a current school board member.

Since financial transparency has been brought up as an issue among several board members running for and currently sitting on the school board, the Messenger took a closer look into how much is being spent and who is funding local campaigns in this Decatur school election cycle.

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A few weeks ago, signs both supporting and opposing the $331.2 million bond package in Decatur ISD began popping up in and around Decatur. Those signs are funded by two different types of political action committees, or PACs.

The PAC supporting the bond — DISD Room to Learn, Room to Grow — is a new group known as a Specific-Purpose Action Committee, or SPAC. The Trinity Conservative Coalition, which funded the signs in opposition of the school bond, is an existing PAC, known as a General-Purpose Action Committee, or GPAC.

Campaign finance reports are required for every PAC and candidate participating in the May 6 election, and information from those reports are included later in this article.

Local PAC involvement in school bond issues is nothing new — for instance, the Bridgeport Children Now PAC is currently raising money and spending it on campaign material in support of that district’s $185 million bond issue, and previous school bond elections in Decatur have resulted in similar PACs, nearly always in support of a bond issue.

Traditionally, partisan groups and PACs have not become involved in school district issues, and for good reason, according to Dax Gonzalez, director of government relations for the Texas Association of School Boards. He pointed out that schools serve all kids no matter if they come from a Republican household or a Democratic household.

The role of the board is governance — setting goals and monitoring the administration’s progress toward reaching those goals, he said, adding that focus on other things, like politics instead of good governance, can lead to problems.

“Anything that gets in the way of effective governance, of working together toward these common goals for the district, is problematic because it takes away from their true work, which is ensuring positive outcomes for every student,” Gonzalez said. “So whether it be partisan politics or not focusing on goals and instead focusing on individual projects or agendas people may have, those kinds of things get in the way of the board working together for the betterment of the district.”

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On Tuesday, April 25, a mass campaign text message was sent out in support of two candidates in the Decatur School Board race.

“Sandi Schneider and Jeremy Duncan are both parents and conservative outsiders who will fight to get the WOKE POLITICS out of our schools. We need to get back to basics and EDUCATE, NOT indoctrinate, our children,” the text message said in part, according to a copy of the text sent to the Messenger by a reader.

Schneider is a candidate for Place 3 along with Rod Zuniga, and Duncan is running for Place 4 against school board president Kristy Campbell.

The text message also stated the two candidates would “advance policies” that eliminate porn and explicit material, remove gender ideology, protect girls sports, teach patriotic civics and ban critical race theory.

A mass text message was sent last week, but it did not include the required information about its source.

Chapter 255.001 of the Texas Election Code requires any political advertising to be clearly listed as political advertising and is required to list the full name of the person who paid for the political advertising, the political committee authorizing the political advertising, or the candidate or specific-purpose committee supporting the candidate, if the political advertising is authorized by the candidate.

The text message did not appear to have any of that information listed.

The Messenger tried calling and texting the number associated with the text message, but it was not a working number. Messages were sent to both Schneider and Duncan asking them if they knew who sent the text and if they approved it before it was distributed. Both said Tuesday that their campaigns did not send out the message, and they had no knowledge of the content of the text prior to it being sent.

On Wednesday, April 26, Decatur Superintendent Chad Jones sent an email to parents in response to the text message.

“Decatur ISD teachers do not teach woke politics nor do we indoctrinate children. We teach the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) that are approved by the Texas Education Agency and these educators do it with a deep passion and genuine desire to make your children successful,” the letter read in part.

The letter goes on to say that “numerous teachers and staff members” had become upset by the message, wondering if that is what people thought they did.

“When our district and teachers come under fire, I want every staff member and citizen of Decatur to know that they have a superintendent who will back them when they are unjustly called out as a group for actions or activities that are false and damaging to their personal reputations and that of Decatur ISD,” Jones stated in the letter.

The following day, Schneider and Duncan both addressed the text message and Jones’ response on their campaign Facebook pages.

“I DO NOT believe that DISD teachers are ‘woke,’” Schneider wrote in the post. “I do not believe that DISD is a ‘woke’ district. It was never my intention to make teachers feel villainized and or accused of teaching woke politics or indoctrinating children.”

Duncan provided a similar message in his post.

“I never had, or will, have ill intentions towards our educators,” the post stated. “I want to advocate and support you all! Words have been twisted and misconstrued, and I whole heartedly want all educators to know that I am here for you and I invite anyone to please reach out to further discuss this matter.”

Under the comments for both posts, several people had asked for more clarification about the mass text message, but neither candidate had directly responded to any of the posts as of Tuesday, and Schneider has apparently now turned off comments on the post.

On Friday, the Wise County Conservatives group — one of six North Texas conservative groups who make up the Trinity Conservative Coalition — released a message on its social media accounts saying Jones “weaponized the district and your tax dollars against two conservative candidates” by using district resources to respond to a political advertisement sent from “a general political action committee.” The WCC said by doing so, Jones had broken Texas Ethics Commission rules, opening up the district for fines and lawsuits.

“The text message did not accuse any DISD teacher of being WOKE, but Superintendent Jones twisted the message to state that it did,” the WCC statement read.

The letter goes on to mention that members of the conservative group have spoken during public forum at numerous meetings over the past year, requesting the school board “implement policies to protect teachers and students in the district from radical WOKE agendas such as allowing kids identifying as a gender not on their birth certificate to use opposite sex bathrooms or policies to protect teachers and students from having to use preferred pronouns.”

While those topics have not been on any of the past school board agendas, following several similar public comments at the April 17 school board meeting, Place 1 board member Scott Koehler requested that a number of topics be placed on this month’s agenda, including age appropriate books, gender fluidity and critical race theory. The request came after a back-and-forth discussion on board policy between Koehler and Campbell which ended with Campbell calling an approximately 10-minute “recess” to discuss the issue with the board behind closed doors prior to continuing with the open meeting.

The WCC message also included a call to action to its members.

“The lack of protective policies by the board along with the recent abuse of position by the superintendent make it clear that new leadership is needed in the Decatur ISD school board,” the WCC letter states, just before asking people to call the superintendent’s office to “express your disappointment.”

The letter also included the original mass text message as well as Jones’ letter in response.

The Messenger reached out to WCC co-founder Andy Hopper asking if the group knew which GPAC sent the April 25 mass text message, and the paper received a response that was attributed to the WCC board of directors.

“It is WCC’s understanding that the candidates did not send out the text and that the text came from an outside PAC. We don’t know the name of the PAC, who formed it, or the treasurer,” the statement said in its entirety.

The message sent Friday was not the first time the group had addressed school district issues during this election cycle.

According to the WCC website, the group sent questionnaires to every local candidate for city council and school board races in which it asked candidates about a number of conservative issues such as critical race theory, transgender issues and graphic sexual content in schools.

On April 12, a WCC Facebook post provided a link to the candidate answers along with a list of who participated, including Duncan and Schneider.

“WCC is not endorsing or recommending this time around, but wanted to make the decision making process easier for voters,” the post read in part above an image that contained the disclaimer “Political Ad Paid for by Wise County Conservatives PAC.”

The Texas Ethics Commission website did not have a campaign finance report on file for the Wise County Conservatives PAC for the current election cycle, with the last report from the group filed in January.

The Messenger contacted the WCC board and was told, “Wise County Conservatives PAC was not required to submit a TEC report for this election.”

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On Monday, Decatur residents received a mailed campaign flier from the Decatur ISD Parents Unite PAC in support of both Schneider and Duncan. The flier contained identical photos and similar graphic design to the mass text message sent out a week earlier.

“Elect a pair of reformers” the flier states while signaling its support for a number of issues, including those listed in the earlier text message.

The Messenger searched the Texas Ethics Commission website and found a new listing for Decatur ISD Parents Unite listed as a General-Purpose Political Action Committee under the filer ID of 00087681, registered in Decatur. However, no campaign finance reports for the newly-formed PAC were immediately available.

The Messenger reached out to the Texas Ethics Commission seeking more information about the Decatur ISD Parents Unite PAC and also asked if any official complaints had been made against Supt. Jones or the Decatur school district regarding the use of taxpayer funds for campaign purposes.

The Commission responded with paperwork showing Tara Koehler, wife of board member Scott Koehler, as the treasurer for Decatur ISD Parents Unite. The records appear to show the filing was sent to the Commission on April 21 and processed Monday, May 1.

The Messenger reached out to Tara Koehler Tuesday with a list of questions about the PAC, including information on donors and expenditures and if it is responsible for sending the April 25 mass text message.

A response had not been received by press deadline.

In regards to any complaint filed against Jones, Jeremy Tinley, the general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission, said the sworn complaint process is confidential and the Commission “does not confirm or deny the existence of a complaint.” A complaint becomes public, he explained, when it proceeds to a formal hearing or results in finding a violation that is neither technical or “de minimis,” meaning it is too small or trivial to be considered.

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Because both bond PACs are participating in elections on the May 6 ballot, they are required to file campaign finance reports with the Texas Ethics Commission.

According to information on the Texas Ethics Commission website, PACs involved in an election are required to file reports on a semi-annual basis (in January and July) as well as 30 days and eight days before an election they are involved in.

The DISD Room to Learn, Room to Grow PAC filed a 30-day report on April 6 showing Andrew Rottner as the campaign treasurer, listing his Decatur home address for both his street and mailing address. The report showed no contributions and no expenditures for March 1 through March 27.

A 30-day report could not be found for the Trinity Conservative Coalition PAC.

Friday was another reporting deadline, eight days prior to the election, and reports for both PACs were found.

The DISD Room to Learn, Room To Grow PAC listed $46,600 in contributions and $27,585.74 in expenditures for the time period of March 28 to April 26.

Contributions include $10,000 from C.L. Gage Jr. of Decatur; $5,000 each from DRI Enterprises of Decatur and Christopher Hennesay of Springtown; $3,000 from Raymond Wood of Decatur; $1,500 (over two donations) from the Alane Trust of Wichita Falls; $1,000 each from Roy J. Eaton* of Decatur, JMD Consulting of Decatur, Andrew J. Rottner of Decatur and Jason Wren of Decatur; $750 each from Carey Williams of Decatur and Colby Williams of Decatur; $500 each from Decatur Self Storage, the John Trust of Wichita Falls, the Suzanne Trust of Wichita Falls and Donald Willis of Ponder; $250 from Gary Cocanougher of Decatur; and $100 from Arthur Fred Renfro Jr. of Decatur. (Editor’s note: Eaton lists his occupation as retired, but he maintains his title of president and publisher of the Wise County Messenger.) 

The report also lists the following under contributions from corporation or labor organizations: $5,000 from DSB Decatur Holdings; $3,000 from Cobb Rental and Equipment; $2,500 each from Karl Klement Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep and Karl Klement Ford; $1,000 from Chapman Irrigation and Lawn Care; and $250 from Cocanougher Properties, all of Decatur.

Expenditures include a total of $22,604.03 with iOffice in Decatur for marketing materials; a total of $3,375 with the Wise County Messenger in Decatur for advertising; a total of $1,392.60 with the City of Decatur for events at the Decatur Conference Center; $36.63 with Lowe’s in Decatur for zip ties for signs; and $27.48 with Walmart in Decatur for sign supplies.

Under unpaid incurred obligations is a $150 amount to the Decatur Rotary Club for a Home and Lawn Show booth.

The Trinity Conservative Coalition’s eight-day report lists Frank C. Wells of Decatur as campaign treasurer. The address listed for both street address and mailing address is 1816 S. FM 51 Ste. 400-165, which appears to be a private mailbox at the FedEx Pack N Mail location in Decatur.

The PAC listed $1,000 in contributions and $416.76 in expenditures for the March 28 to April 26 time period.

Contributions include a total of $350 from Richard Lifto of Decatur; $250 from Blanca Tuma of Decatur; and $100 each from Mike Drury of Decatur, Shellie Ferguson of Decatur, Rocky Pack of Bridgeport and Cathy Wells of Decatur.

Expenditures include $416.76 with Signwise in Decatur for yard signs.

Candidates in the May 6 election are required to appoint a campaign treasurer, and they are required to file subsequent campaign finance reports at the school district prior to the election if they accept more than $940 in contributions or spend more than $940.

All four candidates for Decatur School Board filed a campaign treasurer appointment along with a statement saying they did not intend to go above the $940 amount in the campaign. State law allows candidates to serve as their own treasurer.

In Place 3 on the Decatur School Board, Zuniga named Cary Bohn as his campaign treasurer. Schneider did not list a separate campaign treasurer, according to public records.

In Place 4, Campbell listed Lynnette Shaw as campaign treasurer. Duncan did not list a separate campaign treasurer.

Campbell later filed an amended campaign finance report when she exceeded the $940 in campaign spending.

The reports show no contributions and $1,693.03 in expenditures.

Expenditures include at total of $729.82 with iOffice in Decatur for political advertising signs and fliers, $555.32 with The Shop in Decatur for political advertising signs, a total of $365 with the Wise County Messenger for advertising and $42.01 with Walmart in Decatur for political advertising (paper and ink).

The next campaign finance report deadline for PACs and candidates is the July 17 semiannual report.

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