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In bitterly divided election in Southlake, Texas, opponents of anti-racism education win big



SOUTHLAKE, TX — Nine months after officials in the affluent Carroll Independent School District introduced a proposal to combat racial and cultural intolerance in schools, voters delivered a resounding victory Saturday to a slate of school board and City Council candidates who opposed the plan.

In an unusually bitter campaign that echoed a growing national divide over how to address issues of race, gender and sexuality in schools, candidates in the city of Southlake were split between two camps: those who supported new diversity and inclusion training requirements for Carroll students and teachers and those backed by a political action committee that was formed last year to defeat the plan.

On one side, progressives argued that curriculum and disciplinary changes were needed to make all children feel safe and welcome in Carroll, a mostly white but quickly diversifying school district. On the other, conservatives in Southlake rejected the school diversity plan as an effort to indoctrinate students with a far-left ideology that, according to some, would institutionalize discrimination against white children and those with conservative Christian values.

Candidates and voters on both sides described the election as a “fork in the road” for Southlake, a wealthy suburb 30 miles northwest of Dallas. “So goes Southlake,” a local conservative commentator warned in the weeks leading up to the election, “so goes the rest of America.”

In the end, the contest was not close. Candidates backed by the conservative Southlake Families PAC, which has raised more than $200,000 since last summer, won every race by about 70 percent to 30 percent, including those for two school board positions, two City Council seats and mayor. More than 9,000 voters cast ballots, three times as many as in similar contests in the past.

Hannah Smith, a prominent Southlake lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, defeated Ed Hernandez, a business consultant, to win a seat on the Carroll school board. In a statement to NBC News on Sunday, Smith, who is white, said the election “was a referendum on those who put personal politics and divisive philosophies ahead of Carroll ISD students and families, and their common American heritage and Texas values.”

“The voters have come together in record-breaking numbers to restore unity,” Smith said. “By a landslide vote, they don’t want racially divisive critical race theory taught to their children or forced on their teachers. Voters agreed with my positive vision of our community and its future.”

Hernandez and other candidates running in support of new diversity and inclusion programs said they were not particularly surprised by the outcome in a historically conservative city where about two-thirds of voters backed President Donald Trump last year, but they were dismayed by the margin of their defeat.

Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico, said he worries about the signal the outcome sends to dozens of Carroll high school students and recent graduates who came forward with stories about racist and anti-gay bullying over the past two years. To demonstrate the need for change, members of the student-led Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition collected more than 300 accounts from current and former Carroll students last year who said they had been mistreated because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

“I don’t want to think about all these kids that shared their stories, their testimonies,” Hernandez said, growing emotional Saturday moments after having learned the election results. “I don’t want to think about that right now, because it’s really, really hard for me. I feel really bad for all those kids, every single one of them that shared a story. I don’t have any words for them.”

The fight in Southlake dates to the fall of 2018, when a video of white Carroll high school students chanting the N-word went viral, making national headlines. In the aftermath, school leaders hosted listening sessions with students and parents and appointed a committee of 63 community volunteers to come up with a plan to make Carroll more welcoming for students from diverse backgrounds.

The effort was, in part, a recognition of changing demographics. Southlake’s population has tripled to more than 31,000 over the past three decades, driven in part by immigrants from South Asia drawn to the area by high-paying jobs and highly ranked schools. Black residents make up less than 2 percent of the population in a city where the median household income is more than $230,000 and 74 percent of residents are white.

The result of the school diversity committee’s work, a 34-page document called the Cultural Competency Action Plan, was released last summer, in the midst of a pandemic, a heated presidential election and a broader national reckoning over racism following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The plan called for mandatory cultural sensitivity training for all Carroll students and teachers, a formal process to report and track incidents of racist bullying and changes to the code of conduct to hold students accountable for acts of discrimination. The proposal also suggested creating the position of director of equity and inclusion to oversee the district’s efforts.

The plan was met with swift and fierce opposition. For months, conservative parents packed school board meetings, decrying aspects of the proposal that they said would have created “diversity police” and amounted to “reverse racism.” Members of the Southlake Families PAC, which was formed within days of the plan’s release, took particular issue with a district proposal to track incidents of microaggressions — subtle, indirect and sometimes unintentional incidents of discrimination.

At a board meeting, a white father said he supported introducing children to different cultures but argued that the district’s plan would instead teach students “how to be a victim” and force them to adopt “a liberal ideology.” Several parents said the plan would infringe on their Christian values by teaching children about issues affecting gay and transgender classmates. Others warned that the board had awakened Southlake’s “silent majority.”

Southlake Families PAC backed a mother’s lawsuit against the district and in December won a temporary restraining order that put the diversity plan on hold. Then, last month, two members of the school board who had supported the plan were indicted by a Tarrant County grand jury, which accused them of having violated the Texas open meetings law, a misdemeanor, after opponents of the diversity plan obtained texts showing that the members had messaged one another before they voted on it.

The issue became the defining theme of Southlake’s typically low-key municipal elections this spring, dividing neighbors and former friends. The Tarrant County Democratic Party briefly posted and then deleted an image on social media labeling all of the candidates who opposed the diversity plan as “racist.” Southlake Families PAC, meanwhile, sent out mailers accusing the pro-diversity plan candidates of pushing for “radical socialism” in Southlake.

The acrimony landed the city in the national spotlight ahead of Election Day, with a flurry of stories appearing on right-wing news sites describing the contest as a test for a bigger national fight over anti-racism programs in schools.

“This is happening everywhere,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said during a segment Tuesday about Carroll’s diversity plan and the resulting blowback. “They’ll come in, they’ll wreck your school, they’ll hurt your children, they’ll take your money, they’ll bully you, and no one does anything. And I’m just so grateful to hear of parents who are doing something.”

As a steady stream of Southlake voters headed to cast ballots at Town Hall on Saturday, many described the vote’s significance. “It’s a great town,” a woman shouted over her shoulder after declining to speak to reporters. “I want to keep it that way.”

Jason Rudman, a white father of two who voted for the conservative slate of candidates, said he was disappointed by the political discourse in town.

“What’s most important to me is that we have dialogue,” said Rudman, whose children attend private school. “I don’t feel like we’re at a place right now where either side is talking to the other side. I feel like people are lobbing grenades back and forth, and to me, that’s the most important thing that needs to be dealt with.”

At the Cambria Hotel, where pro-diversity plan candidates and their supporters gathered Saturday, the election results party turned somber shortly after 7 p.m. as news of the outcome swept through the room. In the race for mayor, conservative John Huffman won 71 percent of the vote to defeat Debra Edmondson. Huffman, who criticized the diversity plan while serving on the Southlake City Council, did not respond to a message requesting comment.

Jennifer Hough, a white mother of two Carroll students who campaigned in support of the diversity proposal, said she was angry and heartbroken.

“Because it feels like hate wins,” Hough said. “Like I said, we’ll get mad, and then we’ll regroup and we’ll figure out where we go now. The town is changing. More people are moving in. So it’s not going to be like this forever.”

Meanwhile, student members of the Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition, which was organized last year to demand changes at Carroll, said they were upset by the results but determined to keep pushing for change.

“I’m not surprised, but I’m disturbed,” said Nikki Olaleye, a Black 12th grade student at Carroll Senior High School, who has been an outspoken critic of the school system’s handling of racist and anti-gay bullying. “I don’t think that this is time to be throwing a pity party. We are just ready to keep moving forward and doing what we can, using our voices.”