Carlos Turcios became outspoken about Fort Worth ISD when he was a 15-year-old student trying to keep his overcrowded high school as one campus.
Five years ago, he rallied support against that effort and succeeded in keeping the World Languages Institute whole. Turcios, a 2020 graduate of the district, hasn’t stopped voicing his opinion on Fort Worth ISD.
Turcios, now 20, recently organized a group of residents who wanted to send a vote of no confidence to the district and Superintendent Kent Scribner by tanking the district’s $1.5 billion bond package. Benefiting from a statewide and national climate opposing school boards, they convinced enough voters to nearly reject the entirety of Fort Worth ISD’s bond — all without a political action committee, consultants and tens of thousands of dollars.
“All we did was literally make some flyers. Some parents made some yard signs. We used our connections with neighborhoods,” Turcios said. “That’s how we did it.”
The bond election’s outcome accentuated many residents’ growing disappointment and dissatisfaction with a school district that has promised wide-sweeping academic improvements and has yet to deliver on them. District officials, though, blamed the result on an uncertain economy and mandated ballot language about the bond causing a tax rate increase.
School boards have become the new battleground in politics. People are increasingly disgruntled with the direction of schools and have channeled their anger into the voting booth, said Thomas Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
A 57-vote margin amplifies that feeling, he added.
“You can’t look at the closeness of the bond election as anything other than a symptom of the unhappiness that is out there,” Marshall said. “When you get low turnout and widespread national unhappiness with school boards, you’re going to get a wake-up call.”
Until this year, every bond Fort Worth ISD has proposed since at least 1999 has been approved. The trio of proposals that failed focused on upgrades for extracurricular buildings, including fine arts centers and stadiums.
Across the state, more than half of school districts saw their bond packages fail. The November ballot featured 110 propositions — 58 were rejected. However, voters approved $5.3 billion across 52 bond proposals — 23% of which was Fort Worth ISD’s Proposition A.
Only 9% of the 264,949 registered voters in Fort Worth ISD cast a ballot in the Nov. 2 bond election. Although bond opponents rejected three proposals, Scribner said, their votes represent a small portion of the district.
“That’s not a mandate against the Fort Worth ISD,” the superintendent said.
Each of Fort Worth ISD’s propositions had a state-mandated sentence accompanying them: “This is a property tax increase.” Lawmakers added the requirement in 2019 when they passed House Bill 3. Scribner said that language had a chilling effect on the results.
The bond is not expected to increase the debt service tax rate, one of two rates that make up the total property tax. However, residents likely will have higher tax bills to Fort Worth ISD because of increasing property appraisal. This year, appraisals grew by 8.2%.
“Despite our best efforts to educate voters about this, it was difficult for many to reconcile the fact that those words were there in black and white on an official state document,” Scribner said.
District leaders have acknowledged their approach to the bond left plenty of room for improvement. While glad voters narrowly approved $1.2 billion in campus improvements, school board President Tobi Jackson, took responsibility for a lackluster election.
School districts are used to going under the radar, focusing on a small audience of observers and patting themselves on the back, Marshall said. Those days appear to be ending as scrutiny increases over curriculum and spending, the political science professor said.
The political environment is the perfect storm for people to turn their attention to school districts. Nationally, conservatives have alleged critical race theory, an academic concept that looks at how racism has shaped government and society in the United States, is taught in K-12 schools. Add in high inflation, an unpopular president, low turnout and just an overall negative year, and it means a much tougher time trying to convince voters a $1.5 billion bond is needed, Marshall said.
The Rev. Charles Johnson led the Our Kids Our Future PAC, the group responsible for campaigning in favor of the bond. He wasn’t surprised the shoestring opposition effort was mostly successful because of the general anti-public education atmosphere in the state and nation.
“They didn’t need to have a monied and organized opposition — they didn’t need it,” Johnson said. “They had the opposition from the former president right on down to the governor.”
“And it won anyway,” Johnson added.
Marshall, the professor, described the results as coming pretty close to a vote of no confidence on trustees and the district.
Johnson disagreed with the idea that voters have a gloomy outlook on Fort Worth ISD.
“You don’t criticize the Dallas Cowboys for a six-point win over an opponent. You take the win, and that’s what we’re doing,” Johnson said.
Turcios, the Fort Worth ISD graduate, said the bond’s narrow victory was an indictment of Scribner and how he has led the district as superintendent. Turcios was hopeful when Scribner came to the district in 2015. Then the superintendent led the district from crisis to crisis while student outcomes languished, Turcios said.
Betsy Price, Fort Worth mayor for 10 years, shares Turcios’s opinion. Price, now vying for Tarrant County judge, was once among one of Scribner’s allies. At a Republican event this month, Price said she had lost confidence in the superintendent because of the district’s academic performance.
“I started out seven years ago supporting Kent, but I’ve got to tell you that’s come pretty much to a screeching halt,” Price said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Kent isn’t here in a few months.”
Fort Worth ISD parent Layne Craig voted for all four propositions. She was disappointed the three extracurricular-focused proposals failed, but Prop A was needed most to take care of basic school needs.
Craig views bond opponents as taking out their anger at Scribner by depriving students of some facility improvements that are sorely needed.
“It’s so disingenuous because it’s sticking it to a superintendent they don’t like on the backs of kids, who need to be able to go to schools that are adequately built and maintained and have adequate arts and sports,” Craig said.
Changes in district leadership are relatively common in the aftermath of unsatisfactory bond elections, Marshall said. In 2020, the Midland ISD school board terminated its contract with its superintendent partially because of a failed bond election.
Regardless of Scribner’s future, Turcios doesn’t plan to let up on his school district. He says something has to give in Fort Worth ISD. He wants district leaders to start delivering results.
That reality is not lost on the school board president as the 2021 bond program moves from voting to construction. Fort Worth ISD and trustees plan to better communicate Proposition A as it becomes a reality over the next few years, Jackson said. She expects more input from educators, students and the community, as well as improved messaging from the district.
If not, Turcios vowed to mobilize voters for the May 2023 election, when four school board seats are on the ballot.
“This should send a warning to trustees that if they don’t focus on students, some seats will be flipped in 2023,” he said.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.