On the campaign trail — and in the opening remarks of a May 25 debate — Fort Worth ISD school board incumbent CJ Evans and challenger Kevin Lynch offered fairly similar campaign promises and platforms. 

Last fall, Evans said, Lynch reached out to have coffee. He told her he was going to run for her District 5 seat on the Fort Worth ISD school board. Evans said she respected him telling her his plans and thanked him for doing so.

“I asked him why,” she said, “and he essentially repeated my platform back to me.”

She then asked him how he’d do it better, to which Evans said he didn’t have an answer.

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District 5 runoff

Fort Worth ISD’s District 5 voters turned out at higher rates in the last election cycle than in Districts 2 and 3. Now, incumbent CJ Evans and challenger Kevin Lynch are asking them to return to the polls for the runoff election on June 10 to choose between them.

Election Day is June 10 and early voting lasts from May 30 through June 6.

“My opponent is the nicest guy in Fort Worth,” Evans said. “But please don’t vote for him because he is nice. Please vote for the person who is most qualified for the seat.”

Her experience, which includes one term on the school board, is what sets her apart, she said. Her advocacy for fiscal transparency is what led trustees to commit to a balanced budget, Evans said.  

But Lynch said the proof is “in the pudding,” and actions speak louder than words. On Election Day, Lynch secured 45.46% of the 5,759 votes cast in District 5 and Evans 31.62%. 

If everyone was happy with where things are in Fort Worth ISD, changes wouldn’t be needed, Lynch said. 

He mentors some students in the district, Lynch said, and one of them can’t read.

“It breaks my heart,” he said.

Change needs to happen, Lynch said, including the budget the board recently proposed with a $50 million deficit.

The board needs more accounting expertise during budgeting, which Lynch said he can provide with his experience. But it also needs to engage the community and auditors in making the budget.

 Evans said that the budget deficit is not accurate.

In a way, both are correct. The legislative session could impact the budget with different laws on the table. Without any law changes, the proposed 2023-24 general fund budget would have a $53.6 million deficit that the district would cover with its reserves of $357.6 million. The district’s reserves would decrease to $304 million.

With changes, the proposed general fund budget deficit would be more than $41.7 million and lower reserves to $315.9 million.

“I’m going to treat this money within this district like it’s my own,” Lynch said. “If we don’t have the money, we’re not going to spend the money.”

Evans opened her remarks by reflecting on why she ran four years ago: to continue the good things happening in Fort Worth ISD and work to better “where the water needs to rise.” For her, those areas include elementary reading levels, fiscal transparency and responsibility and parental engagement.

Lynch opened by saying some things need to change, which prompted him to run. With that in mind, he said he launched a campaign focused on academic excellence, fiscal transparency and responsibility, and building stronger communities around schools.

School closures are coming. What do the candidates know?

Fort Worth ISD is facing declining enrollment that will continue to dip. To combat this, the district will have to close schools.

The board has remained tight-lipped on what campuses will close and when.

Lynch knows trustees have to make hard decisions, and he wants them to be transparent and engage the community in making those decisions.

Moving forward, Lynch wants to see a master plan that trustees stick to when making decisions that are shared with the public.

Evans said she did not know what schools would close. She agreed with Lynch that transparency is important.

She then addressed the declining enrollment in Fort Worth ISD and said the decline will stop when Fort Worth ISD is an A+ district with A-rated schools in every community..

Conflict of interest concerns linger

The Fort Worth ISD school board has gone back and forth on approving and repealing stricter conflict of interest policies. 

Political action committees Great Schools Great Cities and Fort Worth Excellence have donated thousands of dollars in the District 5 race. Former trustee Judy Needham’s Great Schools Great Cities PAC donated $2,000 to Evans and $10,000 to Lynch.

Before responding to a question about how much special interest influences the race, Evans paused.

“I do ask myself, and, when I talk with voters I ask them, is my opponent this far in the race standing on his own?” she said, “or because he’s backed by historical political figures in this town? Is he this far in the election because he’s the most qualified or because he’s nice?” 

Lynch emphasized that he’s not a politician, and he’s running for the school board to make a difference for kids.

“Anyone that has donated to my campaign, I let them know who I am, what I stand for, what I’m about,” Lynch said. “And nobody contributing to my campaign is going to change my decisions.”

The two also clashed on policies for choosing vendors for the district. Evans stressed that the board has a policy in place to limit donations from vendors to trustees and said the district has a process to choose and present vendors to the board. 

However, she does see room for improvement or tightening policies.

Lynch said the board does not get enough information before making decisions.

“There’s not a lot of information given other than it sounds good on paper,” Lynch said. “As a board, it’s our duty to make sure we know who the vendors are.”

Improving literacy

Parents and community advocates are trying to push Fort Worth ISD to improve reading scores on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness. 

While the school board’s main functions are the budget, and hiring and firing the superintendent, the community presses the board to fix reading scores at board meetings. Candidates said what they can do to help includes resource allocation and parental communication.

Saturday school and summer school both are resources that Evans believes help literacy.

She also said sometimes it costs more to improve literacy, such as by lowering the teacher-to-student ratio, but it’s worth that expense.

Lynch said every parent should get a letter about their child’s progress. 

“A lot of parents think their kids are where they need to be going on to the next grade,” he said.
“And then they get there to fourth grade and they can’t read.”

Administrative changes for academic success

Fort Worth ISD has to try to improve academic performance while cutting costs. Superintendent Angélica Ramsey announced an administrative restructuring in March that involves eliminating high-paying jobs to save the district money.

The changes could help trustees achieve their goal of passing a balanced budget, which might not happen this summer when the board approves the next budget.

Lynch acknowledged some changes have been made and new people brought in, but he argued little has been communicated. Questions remain about how the new administration will differ, how much money the district is saving and what the master plan is.

Evans said she couldn’t share details that have been given to her in executive session because it’s directly related to some people’s jobs. She did share that the reorganization plan will be published in August and the district will save over $2 million a year in executive salaries.

“I’m really proud of that,” she said.

For the kids

During closing remarks, Evans said she wished there had been a question about school safety and security. She said she’s been to Austin to testify about training for school resource officers.

Both candidates said they’re open to talking with the community about their campaign and answering questions they may have.

“One of the things I’ve tried to be is who I am and let people know where I stand on issues,” Lynch said. “And the biggest thing with this is continuing to take care of and make sure that kids’ interest is the No. 1 priority in the decisions that we’re making.”

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. 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.

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Kristen BartonEducation Reporter

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...