The political makeup of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District board could dramatically change with this November’s election, potentially swinging to more-conservative control amid a nationwide push by Republicans to get more involved in local education policy.

Several candidates pledging to keep liberal ideologies out of classrooms are running against more-moderate candidates in the race for four seats in Cy-Fair, the Houston region’s second-largest district. 

If a single one of the more-conservative contenders wins, they will join three like-minded trustees who won their races in 2021 to form a majority on the seven-member board. School board races are nonpartisan, meaning candidates do not have official party labels next to their name on the ballot, but many candidates still campaign on issues that clearly align them with one side of the political aisle.

“I think the identity and priorities of Cy-Fair ISD are at stake right now,” said Bryan Henry, a Cy-Fair parent and vice president of the grassroots group Cypress Families for Public School, which has endorsed more-moderate candidates.

Cy-Fair ISD board candidates

Position 1
Todd LeCompte
Tonia Jaeggi
Cleveland Lane Jr.

Position 2
Julie Hinaman (i)
Ayse Indemaio
George Edwards Jr.

Position 3
Leslie Martone
Michelle Fennick
Justin Ray

Position 4
Frances Ramirez Romero
Christine Kalmbach

The races could shake up the priorities and practices of Cy-Fair, which serves about 116,000 students in northwest Harris County and received an A rating under Texas’ academic accountability system in 2022. 

In recent years, Cy-Fair’s board has generally led from a politically moderate position. Trustees have been open to equity-minded policies and voiced frustration at times with state funding allocated by Texas’ Republican-led Legislature. The board also has largely avoided getting involved in political issues, such as book bans and gender identity policies, that have stirred controversy in nearby districts with conservative majorities on their boards. 

However, Cy-Fair’s board has not pushed farther-left views typically favored by the nation’s largest teachers unions.

The election also comes at a contentious time for Cy-Fair, which is arranging a successor to Superintendent Mark Henry, who has announced his plans to retire in December after 12 years leading the district. 

The district plans for Cy-Fair’s next superintendent to start in December, the same month elected winners are expected to take office. Cy-Fair’s current board plans to select a lone superintendent finalist, while the trustees seated after the election will be expected to finalize the superintendent’s contract when they take office.

The split approach could leave a more-conservative board responsible for approving a finalist chosen by trustees with more-moderate views. If board members do not approve the lone finalist’s contract in December, Cy-Fair could be left without a permanent superintendent for weeks or months while trustees conduct a new search.

“I would be very disappointed if a superintendent is seated before the election, under the existing board,” said George Edwards Jr., a candidate running on a conservative platform. 

Eleven candidates are vying for the four open trustee positions, with only one incumbent seeking re-election. Registered voters in Cy-Fair’s boundaries can vote in all four races. The candidate receiving the most votes in each race wins, with no runoff in the event that the top vote-getter fails to receive majority support.

Two split tickets

Among the candidates, two slates have emerged to illustrate the political tensions at play.

On the more-conservative side, four challengers have received endorsements from the Harris County Republican Party and conservative action committees: Edwards Jr., Christine Kalmbach, Todd LeCompte and Justin Ray.

The four candidates have largely campaigned on focusing on the “basics” of education, embracing parent involvement in education and keeping liberal politics out of schools. Candidate Todd Lecompte’s campaign website says schools have focused on “social justice ideology” rather than academics, a critique conservatives have used to argue topics like race, gender and sexuality shouldn’t have a place inside schools. The candidates argue a “basics” approach will improve reading, writing and math skills, while also encouraging parents to police student behavior.

“I am very conservative in my thinking as it relates to the education of students,” Edwards Jr. said. “There have been people in parties that have endorsed me, and I can’t control that. But I think that people have experience in seeing what I have been able to accomplish in Cy-Fair ISD, and I think that that’s why the endorsements have come in the way they have.”

Meanwhile, four more-moderate candidates are running as a slate dubbed “ALL4CFISD”: incumbent Julie Hinaman, Tonia Jaeggi, Leslie Martone and Frances Ramirez Romero. The quartet has earned endorsements from Cy-Fair’s largest teachers union and local grassroots public education advocacy groups. 

The ALL4CFISD slate is running on a platform of raising student achievement, increasing teacher pay and retention, and improving parent and community engagement, among other policies. Their approach does not invoke education ideas or phrases embraced by conservatives in recent years. 

“We don’t want to encourage or exacerbate this liberal versus conservative, this left versus right way of approaching public education,” said Henry, the Cypress Families for Public Schools vice president. “We want these nonpartisan positions to actually remain nonpartisan.”

The four ALL4CFISD candidates, along with Kalmbach, LeCompte and Ray, did not respond to multiple requests for comment last week. 

The three other candidates seeking office are Michelle Fennick, Ayse Indemaio and Cleveland Lane Jr.

If recent history holds, the more-conservative candidates have momentum on their side. 

Three trustees who won seats in 2021 — Scott Henry (unrelated to Cy-Fair’s superintendent), Natalie Blasingame and Lucas Scanlon — also ran on conservative platforms and were endorsed by the Harris County Republican Party. Voters in Cy-Fair also leaned Republican when choosing their Texas House representatives in 2022.

The superintendent dilemma

As election day nears, community members and candidates have opposing ideas about who should choose the next superintendent — perhaps the most important decision that a school board makes.

Jackson said the pool of candidates for the superintendent position has been narrowed, and trustees will begin conducting two rounds of interviews before naming a lone finalist. Under Texas law, school districts must name a lone finalist, then wait at least 21 days before signing a contract with them. 

Cy-Fair trustees have chosen to not release the names of candidates under consideration. School districts are not required under Texas law to release records related to a superintendent search.

Jackson and several trustees did not respond to requests for comment last week about the superintendent search timeline.

Former Cy-Fair trustee Bob Covey, who lost his re-election bid to Scanlon in 2021, said he believes the current board should select a new district leader instead of letting trustees with “no background and no experience in the district” do it right after taking office. 

“This is not and should never be a political race,” said Covey, who is supporting the ALL4CFISD candidates. “When it comes to the school board, party should not be a part of why you choose someone.”

Edwards Jr., however, said it would be “difficult to accept” a leader chosen before Election Day. 

“The persons that are elected in this election should have the opportunity to select the new superintendent that they’re going to have to work with.”

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Miranda Dunlap is a reporter covering K-12 schools across the eight-county Greater Houston region. A painfully Midwestern native to Michigan’s capital region, Miranda studied political science pre-law...