Amber Feller, president of the RRISD Board of Trustees, speaks at a Jan. 3 meeting (Image via roundrockisd.org)
The fur and feathers and dragon scales keep flying at Round Rock ISD, where dozens of parents, and now the Texas Education Agency, want the district’s newish Superintendent Hafedh Azaiez to be placed on administrative leave (or to just leave), egged on by some of the state’s loudest right-wing voices. After a lively public comment period and lengthy executive session at a board of trustees meeting on Monday, Jan. 3, the board will reconvene on Thursday to further deliberate its next steps.
A Dec. 15 letter from David Faltys – a monitor appointed by TEA for the district after high-profile battles among RRISD trustees – calls for an external investigation of the conduct underlying a protective order issued against Azaiez by a Travis County district court on July 28, less than a month after he took the RRISD reins. No criminal charges have been filed. The order was issued on behalf of a woman who resides in Donna, in the Rio Grande Valley, where Azaiez led the schools before getting the $350,000 RRISD job.
While the Texas right rarely trains much attention on districts like Austin ISD that it considers lost causes, RRISD has become quite the active culture war zone.
Mary Nix, an attorney representing Azaiez, wrote in a statement to the Chronicle that the board meetings themselves were unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer dollars. “I am appalled that the TEA and the RRISD Board of Trustees would allow themselves to be hijacked, coerced, and forced by two renegade members” of the board, Nix wrote. “The Travis County court never issued any findings of an assault in the Temporary Ex Parte Protective Order, which are routinely issued by the court based solely on the complainant’s allegations.” She said the dispute had been resolved in a confidential settlement agreement.
While much remains undisclosed about Azaiez’s situation, the political machine that’s now spun the known facts into a narrative of abuse and liberal overreach is familiar. Texas Scorecard, the media arm of ultra-right megadonor Tim Dunn’s Empower Texans operation, has a podcast series, Exposed, devoted to Azaiez and the so-called “Bad Faith Five” trustees who support him. Last month, a rally in front of the district office was attended by several of Gov. Greg Abbott‘s right-wing primary challengers.
While the Texas right rarely trains much attention on districts like Austin ISD that it considers lost causes, RRISD has become quite the active culture war zone. The district fought this fall to implement mask mandates and other public health protocols on campuses. The Williamson County Commissioners Court decided last month to withhold additional CARES Act funding from both RRISD and Leander ISD, citing inappropriate material in libraries. (Both districts extend into Travis County.)
Paige McCleary, a junior at Round Rock High School (the Dragons) and the only student to speak at the Monday meeting, said she wants to be a teacher someday. “Having to work with a man like Azaiez makes me want to reconsider,” she told the board. Many of the parents who showed up asked Azaiez to leave to spare the district more bad press. “TEA has extended the Round Rock community the opportunity to start to heal … Grasp that lifeline,” advised one attendee, Mike Williams.
Although most of the parents who spoke up at the meeting asked for Azaiez to be placed on leave or resign, those who spoke in support of the superintendent identified the opposition as a minority in the district. Chuy Zarate, who has three children in RRISD schools and leads the RRISD Council of PTAs’ Diversity & Inclusion Committee, said he’s heard the talk of misconduct and corruption, but, as far as he knows at this point, “it adds up to nothing more than conjecture and hearsay.”
Whether or not the board decides to fold to the parents calling for Azaiez to step down, they’ll likely not see the end of pressure for their own departures as well. Trustee Cory Vessa, who along with three others (but not the two right-wing dissenters) is up for reelection in November 2022, said she frequently receives emails and messages from people who say they can’t wait to vote her out. “Some are pretty profane,” she told the Chronicle. “I’m not sure that is unusual given this has been a highly polarized time.”
A version of this article appeared in print on January 7, 2022 with the headline: New Year, Same Drama at Round Rock ISD