Texas school districts violated a law intended to add transparency to local elections

Photo illustration by ProPublica. Photo by Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune. Credit: Photo illustration by ProPublica. Photo by Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune.

By Jessica Priest and Lexi Churchill, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica

Last year, in an effort to bring greater transparency to local elections, the Texas Legislature mandated that school districts, municipalities and other jurisdictions post campaign finance reports online rather than stow them away in filing cabinets.

But many agencies appear to be violating the law that took effect in September.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune examined 35 school districts that held trustee elections in November and found none that had posted all of the required disclosures online that show candidates’ fundraising and spending. (Two of the districts did not respond to questions that would allow us to determine whether they were missing these reports.) And the agency tasked with enforcing the rules for thousands of local jurisdictions does not have any staff dedicated to checking their websites for compliance.

“The public not having access to those records because they’re not turned in or not posted in a timely fashion means that the public can’t make an informed decision based on where that candidate’s financial support is coming from,” said Erin Zwiener, a Democratic state representative from Driftwood who has pushed for campaign finance reform.

The interest in more transparency in local elections is bipartisan. “The local level has an amazing amount of funding and activity going through their respective districts, whether it be a school district, the city councils and the counties,” said Republican Carl Tepper, the state representative from Lubbock who authored the bill.

Of all the local government offices now required to upload campaign finance information online, the newsrooms focused on school boards because of the growing push by hard-line conservatives to reshape the elected bodies and advance vouchers as an alternative to public schools. Over the past several years, school boards across the country have shifted from traditionally nonpartisan bodies to increasingly polarized ones grappling with politically charged issues like mask mandates, book bans and bathroom policies for transgender people.

“If candidates are being pushed and funded to fight a proxy culture war in our school districts, I hope that that information can at least be public and easily available and that we can know how frequently that’s happening in Texas,” Zwiener said in an interview.

ProPublica and the Tribune contacted each of the school districts to ask about the missing documents. Some districts said they were aware of the mandate but still had not complied. Among their explanations: They did not receive enough instructions about the implementation and their websites were undergoing changes. A spokesperson for Lago Vista Independent School District, outside Austin, said simply, “Unfortunately, with the multitude of legislative mandates following the 88th session, this one got by us.”

Most often, school leaders said they had not known about the new law and subsequently uploaded the reports. The vast majority of districts, however, were still missing filings on their website because they never received or lost required reports from at least one candidate, actions that violate other parts of the state’s election law.

The newsrooms also found a handful of instances in which candidates or school districts hid donor names and parts of addresses, even though the law doesn’t allow for those redactions.

Had the late filings been submitted in one of Texas’ statewide races, they would have been flagged by the Texas Ethics Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing the state election laws, and the campaigns would have been automatically fined. For each of the 5,000 elected officials and candidates running for state office each year, the agency sends notices about upcoming filing deadlines, penalizes late filers and then considers their subsequent requests to reduce those fees. The commission also compiles all of their campaign finance reports into one searchable online database going back decades.

The agency does not follow any of these steps for local candidates. Instead, it investigates only when it receives a complaint.

None of the districts that responded to our questions sent a complaint to the commission. (The Texas Ethics Commission does not require them to do so.)

Matthew Wilson, an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said it is reasonable to cut districts some slack for now because it’s a new requirement. But over time, without effective enforcement, local agencies won’t feel any pressure to comply with the new law.

“It’s one thing to have a law, but if it’s a law for the violation of which no one ever gets punished, you’re going to have a low level of compliance,” he said. “The ball is really in the court of TEC to decide whether this law is going to have teeth.”

The new law applies to elected officials and candidates seeking local positions across the state’s 254 counties, more than 1,000 school districts and roughly 1,200 cities and towns. In the past, their campaign finance details were kept on handwritten forms that offices were required to keep on file for two years before destroying them. They now have to be maintained online for five years.

Of the districts that uploaded their records after being contacted by ProPublica and the Tribune, most candidates raised a few thousand dollars or less, though the newsrooms found a few who had raised at least $10,000 or had the support of political action committees. Voters did not have easy access to this information at the time of the elections, which was the law’s intent.

One candidate in West Texas, Joshua Guinn, raised more than $30,000 in his run for Midland ISD school board. During a public forum in October, a few weeks before the election, Guinn said his large fundraising haul was attributable to “family, friends, just people that believe in me.” His filings showed that he spent more than $20,000 on advertising and consulting services provided by CAZ Consulting, a firm that the Texas Observer has connected to a widespread effort to support far-right candidates. Guinn ultimately lost his race to the former board president.

A spokesperson for Midland ISD said the district aims to be compliant with all legislative requirements but that it did not receive a specific notification from TEC or state education regulators about the new law. Christopher Zook Jr., president of CAZ Consulting, said in an email, “All campaign finance reports should be easily accessible to the public. Publicly available finance reports allow for greater transparency in the political process for everyone.”

In a Houston-area school district, Aldine ISD, campaign finance reports were not posted online for seven of the 10 candidates seeking a position on the board. Once the newsrooms reached out, the district uploaded a report from incumbent William Randolph Bates Jr. It showed that he raised more than $30,000, including $4,000 from two PACs. But the school district said Bates and six other candidates did not turn in their mandated filings before the election. Bates won reelection.

Neither Guinn nor Bates responded to interview requests.

And until we asked, Princeton ISD, about 40 miles north of Dallas, did not post the campaign finance reports for any of the four candidates seeking two at-large positions on the school board in November. This made it more difficult for voters to know who was behind a mailer sent by the Collin Conservatives United PAC. The two-sided pamphlet contrasted incumbent school board President Cyndi Darland, whom it said “we can trust,” against another candidate, Starla Sharpe, whom it claimed will encourage a “woke agenda,” won’t stop critical race theory and “won’t get rid of sexually explicit materials that harm our children.”

Sharpe said in an interview with the news organizations that the mailer contained false statements about her and that Darland told her she had nothing to do with the mailer. But when the district posted Darland’s report following our inquiries, it revealed that she contributed to the PAC behind the mailer.

“I absolutely think this would have been important for voters to be aware of and to see the caliber of the individuals that you are voting for and the integrity they have,” Sharpe said.

Darland declined a phone interview and did not answer questions by email because she said she had been in a car wreck and was in pain and on medication. Laura Dawley, treasurer of the Collin Conservatives United PAC, declined to comment. Darland and Sharpe won the two open seats.

Political activity within local races like school boards has not been a major concern until the last few election cycles, according to Brendan Glavin, deputy research director at OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that collects state and federal campaign finance data. Glavin said it is somewhat common for states to have local candidates’ filings remain at the local level, given those races historically do not generate a lot of money and were not considered overtly political.

“This is an area where the disclosure law is lagging behind what is becoming the political reality,” Glavin said, as these races become higher profile and attract money from outside the community.

Tepper, the Lubbock representative, began last year’s legislative session with a far more ambitious proposal to create a searchable database for all filings. But he quickly abandoned the idea once TEC officials told him it would cost around $20 million to maintain — a fraction of the cost of the state’s leading priorities like its $148 million program to bus newly arriving migrants out of state. Tepper told the newsrooms he thought the estimate was “a little outlandish” but decided to take “the path of least resistance” with his online posting idea instead.

Later that session, Zwiener alternatively proposed to require all local candidates and officeholders who raise or spend more than $25,000 to send their reports to TEC, but the Legislature did not move forward with that idea either.

TEC Executive Director J.R. Johnson said Tepper’s initial proposal would have increased the agency’s workload from 5,000 filers currently to nearly 50,000 filers each year if just two candidates ran for every local office.

Johnson would not comment on whether the agency has enough funding to keep up with its current tasks but instead referred the news organizations to the commission’s reports to the Legislature, which detail its rapidly increasing workload, “persistent staffing shortages” and practically stagnant budget.

The commission wrote that campaign finance reports have been “growing dramatically,” with statewide candidates’ average contributions quadrupling from $5.6 million in 2018 to $25.7 million in 2022. The resulting reports are lengthy — one surpassed 100,000 pages — and “have been testing the limits of the TEC’s server hardware for years,” the agency wrote. Yet when the commission requested funding to help the system run smoother in 2022, lawmakers denied the request. Shortly after, the servers failed.

All other regulatory agencies in the state receive more funding than TEC, the office wrote in a report to the Legislature, including the Texas Racing Commission, which oversees horse and greyhound races. “We were unable to find any state that invested less in its ethics agency on a per capita basis,” the report said.

The Legislature did increase the agency’s budget by about $1.2 million last year, which Johnson said has helped prevent turnover.

Johnson said the commission has made “significant efforts” to ensure that local authorities know about the new law, such as sending notices and presenting at the annual secretary of state conference for local jurisdictions, but that it can take time for entities to become educated about an updated requirement.

Tepper said he hopes the lack of compliance was due to the districts not knowing about the updated requirement and not flouting the law. He said in an interview that he appreciated the newsrooms “calling around and putting some spotlight on this so maybe they’ll be informed now and can comply with the state law.”


The newsrooms aimed to examine compliance among all of the districts with November 2023 trustee elections, the first races since the new law went into effect in September. We reached out to more than a dozen statewide election and education agencies and associations to locate a calendar with all school board races dates, but none could provide one. In the absence of an official source, the Tribune and ProPublica pieced together our own list of November races through media clips and contacted 35 school districts.

Of those, we did not find any that were in full compliance with the state’s election laws. Two districts did not respond to questions that would allow us to determine whether they followed the rules. They are Spring ISD in north Houston, and Pleasant Grove ISD in East Texas.

Of the 33 districts we found out of compliance with state election laws, 21 had at least some reports on file but had not uploaded them, which broke the new regulation established by House Bill 2626. At least 16 of those districts were missing at least one report, though typically multiple reports, that they never received from candidates. Most of these districts have since uploaded their missing reports, though two districts have still not done so: New Caney and Shepherd ISDs, north of Houston.

The 12 other districts said they either never got any filings from candidates or they lost the records that should have been posted online. The ethics commission told the newsrooms this is not technically a violation of HB 2626, but it breaks other election laws that require candidates to file certain reports and mandate that districts keep them on file.

This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published. Also, sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/25/texas-school-districts-violated-election-transparency-law/.

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