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March 31st, 2023:

What was even the point of those TEA “engagements” with the public?

The public certainly doesn’t think it got anything out of them.

Teacher Monica Zepeda wrapped up an after-school tutoring session on Wednesday night and headed to a community forum at Delmar Stadium sporting her Pilgrim Academy lanyard. She stepped up to the microphone.

“I’m a highly effective teacher here at HISD,” she said, launching into several questions about prior state takeovers in Texas school districts. “Public education is the foundation, the bedrock of America. Do not take our education away.”

Zepeda, a public school educator of nearly two decades, was among several hundred teachers, parents and other members of the Houston Independent School District community who showed up at a third community forum hosted by the Texas Education Agency to demand answers from state officials about the takeover.

After this school year ends, the state agency plans to oust Houston’s elected school board and replace it with a nine-member board of managers appointed by Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The agency is now seeking applicants for the board of managers. The move has drawn ire from many.

“I have students from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico – and I’m making gains and growing them,” Zepeda said. “My school is an amazing little jewel in the southwest and there’s so many of us like that. There’s great teachers and I can’t believe that they want to do this.”

Morath did not attend the meeting. People in the audience immediately booed and questioned his notable absence.

“He could not be here tonight,” said TEA deputy commissioner Alejandro Delgado, who fielded questions from the podium during a meeting that ran for an hour and 20 minutes.

Morath told the Chronicle editorial board that he could not attend last week’s community forums because he was “under the weather.” Delgado provided no explanation for his absence this week. A final forum is scheduled for Thursday night at Kashmere High School.

“If he doesn’t have the respect for the people of this district – the teachers, the families, the children – to stand up and answer our questions, what kind of accountability is he really offering?” said Louisa Meacham, a teacher at Northside High School. “What kind of leadership is he really offering? None.”

I’m sorry, but if you can show up for an hour-plus interview with the Chron editorial board, you can damn well show up to the community engagement session. Not doing so is cowardly and disrespectful. Sure, the crowd has been rowdy at these meetings, but what did you expect? People have strong feelings about this, especially considering the overall health of HISD and the recent improvement at Wheatley, and they felt their voices weren’t being heard. Hell, the upshot here is to replace the elected Board with a Mike Morath-appointed Board, so of course people feel like they’re powerless. You either don’t care or you’re exceedingly dense to not realize or acknowledge that.

So again, these engagement sessions have been patronizing and useless in terms of actually addressing the concerns of the HISD stakeholders. If there was any chance of providing some assurance to students and parents and teachers that things would be all right, the TEA botched it completely. None of this should make anyone feel better about what is coming. Campos has more.

Jared Woodfill and Paul Pressler

Sleazebags of a feather sleaze together.

In 2016, former Harris County GOP chair Jared Woodfill received an urgent warning about Paul Pressler, his longtime law partner and a Southern Baptist leader. In an email, a 25-year-old attorney from Woodfill’s Houston firm said he’d recently gone to lunch with Pressler, who told him “lewd stories about being naked on beaches with young men” and then invited him to skinny-dip at his ranch.

Woodfill — an outspoken anti-gay politician and prominent conservative activist who’d just played a key role defeating an equal rights ordinance for LGBTQ Houstonians — responded to the young man’s request for help with shock and indignation. “This 85-year-old man has never made any inappropriate comments or actions toward me or any one I know of,” he wrote of Pressler at the time.

But new court records show that wasn’t true.

In recent sworn testimony, Woodfill said he’d known since 2004 of an allegation that Pressler had sexually abused a child. Woodfill learned of those claims, he said, during mediation of an assault lawsuit filed against Pressler that he helped quietly settle for nearly a half-million dollars at the time. Despite his knowledge of the accusation, Woodfill continued to work with Pressler for nearly a decade — leaning on Pressler’s name and reputation to bolster their firm, Woodfill & Pressler LLP.

Rather than pay him a salary, Woodfill testified, the firm provided Pressler a string of employees to serve as personal assistants, most of them young men who typically worked out of his River Oaks mansion. Two have accused Pressler of sexual assault or misconduct.

Woodfill led the Harris County Republican Party from 2002 to 2014 and has for years been at the helm of anti-LGBTQ and other hardline conservative movements in Houston and Texas. In 2015, amid tense debate over a Houston equal rights ordinance that would have made LGBTQ workplace discrimination illegal, he and well-known GOP power broker Steven Hotze co-led a campaign that, among other things, said the measure would allow children to be sexually groomed and abused in bathrooms, paid for hundreds of thousands of dollars in opposition advertisements and compared the gay rights movement to Nazis.

Since then, Woodfill has remained a fixture in Texas GOP politics: During the height of the pandemic, he and Hotze filed numerous lawsuits challenging COVID-19 mandates, and he’s currently representing conservative political candidates challenging the 2022 election results in Harris County. Woodfill is also representing Hotze in a criminal investigation stemming from a 2020 incident in which a private investigator, allegedly acting at Hotze’s behest, held at gunpoint an A/C repairman who he believed was transporting fake ballots.

Released over the last few weeks, the thousands of pages of new court records show how Woodfill leaned on his Pressler connections to bolster his political and legal career — despite warnings about his law partner’s behavior. And they shed new light on how Pressler, a former Texas Court of Appeals judge and one-time White House nominee under George H.W. Bush, allegedly used his prestige and influence to evade responsibility amid repeated accusations of sexual misconduct and assault dating back to at least 1978, when he was forced out of a Houston church for allegedly molesting a teenager in a sauna.

Pressler is best known for his work in the Southern Baptist Convention, where he was instrumental in pushing its 16 million members and 47,000 churches to adopt literal interpretations of the Bible, strongly denounce homosexuality and align more closely with the Republican Party. And for decades, he was a high-ranking member of the Council for National Policy, an uber-secretive network of conservative judges, mega donors, media figures and religious elites led by Tony Perkins, head of the anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council.

The new records show that in 2004, leaders of First Baptist Church of Houston, a massive Southern Baptist congregation, investigated claims that Pressler, then a deacon, had groped and undressed a college student at his Houston mansion. The church leaders deemed the behavior “morally and spiritually” inappropriate and warned Pressler but took no further action, citing differing accounts of the incident and Pressler’s stature in their church and the Southern Baptist Convention. In recent depositions, plaintiffs attorneys also briefly mention new complaints from two others about Pressler, though those documents remain sealed ahead of the looming civil trial in the case.

At least six men have now accused Pressler of sexual assault or misconduct, including two who say they were molested while minors and two who say they were solicited for sex in incidents after 2004, when Woodfill and First Baptist leaders were separately made aware of complaints about Pressler.

Pressler has not been criminally charged in any of the incidents. Neither Woodfill nor his attorney responded to a list of questions about Woodfill’s handling of the allegations against Pressler. In a Wednesday email, Woodfill’s lawyer David Oubre said they are “confident Mr. Woodfill will be successful in defeating these claims.”

See here for previous mentions of Paul Pressler. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you already know that I consider pond scum to be a higher form of life than Jared Woodfill. If you didn’t already know that, now you know why. My homework assignment for legislative Democrats is to make sure you mention the names Jared Woodfill and Paul Pressler every time someone disparages LBGTQ folks in a hearing. It won’t change anything, but it will make them mad and it will help spread the word. Go read the rest of the article.

Some turmoil at Rep. Jones’ office

Hoo boy.

Rep. Jolanda Jones

Three staff members of state Rep. Jolanda Jones have resigned, alleging the Houston Democrat created an “abusive and hostile” work environment.

Chief of staff Kory Haywood, legislative director Catherine Mouer and district director Yesenia Wences alleged in a letter to Jones obtained by The Texas Tribune that Jones tasked staff with tasks unrelated to state business, required them to regularly perform work outside of business hours and regularly threatened to fire employees.

“We, as a collective of senior staff, have repeatedly attempted to curb your behavior and address the type of work environment you have bred over the last month,” the letter states. “But, to no avail; we haven’t seen any success.”

The former employees also alleged that Jones had failed to intervene in what they characterized as an inappropriate relationship between the lawmaker’s son, Jio, and an intern in the office. They also said the lawmaker directed staff to assist in arranging health care for a relative.

Jones said in a statement Thursday that working in the Legislature stressful and demanding, describing a “daily fight” on behalf of constituents.

“Some on my staff have decided this job is not for them,” Jones said. “I wish them good luck and success in their next endeavors.”

Cassi Pollock, spokesperson for House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said the speaker’s office learned of the complaints against Jones on Wednesday, which would be reviewed to evaluate whether the lawmaker broke any House rules.

“The Speaker’s office takes all allegations seriously and expects that this matter will be addressed and resolved as soon as possible,” Pollock said.

You can read the full letter at the link. This is all I know at this time, so I’m not going to get ahead of whatever this turns out to be. I’m sure we’ll hear more soon enough.

UPDATE: The Chron has more.

Dispatches from Dallas, March 31 edition

This is a weekly feature produced by my friend Ginger. Let us know what you think.

This week in Dallas news: Carroll ISD (Southlake) bails out of TASB in a new phase in the reactionary war on Texas public schools; more on TFG and the symbolism of his Waco visit; Dallas-area cops should not be left alone with computers; get ready for a Taylor Swift exhibit; the menu at Globe Life Field for the upcoming baseball season; and a baby giraffe at the Dallas Zoo.

The big news this week is that Carroll ISD (Southlake) has voted to end its membership in the Texas Association of School Boards. The news video accompanying this article is worth the two minutes of your time; it makes clear what’s going on. State Representative Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, sent out letters to 1000 school districts to start an exodus from TASB. Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, the local Fox outlet has a good story on the decision to withdraw (4 minute video). The Fox coverage also talks about the general state of Carroll ISD, one of the first districts targeted by reactionaries for bringing in DEI policies, “CRT”, and other “woke” policies. DEI initiative started after a 2018 incident in which students were caught in video using the N word; in 2021 and 2022 reactionaries captured the board, and the rejection of TASB is one outcome.

You may recall that TASB is also related to the case of Marvin Lowe, the Frisco ISD trustee. He was accused of harassing a trans student at a TASB conference in San Antonio last October. It won’t surprise me if Frisco decides to follow Carroll’s example in the near future.

As noted by Charles here, the The Book-Loving Texan’s Guide to the May 2023 School Board Elections is a resource for finding out about the candidates your local school board election. The document is mostly focused on north Texas districts (Frisco is on the list and Richardson, which is the district my home is zoned into, is in progress), but Houston area districts like Katy and Humble are also included. And they’re also working on central Texas districts like Dripping Springs. While this resource is focused on book banning, that’s a good proxy for anti-DEI, anti-“CRT”, and anti-“woke” sentiment in general.

If this topic interests you, I strongly recommend Clarity & Anger, the substack of Frank Strong, an Austin teacher who put together the Book-Loving Texan’s Guide. His newsletter will keep you up to date on what the bibliophobes and “woke”-haters are up to, and there’s a free tier. I found him on Mastodon, which is where I hang out now that Twitter is toxic. While I can’t say I exactly enjoy reading about haters, I do feel better informed.

In other news:

  • A few notes about TFG’s Waco speech.
    • First, in corrections, I initially read that TFG was speaking on the anniversary of the end of the siege; instead he spoke last weekend at the anniversary of the beginning.
    • These two articles that quote Senator Cornyn’s reaction may interest you: GOP Senators Break With Trump Over ‘Offensive’ Jan. 6 Tribute At Texas Rally and Top Republicans balk at Trump highlighting Jan. 6 rioters, calling it politically unwise. Obviously it’s a long time until Cornyn faces the GOP primary field again, but I’m putting a pin in it for 2026.
    • Talking Points Memo again points to the choice of Waco as a venue and the commemoration of the Branch Davidian standoff in this post. There are a couple of follow-up reader notes on the same topic that are also worthwhile. Those of us who are old enough to remember Waco as it happened recall how awful it was, not least because it embodied the fever dream of angry white men holding out against federal force. We have too many angry people with guns in Texas to encourage fighting the federal government in 2023.
  • Department of “Dallas cops can’t use computers”, part one for this week: What’s known about the 21 cases reviewed for missing, deleted Dallas police evidence [Archive link] and Is missing Dallas police evidence impacting murder cases? Defense lawyers want answers [Archive link]. The city of Dallas is going to be sorting this out for a long time; the screwups involve both current cases and cases already decided. It’s also going to cost the city and the court system to retry cases and to compensate any defendants who receive a not guilty verdict in retrials. It implicates the credibility of the police and their evidence in future cases. All of this is bad for the judicial system, which has plenty of problems without the police losing or destroying evidence, but DPD brought these further problems on themselves by sloppy evidence handling.
  • Department of “Dallas cops can’t use computers”, part two for this week: Dallas County says sold computers may have contained the public’s personal info. [Archive link]. Short version: the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department failed to properly wipe computers that were taken out of service and sold at auction, so they may still contain confidential information from the county’s internal court databases. Oops.
  • Shared Air DFW is a visualization resource for air pollution in the Metroplex. It takes data from air quality monitors (currently 100 are being distributed throughout the region) to show real-time air quality online. It’s good that we can now see this information but the information is depressing. It’s a UT Dallas project, so thanks to UT Dallas and the funders. Related, from the Texas Tribune: The EPA wants to limit how much soot you breathe. Here’s what it means for Texas and one of its historic Black towns. Joppa, the freedman’s town in question, is less than 10 miles from downtown Dallas. The Shared Air project is concentrating early efforts there precisely because their air quality is so poor.
  • On a sad note for me personally, my advisor at Rice passed away earlier this month. Dr. Katherine Fischer Drew was a fantastic teacher, historian, and leader in her discipline, as you can see in her obituary at the Houston Chronicle. She touched a lot of lives, including mine, and I’m grateful for the advice I got from her and the lessons I learned in and out of her classes.
  • Carnivorous Plant Gallery Known as the Texas Triffid Ranch Is Closed for Good. I’m also sad about this; I have friends who had visited the ranch and I’d seen some of the plants at events at the Perot (Dallas’ science museum) before the pandemic. I never managed to get out to the ranch myself, unfortunately. I wish Mr. Riddell the best in his future endeavors and hope to see the plants he sent to the Arboretum this spring.
  • A 24-Inch Burger is Among Six New Food Items for the 2023 Season at Globe Life Field. Posting this in the hopes it will lure Charles up here this summer for a game and to try the food. I personally am going to have some of the Hurtado barbecue the next time we go with a baseball-oriented friend.
  • From my inbox: Taylor Swift isn’t just coming to Arlington to perform. She’s also the subject of the Arlington Museum’s summer exhibit: Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour Collection will be here from June through September for all your Swift needs. Tickets go on sale April 13 for members, and April 17 for the rest of us.
  • Hipster ’80s-style roller skating rink to wheel into Dallas Design District. I’m already asking around for my friends to join me when this opens for both events: the visit to the roller rink and the visit to the ER that will inevitably follow when I break something falling on my butt.
  • Last but not least, in baby animal news: It’s a girl: Dallas Zoo welcomes 131-pound giraffe calf [Archive link.] No name yet for the baby girl. I’m really excited about this one; giraffes are my favorite animal.