Partisan politics enters a Collin College runoff — but candidates say they want to talk about issues
School board races are supposed to be nonpartisan — but politics is playing a role in a Collin College Board of Trustees runoff race. And some candidates say they don’t want to campaign that way despite accepting endorsements.
Cathie Alexander and incumbent Stacey Donald are both running for Place 3 on the board. Both say they want to focus on the issues, not partisan talking points.
“Let's move off of that line of thinking and move on to something that has to do with student success,” Alexander said.
“A lot of voters like us to be labeled R and D because it makes it easier for them, but it makes it really hard to just concentrate on the issues,” Donald said.
But politics has entered in Collin College trustee races.
The Republican Party sent an email encouraging people to vote for Alexander and Jay Saad, who’s running against Scott Coleman for Place 2, to keep Collin College from being overrun by the ‘woke left’ who are more concerned about gender neutral bathrooms than maintaining the college.
Alexander said she got a phone call about the email while campaigning.
“People were saying, oh, my goodness, look what the CCGOP sent out,” she said. “I didn't even know they were going to do that.”
Donald said she hasn’t brought up gender neutral bathrooms at all as a board member. She said the email was a political dog whistle for right-wing Republicans.
Things like gender, sexuality and critical race theory are coming up in school board races that were supposed to be nonpartisan in the past for a reason, said political science Southern Methodist University professor Matthew Wilson.
“Activists on both the left and the right have increasingly seen educational institutions as an arena where they can make gains for their chosen view of the way the world should be,” he said.
Wilson said that can get frustrating for students who just want to focus on school. And it forces candidates to pick a side on controversial issues they might not bring up themselves.
Divisive topics aren’t limited to the campaign. They’ve made their way into classrooms at the college too. And that can make it challenging for faculty, said Michael Phillips. He’s a former Collin College professor who’s suing the school for terminating his contract.
“If a student doesn't like the facts or the topic that a professor covers, they can really get your career in jeopardy,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he was fired because he did an interview with the Washington Post about race after a former Collin College student killed 23 people in the El Paso shooting and for coauthoring a letter calling for Dallas to remove Confederate monuments. He also said students didn’t like that he suggested students wear masks to class during the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
Three other faculty members have sued the school alleging they were fired over a comment the college didn’t like. Lora Burnett, a former history professor, accepted $70,000 from the college to settle her first amendment lawsuit. She alleged that the school fired her over comments she made about former Vice President Mike Pence during the vice presidential debate on her private Twitter page. She also criticized the college’s COVID-19 protocols.
The lawsuits came up in a candidate forum — something that frustrated Donald.
“It was all about the faculty lawsuits and other ... things that are not really that related to what we do as trustees,” she said.
Alexander shares that frustration.
“Collin College is doing a lot of wonderful things that are being overlooked because we are focusing on secondary priorities,” she said.
But they’ve both accepted political endorsements. Alexander is endorsed by the Collin County Republicans. And Donald has aligned herself with the local Democratic Party.
Donald said there’s a reason for that.
“It costs money to run a campaign,” she said. “And right now, with things as they are in the county, if you're not affiliated with a party, you're not likely to get much.”
Election Day for the runoff is Saturday. Whether it’s partisanship motivating voters to the polls or not, their choice could set the tone for the culture at the school going forward.
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Caroline Love is a Report For Americacorps member for KERA News.
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