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Southlake mayor says his city doesn't have problem with racism or unity amid student complaints, parent concerns and national media coverage

City and school board elections in the area have become increasingly heated and driven record voter turnouts, but Mayor John Huffman says Southlake is united

SOUTHLAKE, Texas — Mayor John Huffman describes Southlake as welcoming and unified.

“People move to Southlake intentionally,” he said in a recent one-on-one, sit-down interview with WFAA. “They want to be here.”

Recent city and school board elections, though, have demonstrated that the city is far from united. Heated debates and passion over the direction of the town and its school board have driven record voter turnouts in races traditionally overlooked.

Huffman isn't surprised by that. He says the city’s identity is tied to its school district, and that Carroll ISD is a major reason many move to the area.

"The top of everybody’s list is the schools, the incredible schools," he said in his WFAA interview. "Beyond that, it’s the community feeling."

Despite its relatively small size of just over 30,000 city residents and 8,000 district students, the community and its schools alike have repeatedly been the focus of national and local coverage in recent years. Huffman says he believes this could be because of the many successes to be found in his city, where the median household income is more than $240,000. 

“Y'know, I can’t speak for why,” Huffman said. “I know Southlake historically has gotten a lot of press because, I mean, it’s a very aspirational community.”

Very little of the coverage, however, has focused on wealth.

Southlake started popping up in the media's crosshairs in 2018, when a video went viral of students chanting the N-word. A second, similar video surfaced in 2019, drawing further attention.

Then, during a multi-year debate over a controversial school district diversity plan, hundreds of current and former students submitted testimonies of bullying within the district.

More recently, international news coverage centered around a recording that captured a district administrator telling teachers to offer students books with opposing viewpoints on issues that might come up in class -- including, even, the Holocaust.

"When humans treat each other poorly, and it manifests itself in things like -- like some of the things you’ve seen..." Huffman said.

"...like racism?" WFAA asked. "Do you think that Southlake has a problem with racism?"

"No, no," Huffman said. "Does Southlake have a problem with racism? Is it a racist place? Absolutely not."

After the first slur video went viral in 2018, Huffman -- then a councilmember -- told a local news outlet that "racism is real, it's around us and sweeping it under the rug is not going to help."

Southlake isn’t alone in having to publicly deal with issues of changing racial justice or polarized politics. But when the federal government launched an investigation into three student complaints at Carroll ISD, Huffman theorized in a Facebook post that "this investigation is retaliation" for voters recently electing candidates opposed to a school district diversity plan.

Carroll ISD's superintendent later confirmed, however, that the complaints were filed months before the election.

Still, Huffman is steadfast that he opposes the intrusion from the feds.

"To have the federal government usurp the voter direction that was given and say, 'We want the new superintendent to address them how we want them to address them,' to have them come in and usurp them, was at best counterproductive,” Huffman told WFAA.

That hasn't happened, though. Not to this point in time, anyway. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights says its investigation is ongoing, and they have not yet directed the district to enact any particular policies. A Carroll ISD spokesperson said the Office of Civil Rights spoke to principals involved in the investigation before spring break, and the district has turned over all requested documents. It is now waiting for a response.

As for Huffman, his children are homeschooled and do not attend Carroll ISD. 

The mayor did, however, recently host a fundraiser at his home for Tarrant County District Attorney candidate Matt Krause, who has become a central figure in book-banning debates across the country. In October, Krause sent a letter to school districts, asking if they had any of roughly 850 books that discuss race, gender and LGTBQ issues.

Huffman doesn't think any of those matters rise to the level of "issues" in Southlake. He points to cultural heritage events the city hosts as evidence that the community welcomes all.

"Southlake is an amazing welcoming place," Huffman said to WFAA. "It’s disappointing to see it portrayed [that way], especially in the national media -- because, honestly, it doesn’t reflect reality."

He and recent school board members were all elected to their positions by near identical 70-30 voting margins, and a vocal minority says they're being increasingly ignored by elected officials whose views oppose their own. Huffman disagrees with that sentiment, and says his office door is open to all.

"There’s a difference between not being heard and not being agreed with," Huffman said. "There are some philosophical differences that, frankly, some folks will never be able to bridge the gap with me."

In August of 2020, Huffman was in attendance at an event where then-Texas GOP leader Allen West gave a speech told the crowd they should tell non-conservatives who move to Texas to "go back to where you came from."

Huffman had no response when asked about the speech.

Since his interview with WFAA, Huffman has also used his Twitter account to share an anti-transgender meme. His post depicts a scene from the animated show 'South Park' and shows a man standing on a podium labeled 'Strong Woman Competition'. Below that photo, the tweet also includes a second image featuring swimmer Lia Thomas, the first trans woman to win an NCAA swimming championship.

During his interview with WFAA, Huffman said that the best thing Southlake residents who have concerns about their city can do is voice their opinions at the ballot box. But after several recent elections -- including his own -- that have focused on divisiveness, it's clear that the divisions within this community are still as wide as ever.

"The great thing about Southlake," Huffman told WFAA, "is we work through those issues together."

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