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The culture war is being fought in school board meetings — and North Texas is the frontline

Hours after passing controversial book policies, top elected leaders in Keller, Grapevine-Colleyville ISDs take our questions in their first interviews

KELLER, Texas — The frontlines of the culture wars are being fought in North Texas school boards. It's been that way for a while at this point

But, just this week, it came to a head as the neighboring independent school districts of Keller and Grapevine-Colleyville each hosted contentious Monday night meetings to determine what children are being taught in their schools. 

In Keller, the debate mostly centered around books -- the culmination of a battle started earlier in the month when it was announced that the district had yanked 41 books off of its library's shelves, including the Bible and "Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation," for further review after their presences were challenged by parents. More than 45 people showed up to Monday night's Keller Independent School District meeting to speak on both sides of the matter, with the board eventually voting 4-2 in favor of instituting a broad and conservative new content policy about what books can and cannot exist in their schools' library collections.

Around the same time and just a few miles to the east, the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District hosted almost 200 public speakers -- into a room that only seats 55 -- who showed up to share their thoughts onthat board's far more expansive plans surrounding what is and isn't acceptable in their schools. Six hours after the board's meeting began that night, its members eventually voted 4-3 in favor of instituting a new 36-page policy that, among other things, a) bans the teaching of critical race theory, b) implements a strict review process for library books, c) actively works not to promote, require or encourage the use of pronouns that are not aligned with the gender people are assigned at birth, and d) require people to use the bathrooms designated for the genders they were assigned at birth.

Heading into this week's meetings in both districts, it was clear that parties on each side of these school-focused issues were gearing up for a fight. 

On an episode of our Y'allitics podcast released on Sunday, State Representative Matt Krause -- the state lawmaker who started his own book inquiry last fall when he asked schools across the state if they had some 850 titles on their campuses -- said he doesn’t view the issue of book-banning as subjective censorship, but rather as finding the right balance for our kids.

“It's always a good idea to ensure that the books that are in the library's bookshelves in your schools are appropriate, age-appropriate,” the Fort Worth Republican said on Y’all-itics. "What's appropriate in a Keller ISD high school may not be appropriate in a Keller ISD middle school. So, I think you always have those conversations. I think they're constructive.”

Keller ISD mom Laney Hawes, meanwhile, told Y'allitics she saw things much differently. With four kids in the district, Hawes argues that major decisions affecting the lives of thousands are being made by less than a handful of people.

“It’s dangerous for a number of reasons because it sets a precedent that the values and the opinions of the current school board are going to dictate every bit of access the kids in our school district have -- and that's scary,” she told the Jasons on Sunday's episode of Y’all-itics. "We have so many different kids in our district, different races, different backgrounds, different family histories, different stories, different everything. And these kids need to see themselves represented in literature."

In the wake of Monday night's meetings, however, it appears Krause's camp has come out victorious -- their efforts spurred on by recently elected board members whose campaigns were backed by a conservative, Christian PAC.

Which is how we ended up this week with two Y'all-itics episodes, including a new one that dropped on Tuesday evening. After speaking with vocal proponents on each side of the debate, the Jasons on Tuesday hosted the people who actually voted on approving these motions on Monday. In this second straight episode on this contentious issue, the podcast was joined by Shannon Braun, GCISD Board Vice President, and Dr. Charles Randklev, Keller ISD Board President, to learn more about how their boards came to their decisions.

Perhaps most notably, Y'all-itics wanted answers as to how this process moved more quickly, how there wasn't more debate involved in a matter where 200 people show up to a school board meeting on a Monday night to talk out the merits on both sides of the issue. 

"What we just passed was the law," Braun said in Tuesday's special episode of Y'all-itics. "It's already the law. Anybody who just voted against that, just voted against the law -- that’s actually the problem... because we’re not following it, that’s why. When you have teachers that decide... you’ve got people that teach what they want to teach, do what they want to do, promote what they want to promote."

And, to hear Braun tell it, that's not OK. There's a reason, she said, governing bodies over educational systems exist -- and, in her first on-record interview ever, she argue that it's the role of boards like hers to enforce those notions. 

Dr. Randklev argued a similar point when asked about the fact that parents in Keller could already choose to opt out of reading material that they deemed inappropriate for their children. 

"What do you do when you have a student in a classroom or a student that goes to a library?" Dr. Randklev asked Y'all-itics. "How are they going to opt out?"

Now, even with Keller's new policy creating a path for some removed books to eventually make their way back on to school library shelves, those are questions KISD and GCISD will no longer ask. 

Not for the time being anyway. 

But the fight, all parties concede, will continue raging on.

"It’s a battle," Braun said. "This is a war for ideas right now.”

What Braun brushed off in her first-ever on-record interview, however, was that there's any support from outside influences on either side of the debate, outright denying that any conservative groups helped draft GCISD's wide-ranging new policies. 

As for Hawes? She doesn't buy that. Instead, she said she and other parents know full well they’re facing a David vs. Goliath situation. Their ultimate goal in this back-and-forth? Making school board meetings boring again.

“This is something a lot of us parents -- and there are a group of us that is growing, growing even more over the last few weeks -- that have been talking about this,” Hawes said. “One of our big concerns is that we don't have millions of dollars. We don't have a giant PAC behind us. We also don't have the powerful motivator that fear is, right? That’s part of why this was so successful -- it was so fear based.”

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