National issues bring controversy and partisanship to HISD board elections

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- It's election day this Tuesday, though many Texans may not realize it. Without a governor's or presidential race on the line, the attention for this election cycle is quiet, unless you live in certain areas.

For example, the area around West University Elementary is filled with campaign signs. An indication that the HISD school board elections are the focus for some concerned parents. The race in District 5, which includes the upscale areas of West University Place and Bellaire, is especially intense.

"I'm really excited to see so many people excited about the school board and they're looking out for our kids," said pediatrician Corrie Chumpitazi, who is also a West U Elementary parent.

But as a pediatrician, seeing signs that say "Unmask Our Kids" dotting the neighborhood worries her.

"As someone who takes care of kids, and sees kids with blood clots in their hearts, heart failure, kids do get sick," said Chumpitazi, who is surprised to see so much controversy on that issue among fellow parents and neighbors.

Caroline Walter, a parent at the same school, is the District 5 challenger getting the most attention. Walter is listed among a slate of candidates supported by the Harris County Republican Party. Her campaign signs share lawn space with signs that say "Unmask Our Kids." Walter though, distanced herself from both of those endorsements.

"I've accepted every endorsement offered to me, I've accepted every screening offered to me, unfortunately, the only endorsements offered to me were Republican-related endorsements," she said.

Walter also said she is unaware of any emails that are going around the West U community that may be confused for official PTO emails. "I don't know about that," she said.

Meanwhile, both incumbent Trustee Sue Diegaard and another challenger, Maria Benzon, identify as Democrats.

Diegaard said the focus on divisive issues like masks and Critical Race Theory frustrates her because it doesn't pertain to a trustee's work of improving education for the state's largest school district.

"There are lots of issues that seem to get raised that has nothing to do with the school board," says Diegaard. "This is a non-partisan race for a non-partisan board and I've always believed there's no space for that type of conversations for our work."

"Bottom line (CRT) is not taught in any school," said Benzon. "I get messages all the time asking what my stance on in masks where I stand on CRT, absolutely it is very divisive."

But political experts say these days, even local races are seen through a political lens because that's the only way to get voters out.

"It's hard to get away from these politics because you definitely have these organized groups who have who they want elected," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "The best way to get there is to use those key triggers."

Rottinghaus says partisan takes on masks and CRT, among other issues, help motivate voters to the polls. However, once candidates are elected on those issues instead of actual topics involving school districts, the governing part becomes difficult.

"It complicates policymaking because if everything is seen in the partisan lens, it's hard to make compromises locally for what's happened," he says.
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