When a staffer with The Southlake Independent pinged Jessica Waller on LinkedIn, Waller thought she finally had the break she was waiting for. After several years working at small Texas newspapers like the Waxahachie Daily Light and The Paris News, Waller was hopeful that the new online blog owned by Southlaker Fred Stovall would afford journalistic freedom to follow stories wherever they lead.
Waller said she scanned Editor Ronell Smith’s Facebook page, and he appeared to be on the “up and up.” She didn’t notice at the time that Smith is a Southlake city councilmember. Having lived and worked in small, rural Texas towns, Waller was also unaware that a wealthy Christian Nationalist movement recently swept the upscale suburb’s elections and placed leaders in office who regularly spread right-wing misinformation and anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry. Carroll school district, which serves Southlake, remains under federal investigation for allegedly violating the civil rights of local LGBTQ+ youths.
The Southlake Independent posts online stories about news, sports, and lifestyle. Smith told Waller that her reporting would focus on Carroll school district. The online publication’s first-ever post (not penned by Waller) takes aim at “outside media” for merely documenting racist acts on the part of Southlake students and parents.
“As we’ve all discovered, outside media coverage is ready and willing to portray our city in a way that suits their preconceived narrative, even — or especially — if it’s not true,” the March article read.
One of Waller’s first assignments was covering an early April school board workshop that included a session focused on updating trustees about an ongoing special education audit. In mid-2021, according to the meeting’s agenda item, Carroll trustees hired Gibson Consulting for the job. Prior to the audit, Southlake parents had voiced concern about discrepancies in the availability of special education services across the district.
Trustee Hannah Smith urged the board to “pause” the audit process because she believed improvements had already been made. Trustee Andrew Yeager followed Smith’s statement by claiming many parents of special needs children were in favor of pausing the audit process. Carroll special education director Stacie Bonner responded that the audit, which is funded at $68,000, provides crucial resources for improving special needs services. Yeager accused Bonner of “double talk,” although it wasn’t clear what triggered his unprovoked attack.
“They were trying to intimidate this woman to give this money back,” Waller said. “That’s what put me on alert.”
The board voted to terminate the contract with Gibson Consulting. As Waller drafted her summary of the session, she returned frequently to her Google Doc that allows for sharing and group editing. It was while making minor edits that Waller noticed that Hannah Smith had opened Waller’s document to edit it on nine occasions. Waller shared a screenshot with me that proves Hannah’s meddling.
Hannah deleted sections that described Yeager’s stammered responses and inserted statements that were flattering to the trustee, Waller alleges. The following sections were penned by Hannah, Waller said.
“Additionally, Trustee Hannah Smith raised the issue of improving transparency with the community with regard to presentations accompanying the posted agenda prior to board meetings. The board and administration supported making all non-confidential digital presentations accessible to the community in advance of the meeting so the public may be better informed in their comments before the board.
Finally, Trustee Hannah Smith raised the issue of reallocating the monies set aside for the special education audit to help the Executive Director of Special Programs Stacie Bonner set up her new department instead. Trustee Andrew Yeager joined Smith in praising Bonner on the excellent work she has done so far in improving Special Education at [Carroll ISD] since taking over the role in February.”
Waller and her editor were the only people with access to the document, meaning Southlake Independent’s editor had sent the draft article to Hannah. Ronell Smith did not respond to my requests for comment.
“They have gotten so lazy in their corruption that they didn’t think I was going to go back and edit again,” Waller said. “I sent an email to my editor telling him what is going on. It’s not OK. I sent him the screenshots of her editing it nine times. His response was, ‘Can I talk to you?’ ”
Ronell allegedly promised that outside meddling would not happen again. Waller considered staying on, partly because the pay — $120 per article — was good and because Waller worried that anyone who replaced her would be willing to compromise on basic journalistic principles.
“I want to cover school board meetings with an objective lens,” Waller said. “I thought about it, and I couldn’t go back. If I did anything that was objective that they didn’t like, with [Stovall] being the publisher, it was going to happen again. In the end, I said no.”
Waller shared screenshots of Ronell’s subsequent emails.
“I have final say on all editorial, so any recommendations she made will have to be OK’d by me,” Ronell wrote. “My mistake was in leaving the doc open for edit.”
When Waller tweeted about her departure from the blog, The Southlake Independent’s Twitter account attempted to discredit her by attacking her writing. Waller believes the publisher manages that account.
“Lie, lie, lie!!!,” one tweet from Southlake Independent read. Hannah, the tweet continued, “was asked to review the doc and suggested words be removed for verbosity and clarity.”
Waller shared her departing email to Ronell with me.
“Southlake is full of racism, hate, greed, and corruption,” the reporter wrote. “I can’t sell out my integrity, even for a significant raise. It is probably going to be difficult to find journalists that are okay with allowing trustees to change their documents without their permission before publication. [Hannah] changed quite a bit about my story to make herself look better. That’s not OK. I can’t tarnish my name by being involved in something like that. Journalists don’t really have anything but their name.”