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Carin “CJ” Evans’ four-year tenure has not been marred by controversy, so why is former trustee Judy Needham gunning to boot her? Courtesy Facebook

Fort Worth school board members have a history of pandering to outside interests. Former trustee Ashley Paz told us in 2018 that, during the 2015 search for former superintendent Kent Scribner, several vendors tried to sway her vote toward candidates who would favor the businesses, and in 2017, trustee Tobi Jackson gutted the board’s ethics policy allegedly as a favor to a wealthy and influential law firm (“ Ethics for Sale?” May 2018) that donates heavily to political campaigns.

The undue influence of powerbrokers, as we’ve been told by multiple FWISD insiders, may be shaping the runoff between incumbent trustee Carin “CJ” Evans and political newcomer Kevin Lynch. Kingmaker Judy Needham, a longtime former trustee, is pouring time and resources into Lynch’s campaign, including a $10,000 donation through her 2-year-old PAC, Great City Great Schools. Over her nearly 24-year tenure that ended in 2019, Needham built a reputation as a powerbroker who consistently swayed board elections and vendor contract awards, and she apparently can’t kick the habit.

Needham’s heir apparent was Evans, who filled Needham’s vacated seat, but the kingmaker soon lost control of her former protege. The story can be traced to one transaction — or lack thereof — between 2019 and 2020, when Fort Worth ISD leaders wanted to generate some easy cashflow by selling several older and underused properties. The board voted to sell the Central Administration Building for $5 million to private equity firm Keystone Group in 2020, but Evans asked her colleagues to hold back on selling several other buildings until her request for an opinion by the State Attorney General was fulfilled. The topic? Whether trustees could lawfully lease district properties and buildings. The move, we’re told, miffed Needham, whose personal friends would have benefited from the purchase of the school buildings.

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Needham’s departure from the board didn’t end her alleged efforts to control trustee elections. She was a staunch supporter of former trustee Daphne Brookins, who died from COVID-19 in late 2021, and sought to have Brookins’ then-political opponent, Wallace Bridges, gerrymandered out of Brookins’ district by leaning on certain board members. That effort failed, and Evans is widely credited with spoiling Needham’s wayward redistricting plans.

Lynch enjoys the endorsement of former mayor Betsy Price, a known friend of Needham. Lynch, a youth football coach who, based on his campaign website, “helped bring lifesaving medical services to local hospitals,” parrots Evans’ established messaging: academic excellence, fiscal responsibility, and property tax relief. The two candidates are nearly identical, which makes you wonder why Needham would flip her support to a political newcomer after only four years. (Answer: Needham supports only candidates she can influence.)

Needham’s political puppeteering comes at a time when our school district is in crisis, largely from political infighting that distracts from FWISD’s mission to train young minds and from dwindling enrollment. Based on school district data, FWISD is losing an average of 2,400 students per year to charter, private, and home schools. The current enrollment of around 72,000 is projected to diminish to 66,000 by 2026. Those losses mean less public funding, which is allocated largely by student population and financial need.

In March, the school board voted to cut several high-level administrative positions as well as dozens of low-level jobs in response to the student exodus. In a public statement, school leaders said FWISD will eventually flatten out to around 55,000 students.

Even with waning enrollment, the district (which recently received a voter-approved $1.5 billion bond package) remains a lucrative target for grift and mismanagement. Voters should cut ties with any candidate, trustee, or former trustee who even hints at favoring contractors and vendors based on personal connections. Self-serving actions mar the credibility of an already embattled public school system. If Needham is so obsessed with clinging to power by ousting a board member whose first term has been scandal-free, she should run for office again so locals can decide whether she deserves influence in local school dealings.

Speaking at a recent candidate forum organized by the Fort Worth Report, Lynch said that no contribution will influence how he votes if elected.

Evans questioned whether Lynch was an independent candidate or a pawn groomed by Price and Needham.

“When I talk with voters, I ask them, ‘Is my opponent this far in the race standing on his own?’ ” Evans said. Or is he here “because he’s backed by historical political figures in this town?”

Early voting runs through Tuesday, June 6. Election Day is Saturday, June 10.

 

This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. He will gently edit it for clarity and concision.

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