‘It’s truly just voter intimidation’: NISD pressured staff, tracked votes during bond election, records show

Multiple state agencies investigating allegations that district employees felt pushed to vote on $992 million measure in May

‘It’s truly just voter intimidation’: NISD pressured staff, tracked votes during bond election, records show

Employees at multiple Northside Independent School District campuses have told the KSAT 12 Defenders in recent weeks that administrators relentlessly pressured them to vote on a May bond measure, tracked whether they had cast a ballot and in one instance threatened discipline if they failed to do so.

“It’s truly just voter intimidation, which is incredibly illegal. And we felt seriously pressured as staff to have to go and vote, otherwise we were told we could potentially receive punishment,” said one elementary school teacher, who asked that we call them “Alex.”

Alex said staff at their school attended a meeting in April in which administrators described the benefits of passing the $992 NISD school bond, which includes funds for the construction of a new elementary school on the far West Side and will provide more than $645 million for district renovations and reconstruction.

The bond passed during the May 7 election after garnering more than 57 percent support of voters within the district who cast a ballot.

But the price of passage could be high.

Governor Greg Abbott announced that same day that the Texas Education Agency and Texas Attorney General were investigating whether messaging sent by an NISD principal to staff in April had violated state law.

The messages, which were later shared on Twitter, included the claim that NISD Superintendent Dr. Brian Woods felt voter turnout for the last bond election among NISD employees living in the district was unacceptable and that all employees were expected to vote for the bond.

In a statement last month, a district spokesman confirmed the messaging was sent by a campus principal in an April 18 newsletter, calling it a “miscommunication.”

“This miscommunication was immediately addressed by the principal’s supervisor and the principal, a veteran and well-respected leader, took corrective action,” according to the statement sent by Barry Perez, NISD’s Executive Director of Communications. “The messaging provided to district staff was solely intended to encourage the goal of increasing staff participation in the voting process. This messaging was never intended to be coercive and immediate measures were taken to clarify and correct any messaging that may have been misrepresented, misinterpreted, or miscommunicated.”

But additional records obtained by the Defenders in recent weeks reveal significant details about the pressure put on NISD staff to cast a ballot.

On April 27, just days into the early voting period, an elementary school principal told staff via email they could get “jeans passes” if they voted, writing, “To clarify, if the Bond does not pass, there is a possibility that the district will have to use Operational Funds to pay for improvements like roofs and AC. What does that mean? Potentially no raises for anyone in the near future.”

The principal concluded the email by stating it was not an endorsement to vote “yes” or “no” but was instead written to raise awareness about it.

A text message sent by an elementary school vice-principal on April 29 informed employees the school’s principal had been told who had already voted.

Records show Henderson Elementary School administration was tracking how many of its employees had early voted before the May 7 election. (KSAT)

“It doesn’t show how you voted. Just date and time,” the text message reads.

A May 2 email sent by the principal of Henderson Elementary School to staff, titled “Henderson Voting,” informed them that 12 people from the school had voted early and that those who had not could leave early, as long as “your kids (students) have been taken care of.”

Alex said messaging they received was indicative of NISD central office staff applying pressure to campus leaders who then applied pressure to staff to vote.

“To have that on top of it, that added stress, especially during the end of the year, during STAAR. I mean, it wasn’t nice to have,” said Alex, referring to statewide assessment tests conducted at Texas public schools during parts of May.

Reached for comment, Perez repeatedly asked for copies of the messaging provided to KSAT, which the Defenders declined to hand over.

He said he could not provide additional comment because the district had prepared a response to the TEA as part of its investigation.

The Defenders have requested a copy of that formal response from both NISD and the TEA, but have so far not heard back.

A TEA spokesman said late last month the investigation was ongoing and no further updates were available.

The Texas Election Code sets out rules public employees must follow regarding communication about voting items. (KSAT)

The attorney general’s communications office did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment for this story.

The Texas Election Code allows public school employees to disseminate information about a specific measure being voted on, as long as “the communication does not advocate passage or defeat of the measure.”

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.