Follow the money: How a political action committee disrupted the status quo within North East ISD

School board in months-long stalemate over who to appoint to vacant trustee position

SAN ANTONIO – Late last month, North East Independent School District’s fractured board of trustees interviewed its top four candidates to replace the late Terri Williams as trustee for Single Member District 2.

Williams passed away in August following a long illness. The battle to fill her seat has sent NEISD’s board into a tailspin, as trustees have squabbled in public meetings over who should fill Williams’ seat.

Three of the trustees: Steve Hilliard, Marsha Landry and Diane Villarreal, have voiced their support for Jacqueline Klein, who lost to Williams in the May 2022 election by fewer than 75 votes.

But, a candidate needs at least four votes for the appointment to go into effect.

Oct. 27, five separate motions to appoint one of the four finalists or to place the spot on the ballot next year were all unsuccessful.

Campaign finance reports obtained by KSAT Investigates from the Texas Ethics Commission show that Hilliard, Landry, Villarreal and Klein all have ties to a socially conservative political action committee (PAC) called Parents United for Freedom.


Parents United for Freedom, which uses the acronym PUFF, touts itself as a “non-partisan grassroots effort” protecting parental rights in schools and “fighting indoctrination in the classrooms.”

PUFF’s website does not mention NEISD by name, however, KSAT could find no record that the PAC has attempted to wield influence in any other school district in the San Antonio area.

Last year, the PAC spent thousands of dollars on block walking, texting services and radio ads in an effort to boost the respective campaigns of Landry, Villarreal and Klein.

Each candidate also received $500 donations from the PAC weeks before the May 2022 election took place, TEC records show.

Landry and Villarreal were eventually elected to the board, while Klein came up just short.

Public records show Parents United for Freedom gave Villarreal, Landry and Klein donations and paid for block walking, texting services and radio ads for the three candidates ahead of the May 2022 election. (KSAT)

Klein rebuked Trustee David Beyer during her public interview on Oct. 23, when he asked whether she had solicited funds from PUFF ahead of last year’s election.

“With regard to your allegation that I have solicited anything from any group, that’s false. You need to know,” said Klein, who also denied during the interview that she, Landry and Villarreal had run as a slate of candidates.

PUFF’s financial support of Klein’s campaign, which also included paying for a website for two months, totaled $6,775.32, a significant amount of funding for a school board race.

Shortly after Klein’s interview, while the meeting was in a brief recess, KSAT attempted to ask Klein about her ties to PUFF.

“So can you clarify if you accepted their money but didn’t solicit their money?” a KSAT reporter asked Klein.

“Do you understand politics? I mean clearly you don’t,” said Klein as she walked away.

NEISD board candidate Jacqueline Klein speaks with Dillon Collier outside a public meeting late last month. (KSAT)

But the ties between PUFF and NEISD extend well beyond the three school board candidates the PAC aided last year.

Crystal Keen, the wife of a convicted Capitol rioter, was appointed assistant campaign treasurer for PUFF in February 2022, TEC records show.

Keen, who has also donated to the PAC, is listed as both a contribution and expenditure decisionmaker for PUFF.

Keen was chosen by Landry for a seat on NEISD’s School Health Advisory Council earlier this year. Keen now serves on the council’s nutrition committee, according to NEISD records.

Landry and Keen did not respond to emails requesting an interview on their ties to PUFF.

PUFF’s other contribution and expenditure decisionmaker, Ashlee S. Broome, is, according to public records, the wife of Brandon Broome.

Brandon Broome is one of Hilliard’s appointees to SHAC, and currently serves on its safe and healthy schools committee, records show.

Additionally, Hilliard’s wife Paula donated $200 to PUFF in March 2022, TEC records show.

PUFF’s listed campaign treasurer, Melanie Hutzler, did not respond to a phone call or text message seeking comment for this story.

“We’ve seen a growing focus, political focus on school boards across the country. And that’s also happened here in Texas. North Texas has been a particular hotbed for this kind of activity,” said Patrick Svitek, primary political correspondent for the Texas Tribune.

“In the past few years there’s been this kind of perfect storm, largely on the political right, around school board issues,” added Svitek.

Questioning of Klein leads to bickering among trustees

The board’s public interview of Klein sparked controversy in its immediate aftermath after Trustee Sandy Hughey questioned Klein’s ties to Moms for Liberty, an activist group that states it is standing up for parental rights at all levels of government.

Klein has posted photos on social media wearing a name badge identifying her as the chapter chair of Moms for Liberty - Bexar County and she is listed as one of the administrators for the local chapter’s Facebook page.

The national group was labeled this summer by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “extremist group,” after SPLC determined Moms for Liberty “use their multiple social media platforms to target teachers and school officials, advocate for the abolition of the Department of Education, advance a conspiracy propaganda, and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community.”

An Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty apologized this summer after using a quote from Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in its inaugural newsletter.

Hughey asked Klein about her political affiliation with Moms for Liberty during the interview, saying it has been defined as a “hate group.”

A clip of the interaction gained significant traction on social media after the meeting, and led to a tense argument between Hughey and Villarreal at the board’s next meeting days later.

NEISD's board late last month failed to pass five motions to either appoint a trustee or to add the position to a 2024 election. (KSAT)

Villarreal at one point questioned whether Hughey was fit to vote in the trustee appointment process moving forward. Hughey then questioned whether the board had gathered to support someone for the vacant seat or to take part in a personal attack on a fellow trustee.

A woman who answered the phone when KSAT called Villarreal’s publicly listed phone number last month hung up when a KSAT reporter identified himself.

Klein’s past social media posts and comments, which included calling for NEISD Board President Shannon Grona to be recalled and for the entire board “to be shown the door,” have also appeared to draw the ire of several trustees she hopes to now work alongside.

At one point during the board interview, Klein denied that she had “cleaned up” her social media ahead of applying for the vacant trustee position.

“I seem to hear everybody else talking about political things, but I’m focused on student success,” said Klein.

A KSAT investigation last month revealed that Klein is being sued by NEISD for failing to pay property taxes in 2019 and 2020.

Klein told KSAT via text message her taxes “are 100% paid.”

She was successfully served with the lawsuit as of October 31 and the suit remains pending, Bexar County court records show.

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.

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