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Williamson County withholds CARES funds from Round Rock and Leander school districts over 'X-rated' books

The outside of the Leander Independent School District Administration Building
Michael Minasi
Williamson County commissioners decided to withhold federal money from the Leander ISD because of books in schools that they deem inappropriate.

Williamson County commissioners voted to withhold federal funds from the Round Rock and Leander school districts because of their reading book selections.

The county has leftover CARES Act money to distribute within the next two weeks. At the court's meeting Tuesday, County Treasurer Scott Heselmeyer suggested $14 million go toward school districts.

But Commissioner Valerie Covey said she would not agree with sending the money to schools "that put smut in the rooms of the kids."

"I'm not OK with giving money to school districts that teach critical race theory or that allow books in their library ... books that we would consider X-rated," she said.

Covey was referring to the controversy surrounding books in Leander's high school English classes. Each year, high schoolers can select books from a list for book clubs and peer reading groups.

Parents began protesting some of the books on the list last year, arguing they contained depictions of graphic violence, inappropriate language and sexual content. The books were put under review by a group of staff, parents and community members called the Community Curriculum Advisory Committee.

As of last month, 11 books were removed from classrooms and libraries. Other books in question were returned to shelves after the review.

But some parents and organizations have advocated for all of the books to be allowed, arguing the titles offer diverse voices and experiences.

PEN America, a nonprofit that promotes literature and free expression, has repeatedly called on Leander ISD to allow these books to remain in schools. The organization says their removal is "an unwarranted exercise in censorship."

On Tuesday, Commissioner Cynthia Long echoed Covey's views and said she believed the books were also available at Round Rock schools.

She suggested the November LISD bond election, which largely failed, showed the community had lost confidence in the school board.

"I think the voters of Leander ISD spoke very loudly, not so much that they were against building schools, but it was their only opportunity to say, 'We don't agree with what you're doing,'" she said.

In a 4-1 vote, the court approved giving funds to all the other districts, including Georgetown, Hutto, Liberty Hill and Taylor.

Commissioner Terry Cook was the dissenting voice in that vote.

"We are outside of our lane if we try to micromanage the ISDs," Cook said. "We can use the bully pulpit to stress what we think is important, but it's ultimately the school boards and the administration that makes those decisions."

Williamson County commissioners said they plan to meet with RRISD and LISD leaders to discuss the issue before the court's meeting next week, at which time they may choose to distribute the money.

LISD released a statement saying it would coordinate those discussions.

"The CARES Act was intended to help fund economic relief during the pandemic, including offsetting the costs incurred by school districts to keep classrooms open for in-person instruction and to provide remote learning opportunities for students," the statement said. "Our teachers and staff have worked tirelessly to go above and beyond for students during this time, and we hope to minimize the financial impact and improve the long-term stability of our district with tools such as the CARES funding."

RRISD spokesperson Jenny LaCoste-Caputo shared a statement saying the district was "disappointed" by the exclusion, but hopeful and happy to address concerns with the commissioners. The district already met with Commissioner Russ Boles to discuss the book selection process.

"All parents and members of the public in Round Rock ISD have complete access to the entirety of our school library catalogue," the statement said. "Parents always have the right to determine what books their students are able to access. Round Rock ISD has an established process for addressing parental objections to instructional resources."

The two districts could receive about $9 million combined. The districts did receive money from a previous round of funding from the CARES Act.

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Allyson Ortegon is a former Williamson County reporter for KUT.
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