Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Round Rock ISD.
In two unanimous votes, Williamson County Commissioners Court approved allocating additional federal coronavirus relief funding—with some attached stipulations—to Round Rock ISD and Leander ISD during its Dec. 21 meeting.
Commissioners initially delayed distributing funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to RRISD and LISD during its Dec. 14 meeting over concerns about inappropriate books in school libraries and critical race theory in school curriculum, despite allotting additional funds to every other public school district in the county.
“I believe that we have really been exceptional in how we have distributed those funds to the public. We have chosen to handle that in a different way than some other counties. We have chosen to pour that money back in our communities where there have been needs,” County Judge Bill Gravell said. “But please don’t misunderstand this, every single person that has received funds must be accountable. No one is above accountability.”
In approving $5 million of funding for RRISD, the commissioners court added that the district must adhere to its established policies and timelines for reviewing books that parents file complaints against.
In order for LISD to receive the $3.7 million set aside for it, the district must use the money to reimburse itself for eligible line items cleared with the county treasurer, and must conduct a review of 11 books for removal from campus and digital libraries. The district previously removed these 11 books from student-choice book clubs after a separate review process occurred.
According to Precinct 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long, who made the motion regarding LISD, the district must conduct that review by April 30 and will not receive the CARES Act funding from the county until that review is over.
“I want to give this needed money to the schools who have legitimate COVID[-19]-related expense needs,” Long said. “My very simple ask of LISD is to give clarity to the community and finish the book review process. I’m not dictating what the outcome of that process should be.”
In a statement posted to its website, LISD said it appreciates “the opportunity for continued dialogue with Williamson County officials regarding federal CARES funding,” and that the district will consider its options after returning from the winter holiday.
“We have spent 16 months working with our community and board to refine a process and policy for reviewing instructional materials,” the statement reads. “The last 16 months have taught us that decisions regarding instructional resources and children are not uniform for all families. This is why we have rallied around the choice and voice of our community and families. We will continue to do so, aligning with the vision, local control, and governance of our independently elected board of trustees.”
Over the past year, the LISD board of trustees has adopted policy changes following a review of student-choice book club titles, and in September former LISD trustee Jim MacKay cited inappropriate content in school literature as the reason for his resignation from the school board.
In a emailed statement, RRISD said they were glad Williamson County commissioners approved the additional funding for the district.
"This funding is specifically designated to help school districts navigate the added expenses brought on by the pandemic and is a much-needed and much-appreciated resource as we continue to navigate through these challenging times," said Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, RRISD chief of public affairs and communications, in an email.
Ahead of the Dec. 21 decision, commissioners said they met with leaders from both districts to learn more about their book review process.
Additionally, Austin-area Democratic state representatives John Bucy III, Vikki Goodwin, Donna Howard and Celia Israel said in a Dec. 20 letter to the commissioners court they were disappointed in the court's decision to exclude LISD and RRISD from the funding over “political disputes.”
“These two districts serve the overwhelming majority of students in Williamson County and the funding in question could go a long way to address the challenges they continue to face throughout the pandemic,” the letter reads. “In short, the students in these school districts deserve the same support as any other student in Williamson County.”
On Dec. 14, Williamson County set aside $14 million of its remaining $18 million in CARES Act funds for public school districts in the county, as well as charter and private schools interested in that funding. All federal funding from the CARES Act must be spent or returned prior to the end of the year.
The money approved Dec. 14 and Dec. 21 represents Williamson County’s second allocation of CARES Act funding to local schools. In October 2020, the county approved $12 million for area schools.
“If we had used up this money on other projects, we wouldn’t even be discussing sending any money to the schools because none of the money was required to go to the schools,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey said. “We are using remaining funds to help the schools.”