Fort Worth ISD

A Short History of the Struggle by Hispanics for Representation at the Fort Worth Independent School District Board of Education

by Fernando Florez, September 1, 2021

What happened following the end of the Texas Revolution in 1836 when Anglos and Tejanos defeated Mexico has been recounted to many of us with deep Texas roots mainly by word of mouth through generations. Emigrants from the United States swarmed into the state and became the majority and dominant population and with that a level of disdain for native Texas Hispanics developed, engendering discrimination manifested in all aspects of life, including education. The discrimination became so ingrained and systemic that it lasted for nearly a century and a half. This writer was exposed to some of it growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas.      

Hispanics in general fought against the discrimination. But it persisted and it wasn’t until after the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in early 1964, which abolished the poll tax in federal elections, passage of the federal Civil Rights Act later that year and the enactment of the Voting Rights Act the following year (1965), that significant change began in Texas and other parts of the United States.    

When I came to Fort Worth after my military discharge in 1968, I started hearing stories from local Hispanics about the discrimination and mistreatment they endured in school when they were young; at that time the vast majority of the administrators and teachers in majority Hispanic schools were almost all White. Many of those former students, such as Pauline Gasca Valenciano from the Worth Heights neighborhood in South Fort Worth, never forgot those early days and grew up to fight the established discrimination they experienced. “The long-term negative effects of decades of lack of education equality on children of color has contributed to high dropout rates and other problems and have had generational consequences,” said Jodi Gonzalez in a recent text message.       

What Hispanics learned over time was that to correct  inequality in their children’s education depended on how much representation they had on the school board at the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD), where policy that affects everything related to education is made. The problem was that they didn’t have any representation there and the all-Anglo school board was opposed to making it possible for them to have any. That was wrong and it’s the reason Hispanics, including this writer, have been and continue to be involved in the fight for more representation–for the sake of our children because they are important! Ours is a just cause and what drives us.      

The level of disrespect for Hispanics I mentioned above by many Anglos—but not by all of them, of course—was so common that it became the norm and for many it was the reason they perpetuated the education inequality imposed on Hispanics here. Education discrimination against Mexican-Americans in Texas, other parts of the southwest and in California has a long history that dates back to the early part of the last century. Please read the article on the link below, written about the inferior and segregated schools Mexican-American children were placed in; the article was written from the testimony by the plaintiffs and witnesses in this significant California Supreme Court case, Mendez v. Westminster, which pre-dates Brown v. Board of Education by eight years: https://www.history.com/news/mendez-school-segregation-mexican-american.       

The continuous lack of concern about education inequality by the FWISD after numerous complaints were made by Hispanics—for example, the school district was not providing equitable resources at majority Hispanic schools to increase the quality of students’ education there to the same level of Anglo majority schools—eventually led the Mexican American Educational Advisory Committee to file a lawsuit in federal district court against the school district in 1971. Because the lawsuit involved voting rights, at that time it required U.S. Justice Dept. Pre-clearance under Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.      

“There was only one Hispanic principal in the school district at that time, one assistant principal, very few teachers of Hispanic origin and no Hispanics on the school board,” recalled Rufino Mendoza Jr., recently. He and his father, Rufino Mendoza Sr. and others met with the FWISD superintendent and other officials numerous times to express their concerns, but they wouldn’t listen. Hispanics even walked out of several school board meetings because their complaints were ignored.

The all-Anglo school board and other officials made very clear what they wanted: continuation of the status quo, as one school board president actually stated at a school board meeting, complete control of the school board, where limited school district resources that impact the education of children in the district are allocated. Hispanics were practically voiceless. And although the two sides met several more times, they couldn’t come to a complete agreement, leaving the lawsuit open. FWISD had an 8-2 electoral plan in place (8 single-member districts and a school district president and a vice-president, the latter two elected at-large) at that time.      

Hispanics sought an 11-0 electoral plan, all single-member districts to increase their chances of electing more Hispanics and impacting school board policy more. They didn’t get it, but the school board did budge a little bit by creating the first Hispanic seat on the school board in 1973, Carlos Puente from the north side area. That wasn’t enough and the lawsuit continued unsettled.      

As I have previously stated, the long history at the FWISD indicates that it has always opposed minority representation on the school board. So progress moving forward stalled, leaving the lawsuit still unsettled.   That prompted the United Hispanic Council (UHC), an umbrella organization founded in 1984, whose mission is to advocate for Hispanic civil rights and fund raise for scholarships, to join forces with the Mexican American Educational Advisory Committee and re-open the same lawsuit originally filed in 1971. The lawsuit was refiled on behalf of the  Mexican American Educational Advisory Committee by Dallas attorney William Garrett in 1991. And joining the lawsuit was the United Hispanic Council, represented by attorney Albert Perez. That resulted in another majority Hispanic district created in the city’s south side in 1995, to finally settle the lawsuit, which was filed in 1971. It happened during the administration of Superintendent I. Carl Candoli. I was involved in the selection of that trustee, Rachel Newman. It was my initiation into school board politics and later redistricting.  

(Special note: I think my background is important and relevant in writing this history because, although I frequently inject my personal opinion in what I write, history has to be true, based on facts, preferably originating from the personal accounts of those who were there on the scene as opposed to it being written from secondary sources such as archives of newspaper articles, etc.).      

Interest in redistricting for me started at the Fort Worth City Council after the 1990 Census. I helped organize a group that looked at city council districts maps and started to understand how manipulating districts’ boundaries can be used by politicians to gain advantage in elections. At that time nobody talked about the lack of fair Hispanic representation on the city council and its importance, but I noticed it clearly and started planning to become more proactive in the 2000 census cycle. [During the 2000 census cycle, after a bitter battle, we managed to take the precincts in the Tanglewood neighborhood north of Bellaire out of City Council District 9 and putting them in City Council District 3, thus making City Council District 9 more Hispanic friendly, by increasing the percentage of Hispanics in the district].

After the 2010 Census, we took out more precincts in the TCU area out of the district, which made it even more Hispanic friendly, although we didn’t get everything we wanted out of it. Now, after the 2020 Census, because the city has grown in population so much and it’s now majority minority, we are pushing for a more fair method of drawing council districts. The only way to do that is if an Independent Redistricting Commission draws city council districts, but, as always, we are facing long odds because the entrenched establishment wants to continue with the status quo—drawing city council maps to keep controlling our city government. This time, after a long battle that we led and won, the city council will add two new single-member districts in time for the 2023 election. But that’s another story. We joined the United Hispanic Council during the 2000 Census cycle and in addition to city council redistricting, I also started working on FWISD redistricting and have continued doing that ever since.       

Nothing has ever been given to Hispanics in Fort Worth without fighting for it.        

I am writing this history because Hispanics have been fighting for more representation on the FWISD School Board to improve the quality of education for their children for a long time and have accomplished much, but hardly anyone knows about that history. In that history, there are several unknown heroes who have played key roles and the fight continues to this day. Nothing has ever been given to Hispanics in Fort Worth without fighting for it.        

Of course, I know this first hand, as I’ve indicated, because I’ve been in the fight, in the front lines, particularly after the 2010 Census when things got hateful and ugly. As always, we were fighting for more equitable Hispanic representation on the school board when some of us were unjustly called “racist.”  We were in fact fighting against exactly that! Even a local newspaper had a few articles published in which it sided with those opposed to our redistricting plan—without adequately hearing our side of the story first! That was biased reporting for sure, bordering on “yellow journalism.” Again, because of the long history of discrimination at the FWISD and its impact, of which there is ample evidence, all we were asking for was a little more equitable representation for the sake of the children. The school district knew that if it didn’t make meaningful changes, it would be sued again and very likely lose! I’ll cover that more thoroughly later in this article.      

As for the unknown heroes I mentioned earlier, in no particular order, how about Rufino Mendoza Sr., Rufino `Mendoza Jr., Juan Perez, Mario Perez, Juan Rangel, et al. and Sam Garcia. After I joined the UHC one evening in a casual conversation, in regards to another discrimination issue, he told me: “We are pushing the city to hire more Hispanics who work with their heads instead of their hands.” I’ll never forget that statement.      

Today, unknown to them, many Hispanics have obtained  employment not only with the city but with the school district because of the contributions of the Mexican American Educational Advisory Committee and the United Hispanic Council and their members.      

But, to repeat myself, it’s unfortunate that very few know about that history. That includes several young Hispanics I’ve encountered who have benefited from the work of the Hispanic organizations I’ve mentioned and their members. But several have been misinformed and misled into fighting against the progress those organizations have made for the benefit of all Hispanics. That’s another reason I am writing this history—to make sure it’s available out there for everyone to read.)    

Fort Worth Weekly writer Dan McGraw captured some of the ugliness and hatred I mentioned earlier in an article titled, “Knocking on the Door,” https://:www.fwweekly.com/2011/11/02/knocking-on-the-door/, during 2010 Census cycle redistricting at a school board public hearing in November 2011. He was sitting with me at the school board meeting asking me questions about redistricting for the article. During the public hearing, our attorney, Rolando Rios, and I were called to the seats below the dais where the school board members were seated, to answer questions about the redistricting plan we were proposing to the board. After testifying, I came back to my seat to sit down, but before I did, my eyes met those of a middle-aged white woman who appeared to be angry. The fire in her eyes compelled me to say, “I can explain everything to you,” before she almost cut me off at mid-sentence; at that point, she uttered, “racist.” “I don’t want to ever talk to you.” The Fort Worth Weekly writer heard every word she said and reacted by asking for her name, to possibly quote her in the article he was writing; but she refused to give it to him. The incident was over in a few seconds, but I have never forgotten it.      

Except for that incident, we had a good first public hearing that evening. I had spent the previous few days sending out emails and calling people on the telephone, explaining our redistricting proposal and trying to rally them. I was telling people how important the public hearing was and urging them to please be there. We had a big turnout and I was happy about that. The school board chamber was nearly packed, with many speakers; there were Hispanics, Anglos and Blacks speaking in support of our redistricting plan. The opposition also had speakers, but very few and it was obvious by the tone of their voices when they spoke and by their body language that they were angry. That resulted in a tense evening and even our attorney, Rolando Rios, from San Antonio, was accosted in the parking lot  after the public hearing. The next public hearing was the following week and in between the hearings there was negotiation and adjustments to districts’ boundaries. Our attorney and I both testified before the board again at the second public hearing to seal the final agreement.      

Who knows how the overall school board would have voted if they hadn’t seen so many people supporting our plan at the public hearings. Those people who showed up for the public hearings are heroes, especially those who in that atmosphere had the courage to go up front and speak. But entirely too much anger and resentment lingered afterwards and retaliation was planned against the two most vocal trustees supporting our plan, Juan Rangel and Carlos Vasquez, who are without doubt also heroes. Several groups of affluent white politicians raised large sums of money and used it to defeat them in their reelection bids later. I’ll provide more details about that and about the changes the new redistricting agreement brought to the FWISD later in this article. But I am getting ahead of myself in writing this history and will now return to the previous narrative.       

Rachel Newman served for six years (1995–2000) and was followed by Juan Rangel who served for 13 years (2000–2013). Progress was made by Hispanic children during the tenure of those trustees. That was also a time when a new demographic trend became more noticeable: The percentage of Hispanic children in the school district increased dramatically. The total student population grew steadily for several years before it leveled off and then declined between 2015 and 2019, according to Texas Education Agency (TEA) data. As of the 2018–2019 school year out of 84,704 students at the FWISD, 63.3% were Hispanic, 21.7% were Black, 11.3% White and the rest were of mixed races or of other races. In that school year (2018–2019), after students took the state-mandated STAAR tests, the FWISD did not do well overall, and fell behind Dallas and Houston ISDs, school districts with similar student demographics: https://schools.texastribune.org/districtsfort-worth-isd .

It’s not acceptable when only 32% of the 3rd graders were reading at grade level at the FWISD! And there is a lot more information in that report that is disappointing that people need to be aware of. I don’t want to sound like an apologist, but the FWISD has several programs in place now that they didn’t have a few years ago such as “Parent University” and those programs sometimes take time to show results. And the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown an unknown variable in the equation. There is no doubt that students overall are behind and the results of the 2020–2021 STAAR tests indicate that. Students need to catch up, demonstrating that when the STAAR tests are administered at the end of the 2021–2022 school year. As I write this article, there is hope that new reading programs implemented this summer will help students do that.       

I write this knowing that with nearly two out of three students at the FWISD (63.3%) being Hispanic, the way that demographic group performs on the STAAR tests will have a major impact on how the schools individually and the district will be rated.      

Based on my own personal experience and not fully knowing what programs are being implemented, the emphasis, again, should be placed on increasing Hispanic parental involvement in the education of their children. That is a big challenge, particularly when at the same time many of those parents are struggling to pay their rent and put food on the table. Increasing Hispanic parental involvement is an area where more resources need to be concentrated. But will the leadership have the willpower to do that? If not, it will be time for school board members to do their job.      

It was during Juan Rangel’s tenure that I retired after a long career in telecommunications at AT&T (Electronic Switching Systems  maintenance and Human Resources management) and started a 15-year stint as a substitute teacher at the FWISD.

I taught all grades at first (Pre-K–12) and later settled on teaching high school math and even Spanish for several semesters. I brought a diverse background to teaching: Majors in Math and Electrical Engineering at one time, experience as an Electronics Technician, Electronics school instructor and as a Technical Writer, and BBA and MBA degrees from Texas Christian University. I like to teach and have long been a strong advocate of education. Schools have changed in many ways from the time I attended and I think it’s tougher to teach today than ever and I admire teachers. But there is one thing that has remained the same: “Education begins at home.” This is a tried and true principle and I’ve seen its application in school and life in general many times.       

My siblings and I were lucky to have had parents who valued education and pushed us to get one. They both grew up and married during the Great Depression of the 1930s when it was hard to find a job and survive financially; one thing they learned was that people with an education, such as teachers, always had a job during those tough times. We were the beneficiaries of that lesson they learned.      

While teaching, I often spoke with school administrators and teachers and found out that Juan Rangel visited the schools in his district often, not in an attempt to micromanage what was going on in them, but to engage with the students and especially the parents in their own native language and encourage them. Many of those parents are immigrants from countries such as Mexico who have come seeking the so-called ‘American Dream,’ higher paying jobs and a better life for themselves and a better future for their children. Those people often bring with them a multi-generation background of poverty and illiteracy. Education is not very important to many of them because they never had one. Yet we know that without parental involvement, students don’t thrive in school. My opinion is that Juan Rangel, who spoke fluent Spanish and knew the culture of those parents and their attitude toward education was able to connect with them and influence their thinking.      

That’s important to me and over the years I have also developed other criteria that I use “iou” before supporting candidates for office. I also look at a candidate’s character and qualifications. Qualifications may include experience dealing with issues and people, such as at neighborhood associations, boards, etc. and their level of personal education.

Trustee Juan Rangel also helped us in other ways that few people know about. Here is an example: My wife, Roberta, and I organized free after-school and summer programs for children to keep them out of gangs in our area. In fact, the free after-school program the FWISD has now was modeled after the one we started at South Hemphill Heights at Old Fire Station 10 on Lipscomb Street in the early 1990s. It was Roberta who did most of the organizing and managing of the programs and I was more of a helper, tutoring, coaching and writing grants and fighting for funding to keep the programs going.

For about three years we had the summer program ongoing at the Travis Avenue Baptist Church South Complex (now a Walmart store at 717 W. Berry); but it was costing us too much money to have it there, with some of that money coming out of our own pockets. So one day we came up with the then radical idea of having the program at a nearby elementary school. Roberta pitched the idea to Juan Rangel the next day and as they say, ‘the rest is history.’ Juan Rangel went to the school district and made it happen. We had our new site and the children had access to buses for field trips. That happened around 2000 and we also soon had a new partner, the city’s Parks and Community Services Dept. which agreed to take over the program and manage it, thanks to Superintendent Sheri Endsley. In 2004 Sandra Medina was hired as director of the program, by that time named the Summer Mobile Recreation Program. As of this summer, the city has managed the program for 21 years, which at times has served over 800 children at four school sites.    

Many success stories have come out about kids who have gone through the program: I remember a boy and his twin sister who came from Mexico and could barely speak a few words of English. A few years ago I ran into them and found out they were college graduates and teachers!  Roberta loved Sheri Endsley and Sandra Medina because of the great job they’ve done with the children in the program and I do too!      

Juan Rangel was what I call, “a good fit” to represent his district on the school board. He did much more than just sit at the school board meetings. He got out in the community. That’s important to me and over the years I have also developed other criteria that I use “iou” before supporting candidates for office. I also look at a candidate’s character and qualifications. Qualifications may include experience dealing with issues and people, such as at neighborhood associations, boards, etc. and their level of personal education. When it comes to school board trustees, I support Hispanics if they are in a district where the majority of the students are Hispanic because it means that they may have to communicate with parents in Spanish and know their culture. But I will not support a candidate for office merely because they are Hispanic, if he or she doesn’t meet the other criteria I’ve mentioned. Some people don’t agree with me about this and over time I have made some enemies. I have my beliefs and fight for them and it’s one big reason I am involved in redistricting.       

In regards to school board candidates, the school board is not the place to start learning; candidates must already be prepared by experience and expertise before they get there. In many ways the school board serves in a capacity similar to a corporate board. Corporate board members, before being appointed, must have the expertise to determine if the corporation is being run at its top efficiency, maximizing profits  for the stockholders. And if not, there has to be accountability and tough decisions have to be made. On the school board trustees must have knowledge and expertise because they have to determine whether the school district is functioning at its best—with students’ academic success as the top priority. Otherwise the superintendent and others have to be accountable. And tough decisions and changes may have to be made. Board members have a tough and important job and I believe they should be paid. At about what Fort Worth city council members are paid is a good place to start that conversation.      

The redistricting agreement adopted in 2012 called for the elimination of the school board president and the creation of an additional single-member district—FWISD District 9. Because then FWISD District 8 Trustee Juan Rangel’s residence ended up within the boundaries of newly created FWISD District 9, he agreed to switch districts. To fill the new vacancy in FWISD District 8, the school board appointed J. R. Martinez, who was selected by the school board over four other candidates in 2012; he declined to run for the seat in 2013. Matt Avila served from 2013 to 2017. In 2017, Anael Luebanos was elected to represent District 8 in 2017 and the popular trustee was re-elected in 2021, besting two other candidates without a runoff.     

In District 9, Juan Rangel lost to Ashley Paz in 2013; she served for two four year terms and didn’t run in 2021. She has been replaced by newly elected Roxanne Martinez. In the north side, District 2, Jacinto “Cinto” Ramos defeated Carlos Vasquez in 2013 and won re-election in 2017 and again in 2021.       

At this point, the next chapter of this history waits to be written. I ask that you don’t forget that what I’ve written here is history. When it comes to history keep in mind what Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest American presidents, once said, “History is not history unless it is the truth.” As much as possible if inaccuracies in written history are found, a correction should be made. To put this in proper perspective, history is about what happened in the past and it’s very important, but even more important is what happens in the future and that’s where the focus going forward should be. I love this country and all its people despite the imperfections I’ve encountered during my lifetime because we as a nation have the capacity to change ourselves for the better. We’ve come a long way doing that and I am optimistic that the trend will continue in the future!

—Fernando Florez     (c) Copyright 2021           

Fernando Florez is a grassroots community leader in Fort Worth. He and his wife, Roberta, started the current South Hemphill Heights Neighborhood Association in 1989, which has transformed that neighborhood; today he still serves as an officer in that group. Over the years, he had organized several other grassroots groups, such as the First Alliance of Neighborhoods in the city and served on two city boards. For his community work, he has won many awards including being named Fort Worth “Man of the Year” by the Star-Telegram in 1997. He holds BBA and MBA Degrees from Texas Christian University. He may be contacted at (817) 239-0578 or by email at rfflorez@juno.com