Private citizen and educator John Gillespie held an Humble ISD trustee candidate forum April 10 at Kingwood Library for candidates he personally supports:
Bob Rehak, Abby Whitmire, Chris Herron and Dr. Lohit Datta-Barua. Gillespie posed several pointed questions to the panel regarding a variety of topics like state testing and diversion of public funds to private schools. None of these candidates support directing public funds toward any form of private school education.
The main focus of the evening was on the district’s administrative environment. Gillespie started the forum by stating that although the U.S. Constitution protects free speech and participation in forums like his, many Humble ISD teachers will not even attend such a forum or openly support school board candidates due to fear of reprisal. Gillespie asked each candidate whether they felt such a culture exists in Humble ISD and how they would address the situation if elected. All four candidates said that they hear this from teachers all the time. Datta-Barua said that he sent over 100 emails to teachers and did not get a single response. Datta-Barua said he wasn’t campaigning or saying “vote for me,” but that he asked teachers to provide him with two or three problems or suggestions.
“The sense of fear bothers me. We can’t fix what we don’t know,” said Datta-Barua. Herron stated that if there is a perception of fear, that it is likely a reality, and said that teachers have told him they don’t feel comfortable expressing opinions or putting candidate yard signs at their homes.
“I’ve been in business for a while, and this means there is a culture present that is not very respectful of teachers. That comes from poor leadership allowing a toxic environment,” said Herron. He went on to say that the problems weren’t created overnight nor would they be solved overnight, but it does need to start at the top with leaders on the school board. Rehak echoed the comments by saying, “Yes, that fear exists. I’ve had dozens of teachers tell me they’re afraid to talk to me. That can only come from one place – the people that have the power to fire or demote teachers. This is wrong, unethical and even illegal. Board members and administrators must never use their power to suppress teacher views – never.”
Rehak promised that if elected, he would never engage in such activity or implied threats, and would expose such activity whenever he saw it.
Whitmire said, “Of course it exists. It’s out there. In the short term, I would continue a practice started by the Humble ISD Parents Facebook forum last year; that is, a completely anonymous questionnaire for teachers to tell us their concerns.” Whitmire said that a longer term culture shift is needed to truly fix the problem, and supports training and policies for school administrators to ensure their neutrality so that teachers can speak freely without reprisal.
Gillespie then stated that many teachers have expressed a growing disconnect with the administration, and that Humble ISD is top-heavy with a disproportionate amount of administrators.
“Are there too many cooks in the kitchen?” Gillespie asked. Datta-Barua stated that in his industry, administrative costs are less than 15 percent and he would warrant similar costs for the school district.
“We don’t want the tail wagging the dog. Our primary focus is instruction so that’s where our budget should primarily go,” he said. Herron said that he would have to research whether the rumored 40 percent of the district budget truly goes to administrative costs, but that if that amount is accurate, a change is definitely warranted to redirect those funds to the classroom. Rehak agreed with Herron, but also said he had looked at the budget differently, through student:teacher ratios. Rehak said that teachers frequently complain that the student:teacher ratio is too high and that there is too much “process overburden” taking away valuable instruction time. Rehak cited the district’s own figures of a 15:1 teaching ratio, which “clearly is not the case.” Rehak explained that the district created the figure by dividing total students by Humble ISD employees with teaching degrees, regardless of whether they actually instruct students.
“In actuality, the ratios are closer to 28:1 and even 32:1 in some cases,” Rehak said, and cited the District of Innovation figures where the district hopes to maintain a 22:1 to a 28:1 ratio. “Clearly there is a disconnect between the 15 and 32 numbers, and that likely represents the process overburden; one example of this is the 45 evaluation criteria for a kindergartener’s report card. I mean, how many check boxes do you need for a 5-year-old? It places a tremendous paperwork burden on our teachers,” Rehak exclaimed. He continued by saying that he would require each administrator to teach at least one class to keep their feet on the ground and understand what the teachers are facing. Whitmire wrapped up the question by reflecting on her nonprofit experience of keeping administrative costs down.
“I do support hiring the best professionals to provide that framework and support, and you have to pay for it if you want the best, but I am also very skeptical by nature of administrative bloat,” Whitmire said. She described herself as “pleasantly annoying” because she would thoroughly but nicely scrutinize each administrative post to assess true need or whether redirection of the budget to the classroom was warranted.
In the final question of the evening, all board members stated that they would support term limits of one to two terms for board members. Term limits are currently not imposed on school boards in Texas.
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