Lakeside United Methodist Church hosted a March 26 trustee candidate forum. Charles Cunningham and Abby Whitmire, both running for Position 4, attended, as did several Position 5 candidates:
Jonathan Prevot, Cliff Crossett and Martina Lemond Dixon. Lakeside will also host another candidate forum on April 4 at 6:30 p.m. for Position 1 candidates Bob Rehak and Robert Sitton, Position 3 candidates Angela Conrad and Chris Herron, and some of the remaining Position 5 candidates, Lohit Datta-Barua and Shawn Biazar.
A major topic of the evening was the financial status of the district. Cunningham has served on the board since 2007 and was part of the district bond committee for the 2002, 2005 and 2008 bonds, and was part of building 16 schools. He described the “chaos” and “financial bind” the district was in when he began his board tenure in 2007, and talked about the great financial shape the district is now in. Cunningham said that the “survival of our district depends on our preparedness” and proceeded to outline challenges for the district, including growth and addressing retirement needs of teachers. “Right now, we have a TRS problem,” he said, referring to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. “It used to be self-funded but the system is about to go belly up. There’s a bill that will allow the district to opt out of TRS, saving millions of dollars.” Cunningham also stated that school safety is a priority, and discussed the capital improvements, like check-in vestibules and I.D. scanning systems, made in Humble ISD three years ago after the Sandy Hook school shooting incident.
Whitmire outlined three issues: accountability of the board, education agenda items in this year’s Texas legislature, and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). “ESSA is a new law putting more impetus on the districts versus the previous federal law, the No Child Left Behind Act, which had a more federal impetus, so I’m looking at that closely to ensure that everyone gets the resources they need,” she said. Under ESSA, the federal government still mandates reading and math testing in grades 3-8, but beyond that, gives states wide discretion in goal setting, school and district accountability, and intervention in low-performing schools, and there is no federal role in teacher evaluation. Whitmire is relatively new to the district, having lived here three years, but worked in New Orleans for a renowned nonprofit youth leadership development program and became “deeply moved by and involved in the plight of the school systems there.” Whitmire stated she is most interested in closely monitoring the bills coming out of the Texas legislature, and says she is all about accountability, transparency and accessibility. She said, “I’ve talked with many parents who feel they can’t go to our current board with questions, and that the board does not hear their concerns. I’d like to change that.”
Former teacher Martina Lemond Dixon discussed her Galena Park ISD teaching experience and her board service to the American Community School in Abu Dhabi. “I bring experience and passion for public school education,” she said. Dixon is particularly proud of her role on the Humble ISD council of PTAs, a group that traveled to Austin to speak to the legislature regarding End of Course (EOC) testing required by the STAAR test. Through the collective efforts of state-wide PTAs, Texas ultimately reduced EOCs from 15 to 5. Lemond also stated that she has a post-graduate degree in construction management, a skill set that will “come in handy due to all our district growth and building of new schools.”
Cliff Crossett is CEO of a group of cardiovascular surgeon partners and stated that the experience of running a business on a daily basis is sorely needed on the school board. “A school district is a business. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t understand that a school district is a business to run,” he said. Crossett also strongly disagrees with those who say the district is in good financial shape: “We are $900 million in debt, and for a district our size, that is excessive. Even worse, the board is talking about putting a bond out next year. Refinancing of the debt has been a stroke of luck because of the low interest rates. To burden the taxpayers of our district with excessive debt is inexcusable to me.”
Jonathan Prevot was the final Position 5 candidate to address the audience. Prevot cited his City of Houston career as a civil engineer and his land sales business in Huffman, and stated he is not running because of any particular problem. “It is a great school district; it is why I chose to live in Atascocita.” Prevot noted, however, that he too was concerned about the debt and feels the district should be less reliant on bonds. “We need to set aside more money for the future.”
Each candidate was asked to identify the district’s biggest problem and outline a plan for addressing it.
Dixon discussed the educational gap between our schools and the underserved population. “It’s hard for me to see our district with 11 Title I schools – it really is. It pulls on my heartstrings. I think about this often. The number is getting larger, not smaller. There is a way to reach out and do a better job of educating these children, but there is no textbook answer. We need to reach out to different districts that are bridging those gaps. Some are private, some public, but we can learn from any type of education system. Schools are putting two teachers per classroom, reducing class sizes, and creating after-school academic enrichment. These small examples can make a difference in a child’s life.”
Crossett agreed with Dixon on the Title 1 schools, and said there are so many things the district can’t do because of the federal mandate, but “there are policies we can put in place to drive certain changes to give those kids a better education.” Crossett also expressed concerns that the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in bilingual education, but returned to his emphasis on debt as the district’s biggest issue. “I have multiple ideas on how we pay for growth without incurring more debt. We have to. We don’t want to get into a situation where we have outrageous taxes and no one wants to move here,” Crossett said.
Whitmire stated that she “always like to start in the classroom” because that is where the most important and most impactful changes occur. She stated that the district’s biggest issues are school overcrowding, ensuring teachers have necessary resources, and the overburdening of state testing that is seriously taking away from instructional time. “We need to look at the budget and find more money, everywhere we can, for teachers.”
Cunningham restated that the district’s biggest issue is the growth. “We [the current board] have a plan that will address growth and meet those needs up until 2025 at least and we can talk more about how we’re going to get there.”
Prevot said, “We need to spend money on education. Without education, our children have no future. There is no easy answer. We all want the best for our children, but we are responsible to the taxpayers. That doesn’t mean we don’t spend money, but we do need to spend wisely.”