By CASSIE MCKEE
Four Points News
The Leander ISD Board of Trustees candidate forum drew an audience of about 100 community members on Oct. 24 at Vandegrift High School. Three board members are up for re-election and each face a challenger. In place 3, incumbent Pam Waggoner is being challenged by Chris Remy. In place 4, incumbent Grace Barber-Jordan is being challenged by Scott Rowe. In Place 5, incumbent Russell Bundy is being challenged by Jim MacKay.
The following are a few of the questions posed to the candidates and the candidates’ responses in their own words.
To what extent are you comfortable with the state’s testing culture? What specific proposals would you promote that help students succeed in this culture while ensuring that we are not merely teaching to the tests?
Pam Waggoner: We take our information and our orders from the state. The state is always going to want accountability, so we are going to have to be accountable to the state. What we really need is a test that’s appropriate for the age level of our children. Not just the age level but also the material in which it covers. I spoke out against high stakes testing this year by writing a resolution against high stakes testing which we did present to the Legislature and we got over 3,000 signatures on that. So I have been an advocate against high stakes testing but I do believe in accountability and I do believe we have to hold our students accountable because you want to know where you stand in the state against other districts of like size and quality to know if you’re doing a good job or not. I believe tests have to be trying to get to something, they shouldn’t be punitive to the children. They shouldn’t be punitive to the school district or the school. They should allow the teacher to teach and this is merely to see where the students stand in conjunction to all the other students. It shouldn’t be about punishing the students or rating the school district A through F. It should be about helping the students and helping the district to get better and to succeed.
Remy: This is one of the issues that got me involved and turned me overnight from being a parent to being an education advocate. There are many flaws with the STAAR test and with the overall accountability regime. In terms of specific proposals, I’m not opposed to testing, I think testing is very good for Texas kids when you think about having over 1,000 districts, how else do you tell whether that money’s being well spent and how else do you compare districts to one another? The problem is it’s gotten totally out of control. My specific proposal I call is “Rejecting the Culture of the Test.” Just because we have to administer the test and just because we’re going to use it to judge how well we’re performing against other districts, doesn’t mean it needs to dominate the entire school year. When you think about when you were a kid, if you took the Iowa test, you showed up with your #2 pencil one day, you took the test and you never heard about it again. There’s nothing stopping us from doing that tomorrow in Leander ISD. In fact they’re doing it in Hudson ISD where Mary Ann Whiteker banned the word STAAR from everyone’s vocabulary, stopped sending any more STAAR test sheets home, not pressuring teachers or students over their scores and she called this her new vision. She was the “Superintendent of the Year” last year. I think this would be a great model for us to follow, to take the pressure off everyone. Just let teachers teach and students learn and let’s leave the test as an important data collection tool but not have it be the be-all, end-all to the entire school year.
LISD is known for renowned performance in several extracurricular activities, however students are forced to choose from a limited number of options as early as 6th grade. How are other school districts, like Round Rock ISD able to provide a variety of options such as multiple foreign languages, orchestra, advanced sports like gymnastics and trade career programs at all high schools? How do you think we can give our students more opportunity?
Rowe: I think the key to education is providing our kids with opportunity. I believe that education opens doors for our children and so I think it’s absolutely vital. I think sometimes though as good intentioned parents try to encourage our children to get involved in extracurricular activities, sometimes we do too much, too early, too soon. My son has a passion for football and when we moved here, he absolutely loved the fact that we were coming home to the state of football … but we sort of eased our way into it. I think as parents, we need to help guide our children into certain things where they can find their abilities. I’d like to put certain limits on how deep and how early we get into those things. Our kids are really stressed. There’s a lot of children out there that are feeling that suffering from over-scheduling and over-involvement. I think we as a district just need to evaluate what makes most sense and incorporate our parents, who are closest to our children and know what they can actually take on and what they can’t, as we endeavor to take on that question together.
Barber-Jordan: I’ll be honest, I’m not an expert on Round Rock ISD. I’ve been on the Leander board for 15 years, not Round Rock’s board. But that being said, we do prioritize programs that are offered here. It’s usually based on parent preference and feedback that we get from the community. So when there are programs such as lacrosse that we haven’t had before that we end up offering, we listen to our parents and we see what’s out there. Sometimes we’ll pilot programs and see if there’s enough interest to start a program. That’s basically what we do, we listen to our community when it comes to programs.
What are ways that LISD can further collaborate and explore partnership opportunities with local higher education institutions such as Austin Community College and Concordia University beyond current programs like dual credit and SELF 30? And what role do you feel the board can play in these efforts?
Bundy: This is a very exciting area. (Round Rock ISD is) starting their Early College High School program as we speak with seven portables and 113 students. They propose to be about 500 students. These students, when they enter as freshmen, will come out their senior year graduating high school with an associate’s degree. How exciting is that? I know that’s a partnership that we look forward to with ACC. The San Gabriel campus which is going up in Leander hopefully breaking ground in 2018 will have it at that campus. Those demographics will be worked out, how that will look based on their property and their site. I really enjoy keeping up with Round Rock ISD and what worked for them, what didn’t work for them and so forth. I also work for ACC so I get the opportunity to see those campuses and see how it works. Concordia is the same way. We look forward to partnering with them further and deeper as we go forward in 2016-17 especially with Dr. Troxell and looking at that vision and what that might be.
MacKay: Russell did hit the highlights as far as the type of students that are able to access that type of dual credit structure and are educationally prepared to take those types of education credits. But I think we’re missing another segment of our community and those that are not on the path to college degrees. My question would be how do we address those students with an expanded vocational program? What are we doing for those students? It’s not just the ones who can get in there and get the dual credits – and that’s a fantastic program. But we’re missing another segment of our community and that is the vocational education. We need to form partnerships with local industry. The average age of a welder in the United States is close to 60 years old. We’ve gotten away from vocational education. Many of our industries, they would love to have an apprenticeship program put back in place where they benefit, the students benefit and the local economy benefits. We’re not even talking about that. So there are a number of things we need to look at, and to Scott’s point, we need to get out of the Leander way and start looking at fresh ideas and perspective on how do we serve the greatest number of students in our district and also include the greatest number of industry and people in our community.
Bundy: We have addressed that career and technology area as well. At Tom Glenn High School, we’ve also seen that welding need as well and we have shops and areas set up for that. That’s another area we are concentrating on and getting great business partners in the community.
Please outline your top priorities and explain why you chose those priorities and what task or decision would you like the board to consider in order to achieve these priorities? (Responses have been edited due to space limitations.)
Remy: Improving the testing process for special education students; academic excellence; advocating for the arts in schools
“When you look at what a wealthy district we are and compare us to similar districts, we’re actually underperforming academically. That’s something I have an issue with and, back to my earlier point about rejecting the culture of the test, I think paradoxically if we stop emphasizing the STAAR so much, we’ll do better on it. If students can just learn and teachers can just teach, we’ll find that those scores will go up.”
Waggoner: evaluating teachers and principals, working with the legislature, keeping an eye on finance; academics
“We do need to improve in academics and that has been a major goal of mine. We’re going to go through a very hard deficit curricula audit starting in the next few weeks and that’s really going to show us where we’re good but where we’re lacking. That will give us the tools that we need to have an outsider look in and see where we can really start improving all of our schools, from our Title 1 schools to our highest performing high schools to our special education population. We have a lot of areas we can improve in.”
Rowe: making the board more accessible to the community; listening to the community; get greater feedback from teachers
“Because we’re elected officials, we have to be among the community. We have to represent them, we have to know what they’re thinking; we have to let them feel heard. I think that would be the number one thing I would do.”
Barber-Jordan: a focus on student learning; maintaining local control; professional development
“It is important that we have local control as a district. Every campus is different, we want every student to get a Leander education no matter what campus they go to. There are variations and curricular differences, especially with our vocational tech programs as well, so there are certain things needed in certain areas. So we do like to have flexibility.”
MacKay: improving customer service; streaming board meetings online; rotating meeting locations
“Why are we spending hundreds of thousands of dollars litigating special education parents when all they want is to be heard, understood and helped? I thank the Lord that my children didn’t need special services. I can only imagine the pain these parents are going through. They’re looking for help and we litigate them. Customer service is a real big issue in this election cycle and I’m going to address it.”
Bundy: safety in schools; ensuring a smooth transition and consistent vision for the new superintendent; maintaining commitment to academic excellence and ethical principles
“No superintendent wants to come in with a brand new board where visions aren’t the same and you have to start over. A lot of new board members have to catch up, it’s not something you just grasp on to when you’re a new board member. It’s very important to have a team concept and that’s seven board members and the superintendent all with the same vision.”