Tensions rise quickly over Gearing’s recommendation to remove Goal 1 from District Improvement Plan

Leander Independent School District Superintendent Bruce Gearing discusses his recommendation to remove Goal 1 from the District Improvement Plan with LISD board members last week. APRIL S. KELLEY

By APRIL S. KELLEY, Hill Country News

Leander Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Bruce Gearing launched an early test of his relationship with trustees.

Thursday, Oct. 17 night, he recommended throwing out Goal 1 of the District Improvement Plan.  Some board members, however, disagreed with the recommendation, and tensions rose quickly throughout the discussion.

Goal 1 relates  to improving STAAR test results by 3 percent.

“Those numbers, in my opinion, are based on a system that was developed in the 1890s,” Gearing said. “I don’t believe they measure what we think they measure, and we’ve been highly, effectively brainwashed over a long period of time. We have to take care of individual students. We can remold the system around that. I know that sounds difficult, and I don’t pretend that it’s not difficult, but I am pledging to you today that I will do what is right.”

After a meeting with DWEIC (District Wide Education Improvement Council), Gearing brought forth the recommendation of removing Goal 1 of the plan, which was to maximize the academic growth of each student as it relates to certain percentage increases on the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test.

Gearing explained that he was not seeking approval of the recommendation at Thursday’s meeting, but rather he wanted to discuss it and answer questions the board may have. 

LISD Board Member Pamela Waggoner said the board serves the community, but also at the pleasure of the legislature. She said the STAAR test does give the board some measurement of how the district is doing. 

“To not have any mention of that in our goals is very irresponsible of us,” Waggoner said. 

Gearing said he strongly disagreed with Waggoner.  

”I take risks,” Gearing said. “I want you to understand that I also believe very strongly in deep learning, and I am by no means saying that state accountability is out the window because it’s not, but it needs to be put in the right perspective. As Goal 1 of our District Improvement Plan, I think it sends the wrong message to our principals, I think it sends the wrong message to our teachers and I think it sends the wrong message to our kids.” 

Gearing said the board hired him in order to ensure that kids in LISD are educated in a way that the community wants. 

“I will listen every time to the community, and I will bring those recommendations back to the board because that’s my job,” Gearing said. 

With 41,303 students in the district, Gearing said the board is responsible for every single child, and it is a responsibility that he does not take lightly. 

“I will put state accountability in its right place, and I will fight for it day in and day out,” Gearing said. “I will do what this board tells me to do because you hired me. You can fire me and that’s OK, but I won’t back down.”

Waggoner said she appreciated Gearing’s passion, that she is passionate as well. However, the board has to pay attention to what the state is telling them. 

“I’d like a discussion about it and not just be shut down because this is the way one person feels we need to go,” Waggoner said. 

Gearing said he disagreed with Waggoner again.  

“I don’t think that’s what I did at all,” Gearing said. “Never once did I say that you don’t believe strongly in education or in this community. I’m not shutting anything down, I’m opening up this discussion. I’m listening.”

Gearing mentioned that at the last board meeting, several parents came forward to speak about meaningful inclusion in special education, because the district is not looking at individuals. 

“We are looking at the whole thing and saying ‘We’re going to treat everybody the same way,’” Gearing said. “To be honest, when you think about it, it’s ridiculous.”

Gearing said it is important to understand that if the way public education is done does not change, they will fail future generations. 

“The future of the this country, the future of this nation, the future of this globe depends on how well we publicly educate every child,” Gearing said. “I’m sorry for making the board meeting long, but I won’t back down.” 

LISD  Board Vice President Aaron Johnson said he wanted to explain to Gearing why the board is invested in Goal 1. 

“Because you’re new to the district, you won’t have the history,” Johnson said. “Academic growth for each student is our core service. If we don’t have some indication of that being our first priority, it seems to me that we are sort of missing the mark.” 

Johnson said he has been a critic of STAAR testing for a long time, as it changes frequently and it does not always contain useful data. He said he had concerns about building a system around that data, but it does say something about performance at a district level. 

 “It is not particularly revealing at the student level,” Johnson said. “That isn’t to say we shouldn’t take advantage of what it can tell us.”

Gearing said STAAR data is wonderful because it is convenient, it is easy to point to and it does not take a whole lot of work. He said he has spent time with principals and teachers throughout the district. 

“I think the board has lost touch with the reality of what’s happening out there,” Gearing said. “As I go through the district, there’s this little veneer across the top and as I scratch at it and look underneath, I see the passion and the hope and the incredible love that these people have for kids. They’re feeling boxed-in. They’re feeling constrained. They’re not doing what they believe is right in their heart.”

Gearing said if they were set free to do the right thing for individual kids in individual situations, the results would be positive.  

“Here is a bold opportunity for the board to stand up and say, ‘We truly believe in academic growth of kids. We just don’t believe that we measure that with this number.’” Gearing said 

Gearing said the problem is the board is looking at the district as 41,000 students. 

“This is not about 41,000 kids,” Gearing said. “This is about one kid at a time. We are in the human capacity business. We are raising human beings. If we are not connecting to the kids we are responsible for, we are going to fail them.”

Waggoner said she appreciated Gearing setting up some goals and visions for the board, that the board does need to concentrate on the big picture. 

“The Superintendent goal we worked very hard on, and we had just gotten it into place,” Waggoner said. “It’s really for the board to say what we want our Superintendent’s goals to do, not necessarily the Superintendent making his own goals. I don’t know if those goals are going to be the goals that we envision.”

Waggoner said they cannot minimize state requirements. 

“I think what we are feeling is that — I don’t care if you respect the work we did — but you are not hearing the reasons why we did what we did for Goal 1,” Waggoner said. “I don’t think we’ve lost touch. I think we are trying to do the best we can for every child in a fast growing district in the best way we know how. I would love some new thoughts and ideas. I feel like you’re asking us to throw out a whole lot of work we’ve already done. And you are basically asking us to do that.”

Gearing said he is absolutely asking the board to do that, and boldly so. 

“I will tell you that it is not a lack of respect,” Gearing said. “If you decide to set a goal, then I will accomplish that for the district. I just need you to know that’s not what I believe in, and I don’t think that would be the right thing for the district.”

Waggoner said the board has to be accountable to the community, and the community wants a high-scoring district. 

“They are not going to care if we made every child feel good,” Waggoner said. “They’re going to want to know why we aren’t a high-scoring district.”

Gearing asked the board to really make sure they know how the community feels.

LISD board member Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia said she believes creating a community-based accountability system is key to making sure the board is making decisions based on what the community wants.

Gonzales-Dholakia also told a personal account of how she removed her child from one school in LISD due to several reasons, one of them being racism. The school she transferred her child to had lower STAAR scores, but her child flourished at the new school. 

“Maybe we are out of touch, maybe we don’t know,” Gonzales-Dholakia said. “We don’t know what we don’t know if we aren’t going out to the community and asking. Maybe they don’t want Goal 1 to be the driver, and if they say that, then I’m fine with getting rid of Goal 1.”

At some point during the discussion, Johnson became upset. Gearing apologized for saying the board had lost touch with the community, that his intent was not to upset anyone. 

“I apologize for being strong with you,” Gearing said. “I did not mean to upset you, Aaron, but I have to tell you what I think and what I feel.”

Gearing said his feelings would not be hurt if the board decided to do something different than what he is recommending, but he will continue to fight for what he believes is right.

“I will continue to fight for it, but you are the board and you get to decide,” Gearing said. “That is why you were elected. The community trusts you to do the work as a board of trustees. Those are not trustees of adults, but trustees of children. I urge you to just remember why you’re here and the incredible service that you give to this community.” 

Johnson said he was upset not because of any personal reasons or out of disrespect, but rather because he feels as though removing Goal 1 is admitting defeat. 

“I’m struggling with concepts, not personalities,” Johnson said.