We asked Abilene ISD board of trustee candidates five questions about the teacher retention, readiness for another emergency, communication and more. Here are their answers:
1. Is AISD prepared for another health, or other, emergency that could produce a long-term effect on education?
Cindy Earles: We are much more prepared than we were two years ago. We have acquired tools and technology to assist with communication, learned how to work with technology and interpret information, and trained our teachers in alternative ways of working with students. Some of the questions in dealing with long-term effects remain to be answered because it is a work in progress. Smaller class sizes, small group tutoring, individualized instruction, after-school programs, summer programs — these are some of the ideas that are being investigated to assist our students. Different methods may be appropriate for different students.
Our medical community is prepared to assist us in safety issues.
Yes, we have sharpened our skills to be more flexible and adaptable and, I believe, are as prepared as possible.
Reini King: I think that we have learned a lot from the last couple of years. The main thing being, education and school for our children is absolutely essential. We need to ensure that we are prepared to have in person learning for our students. Taking kids out of the classroom has been detrimental to the long term for the students of AISD. The main thing the we need to arm ourselves with in the future, before making rash decisions, is unbiased information that looks at all sides of the issues and not make decisions out of fear, but instead informed decisions making.
Jeff Carr: We should be much more prepared to make much better decisions, but that requires the school board to make evidence-based decisions. If elected, I will bring skills not currently represented on the board. As CEO of Milsoft when COVID first started I spent 100s of hours researching the data to make informed evidence-based decisions for my company. As a software developer, I checked out and evaluated the source code for the predictive models guiding major decisions. As a mathematician/statistician, I was able to read and evaluate numerous published scientific and medical studies. I will make a massive difference in our school board’s ability to handle the next emergency by asking informed questions and presenting evidence-based data.
Danny Wheat: When we think of the health and safety of our children and staff, schools must be prepared to respond to sudden infectious diseases, public health concerns and emergences. I believe Abilene ISD has worked with public health officials, law enforcement and social services to provide a safe and supportive teaching and learning environment. That engagement provides support for social and emotional development, access to critical services for health and safety and improves life outcomes.
Abilene ISD has developed strategic plans to respond and sustain safe in-person learning, ensure proper hygiene, and manage daily operations amid a health crisis. Emergency operation plans are addressing training teachers, staff, students and community about policies, procedure rules and responsibilities. The district continues to address and improve upon needs that are linked to the aftermath of health and emergency incidents, addressing needs for counseling, physical needs, health, and effects on student education.
Justin Anderson: I believe if AISD was to look at the work done by the surrounding school districts, wait until there is enough information out to make an educated decision, and reflect on their internal operations then yes. Given the reputation of the districts handling of our public education and fiscal habits, I doubt AISD is currently equipped or prepared to handle an outbreak like Covid-19. Natural disasters or other forms of emergencies, I’m confident the district and community is fully capable of handling it.
Bill Enriquez: We are better prepared today than we were 2 years ago when the pandemic hit. Not just AISD, but the entire country. Yes, AISD is prepared for another health emergency as much as humanly possible and for all other emergencies that could produce a long-term effect on education. The last pandemic of this magnitude was over 100 years ago, and we didn’t have all the resources that we enjoy today. Our medical facilities, HMC, as well as the Taylor County Health department, have honed their skills with the assistance of technology to be able to handle these types of emergencies quickly and effectively. We, as a city and nation, are learning from the past. The entire nation is better prepared to face another epidemic such as COVID – 19.
2. What are your ideas about how to recruit and retain the best teachers for this district?
Earles: Caring and concerned stake-holders have allowed us to replace some aging buildings in the last few years and make renovations and upgrades to some other buildings. Our students and teachers have comfortable and secure facilities to teach and learn in. We want the residents of Abilene to be proud of the school facilities and the opportunities that they offer. Some of the ideas that have been proposed to attract teachers and reward our present staff of exceptional teachers – along with improved facilities – are:
Assistance in investigating programs that will help with repayment of loans incurred in teacher preparation programs in higher education
Virtual hiring fairs have shown promise in attracting new hires
Sharing information about the school district with new businesses moving to Abilene
King: We have to start with retention. With less people making the decision to move into education, the best move we can make, is to retain the qualified, experienced teachers that AISD currently has. We have such a great group of teachers at AISD and are losing them in droves. We lost 23 teachers at semester. This is unacceptable. The current board and administration would lead you to believe that surrounding districts are having the same issue, but this is not the case. While AISD currently has over 100 teaching positions posted, we have board members that voted to lower the rate of retention pay. The main driving factor that I have found in conversations with teachers that have either left, are leaving or retired early, is the disorder they are facing in the classroom. We have got to put in a system of discipline that is consistent all the way from the teachers to the board.
Carr: Teacher retention is currently the biggest issue facing AISD. I have spoken with numerous AISD teachers both current and recently retired. Every teacher I have spoken with sites discipline as the main reason our teachers are leaving. However, based on these conversations, I believe the underlying issue is our teachers have lost confidence in the district’s willingness/ability to help. Our teachers constantly express a fear of negative retribution for expressing their needs. Communication has broken down between the front line and decision-makers. We must start listening to our teachers. We must ensure the lines of communication are open and safe for a diversity of opinions allowing decision-makers to make well-informed decisions.
Wheat: With districts across Texas and the nation reporting teacher’s shortages, recruiting and hiring have become more critical and challenging. While there’s no single strategy or recruitment tool that will ensure the needs of our district, we must be proactive and think out of the box on ways to recruit and retain the best teachers for Abilene ISD.
Help with affordable housing by partnering with Abilene Relators Association, Builders Association and Apartment groups to develop a plan for affordable teacher housing. An initiative that provides teachers and their families the opportunity to rent military housing.
Higher pay undoubtedly attracts job candidates. We need to continue to address decent pay scales, incentive pay, recruitment and retention bonuses. Continue to work with our legislators to infuse increases in the budget earmarked specifically to raise the pay scale.
Innovative preparation programs focus intensive on-the-job training with support mentors.
Expand critical pathways to Careers in teaching and Grow-Your-On programs with our universities.
Increase funding for health insurance.
Anderson: To recruit and maintain teachers the district needs to be able to self-reflect and take responsibility for its actions. As seen in the Hispanic Leadership Council Forum, the current board members say “we’re great and there is no problem” (paraphrase) and then go on to say there are problems after we incumbents start pointing out issues. The board members have even gone as far as to push blame off on others and have yet to take responsibility for the current state of the district both academically and financially. We need a full audit of everything that involves the operational machine and start trimming the excess of paperwork, finances, etc. We also need leadership that shows they care and doesn’t just say they hear you, but show they hear you.
Morale is a big proponent of that and part of being a leader is figuring out how to boost the morale of your subordinates. People will work for even the lowest of wages if the environment they work in is high in morale. Raising morale also increases retention and recruiting. What the board fails to realize is that potential teachers looking to be employed here can research all the things I’ve been pointing out from AISD, txschools.gov, and can find people on Facebook to get information on the district without having to contact the district directly. How willing the current leadership is willing to do that self-reflection and take responsibility is up to them.
Enriquez: Abilene ISD is fortunate to have exceptional teachers in place now. AISD is no exception in recruiting and retaining good teachers. Our district is paying a beginning salary of over $40,000 per yr to teachers who begin fresh out of college, and we still have difficulties in attracting new teachers into our district. Abilene ISD as well as districts throughout our nation are facing the fact that fewer students are majoring in education. Abilene ISD offers teachers the best in facilities and teaching technology tools to attract teachers, and they still are not coming into our district.
Ideas being tossed about now are:
Unless we as a nation become more proactive in guiding students into education, the area of recruiting and retaining teachers will continue to be a major obstacle to overcome.
3. Are teachers and staff with questions afraid to talk with AISD administrative staff and board members?
Earles: I receive questions and phone calls from citizens. Some of them are employed by the district. If it is a question that is proper for me to answer, I do. If it is a question that I should pass along, I guide them to the proper office, administrator, or staff person.
King: From speaking to many teachers and staff of AISD, I would say that it’s not so much that they are afraid to talk to administration or board members, but that instead they feel it is pointless. They do not feel heard. They do not feel backed up. And they do not feel appreciated. This ties back into teacher retention as well. No amount of money makes you feel like you matter. It all comes down to appreciating people and showing them by listening and developing a open communication for problem solving within the district.
Carr: According to many administrators and current school board members, this is a leftover from the Dr. Burns regime 7 years ago. According to almost every current and recent teacher I have spoken with: YES, they are afraid and it has only gotten worse. Mid-level administrators fall on both sides. I have been given multiple examples of negative retribution taken against teachers and staff who did not “toe the line”. This could be a teacher perception problem or the reality; either way, it is a massive issue.
Wheat: One of the key responsibilities of the school board and administration is to engage teachers, staff and community and communicate events and issues facing our district. The board serves as a connection between the community and its schools making it essential to understand what’s going on and how we can work together to make it the best environment for staff and students.
After talking with teachers and staff it is apparent that there are concerns and struggles with voicing opinions on issues and bringing them to the administration and board members.
It is critical that the board and administration continue to build on teacher and staff engagement and empowerment. We must all have the mindset of cultivating relationships based on mutual trust and understanding as we face the issues at hand and in the future.
Building a systematic plan for engagement and communication throughout the district can start with:
Obtaining input from across the district.
Developing an advisory committee that includes different stakeholders.
Developing listening campaign from the administration and board.
Anderson: Teachers and staff may not necessarily be afraid, though there is a good amount who are, as much as it is they’re burned out on not being acknowledged. When you have continuous issues day in and day out that you’re reporting and nothing is being done to fix it, it causes your people to stop looking at you as part of the solution and more of being part of the problem. This behavior of not addressing concerns impacts morale of your subordinates which in turn impacts the quality of work.
As for those who are afraid of repercussions for reporting issues, it is an issue that is real in any work environment and it’s the duty of the entire chain of command to fix that. Look at the previous superintendent AISD had who was charged for not reporting cases of child abuse, when you have people of that caliber in key positions controlling the dissemination of information it quickly impacts quality of morale and work and can be very intimidating because some of these positions greatly impact careers that can make or break them.
Enriquez: As a board member, I receive questions and concerns over a variety of issues. I always push their concerns forward in the appropriate direction. These same teachers are afraid to contact administrators, feeling that their job may be compromised. My personal thoughts are that teachers should look for advocates in their teacher associations. Teacher Associations are the backbone for bringing to the forefront teachers’ concerns within the district. Teacher participation is essential in building a strong teachers’ association. I want to encourage teachers to become more active in their associations.
4. Has the district become top heavy with the administration downtown?
Earles: No, the district is not top-heavy.
At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, we 2543 staff members. Of those, 2.6% (65.5) were Campus Administrators and 1.2% (31.7) were Central Administration. This compares to state averages of 3.0% (we are under) in Campus Administration and equals the state average of 1.2% for Central Administration.
King: In my opinion, yes it has. Administration is designed to take the burden off of the people on the front lines. This has not been the case at AISD. We have also continued to take great teachers out of in class learning and put them at desk jobs. Why don’t we just give them raises to stay where they are and do the important job? Educating our children is the only priority. If the job doesn’t serve that purpose, or the purpose of helping teachers to educate, it should be reevaluated and see if it is actually contributing to the overall education and betterment of AISD, or if someone is just filling a chair and taking a salary. There needs to be a full outside audit of downtown to see where excessive spending is occurring.
Carr: Most likely. Every teacher I have spoken to has expressed the district has become top-heavy. I believe a top-heavy administration is a natural outcome without disciplined stewardship, much like my round stomach is a natural outcome without disciplined diet and exercise. We need to evaluate every administration position based on its effectiveness in achieving the district’s primary goal of preparing our children intellectually, physically, and emotionally for the real world. Every position in AISD should have a well-defined job description with clear objectives and metrics for measuring success.
Wheat: I believe this administration has made a positive impact on reduction and consolidation of staff at central office. Superintendent Dr. David Young has been diligent in examination of budgetary options that allow reduction in expenditures without impacting student achievement. Consolidation of staff responsibility has been an ongoing process and notable reductions has been accomplished.
Anderson: Administration may not be top heavy, but the workload certainly has become heavy. Again, I point to pushing for an audit/consult to come in and start figuring out what positions and work is worth keeping and what isn’t to increase AISDs efficiency. I’m not going to come right out say positions are going away without having good solid information, it’s not a good way to work. As I’ve pointed out it shouldn’t take three forms to get a student sent to the office while a teacher is trying to conduct class, things like that should be left for the administrative positions at campus to handle because the teacher is there to teach. Just because it sounds like a good idea, doesn’t always mean it is. From where I’m looking, I think the district just needs to get back to the basics and then get to a point of doing more advanced things: crawl, walk, run. Currently nothing is operating as efficiently as it could be.
Enriquez: In my opinion, administration downtown is not top heavy. Abilene ISD employees approximately 1800 teachers & aides. Our administration downtown employs a staff of approximately 55 individuals, ranging from administrative personnel to clerical personnel, which is approximately 3% of the employees in the district. The administrative personnel are the backbone of the entire district, and their performance is awesome. They do a great job.
5. What programs for students does the district not offer that it should? Would you support expanding bilingual education?
Earles: There are numerous programs and additional courses that are available throughout education. The addition of career tech programs and academic classes is investigated and evaluated by the need or desire expressed by the students and citizens, facilities and equipment to conduct those classes, and the availability of teachers or instructors. The door is never closed on the possibility of adding to the curriculum. Expanding bilingual education would follow the same process–need/desire, facilities, and teachers. The more knowledge, experiences, and skills we can provide for our students, the more opportunities they will have to thrive and succeed in life.
King: I do support a bilingual education program. I think this would be a great addition to the current programs that we offer.
I think that we need to offer more curriculum in life skills. I think that AISD should offer budgeting classes, life skills, and more home economics. We need to expand some of our technical programs as well. Computer programming, graphic design and so on.
Carr: Our world is changing dramatically and fast pace. We need to be designing, evaluating, and reevaluating programs constantly to match this dynamic environment. We should be increasing the number of programs designed to prepare our kids for jobs now (coding, IT, mechanical, digital arts, etc.) We should be working with our students to develop programs in line with their interests. AISD should be the best tool available to help our students reach their dreams. We can accomplish this by engaging our students with programs designed to that end.
Wheat: We want to ensure that every student is ready for the next step after high school, weather it is college, career or military service.
We are fortunate that Abilene ISD offers a multitude of programs like Pre – kindergarten, enrichment programs, summer programs, Special-Ed, food service offering before and after school meals, Adult Ed, Career and Technical education…etc. Although this does not cover every need it covers a large gamut of the needs for our students and staff. I believe that the current enrollment indicates that we need to expand some of our current programs to meet the needs in our community.
I do support expanding bilingual education and also see the need for dual language immersion at the elementary level.
Anderson: The district should look into more vocational classes that gets students certified. Trade skills is very important and we need more of that. Body shop, plumbing, painting, etc. are classes that should be brought back. Bilingual classes is a possibility and I support it, however it should be offered as an elective class. The biggest issues with bringing on more classes and language classes is MONEY.
Right now, AISD is not fiscally responsible enough to manage even its most basic operations and is struggling to keep the teachers it has employed while trying to recruit more. $180.9 million in revenue and expenditures is $244.7 million for 2020 is a huge problem that’s started in 2018. The district has more liabilities than it does assets and maintains the highest tax out of most of the districts. The Federal Reserve is aiming to raise interest rates so high on loans for businesses and people to stop loans being taken out and that could have a disastrous effect on AISD. According to Texas Comptroller .gov page, there is a cap of $1.17 per $100 of the property set by the state but the district can levy more as long they ask for voters permission to tax above the voter approved rates.
I fear we’re driving towards bankruptcy of the district at the current state of affairs. If the district can get its responsibilities on the right track with providing a higher than C- education and get its spending under control where it’s not spending more than its revenue, then I would support extra programs.
Enriquez: There’s an unlimited number of courses that are not offered that could be offered in the curriculum world, as well as in the career technology arena. The selection of courses depends largely on the number of participants for that class. The main priority in selecting a course that we would like to add is going to depend on student interest and participation in order to justify adding that course. Abilene ISD has an excellent selection of courses in curriculum and in career technology, making AISD a district of choice where our students have the opportunity to excel in many fields of their choice.
There are various models to look at when contemplating expanding bilingual education. We now have a one-way bilingual model. If we want to consider expanding to a two-way model, we will first need to explore whether we have the interest to support expanding into that area.
This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: 5 questions for the Abilene ISD board of trustee candidates