Abilene ISD forum sees stark contrast between incumbents and newcomers
The Hispanic Leadership Council held separate forums last week, one for the three seats to be filled on the Abilene Independent School District Board of Trustees, the other for those running for two positions on the Abilene City Council.
Early voting begins in April, with elections scheduled for May 7.
Here’s a preview of Tuesday’s ASID council forum.
What emerged was a well drawn old guard/new guard line.
First-time nominees expressed general dissatisfaction with the current 7-member council and their desire for change, while incumbents defended their cases and pointed to new programs and opportunities, as well as links from ‘years of experience.
“I feel like maybe it’s time to get a fresh perspective,” Reini King said, taking on incumbent Cindy Earles for the 4 spot. She provided an almost sketchy statement of herself- even and fellow challengers Jeff Carr, vying for No. 5 against incumbent Danny Wheat, and Justin Anderson, seeking No. 6 against Bill Enriquez.
The new nominees expressed disappointment with the district’s overall performance, particularly under recent pandemic rules, and stressed a desire to see parents with children currently in the district on the board, which Anderson told their would provide an inner track to talk to other parents and build relationships.
Incumbents Wheat, Enriquez and Earles admitted that the district’s experience with COVID-19 had been difficult, but also pointed out that lessons had been learned that would help overcome any future incidents.
Bullying, discipline, and the need for conversation and parental interest were also prominent topics.
Challengers: something new needed
Anderson, retired from the military, said he was deeply concerned about declining grades in schools in the district.
He also described administration as “too heavy” and said student needs are not being met – especially compared to surrounding districts which he, Anderson and Carr said, have maintained higher standards even while throughout COVID-19.
To “get back on track,” he said, would require looking elsewhere to see what makes them successful, “and then taking a look at ourselves.”
Carr, who runs software company Milsoft, said he’s been a proud supporter of Abilene for “a long time,” but that has changed in recent years.
“I think having someone with a very deep technical background is very valuable,” he said, adding that he brings knowledge of metrics that can help the district determine if “the programs are delivering the results.” that we want”.
The programming also taught him, he said, how to deal with “unintended consequences.”
“I have to improve the whole system, not just fix one thing at the expense of another,” Carr said.
King said she has boys in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, which makes her “invested in the Abilene education system.”
But her child who started kindergarten during COVID-19 had “struggles to catch up,” she said.
“It took every day as a parent…to put it a little bit behind where we were meant to be,” she said, something not all kids have available.
She expressed concern about the issues that students and teachers face every day – safety, bullying, discipline issues and the impact of COVID-19 on learning.
King and others have also expressed concern about the number of teachers leaving AISD – and how to recruit new ones.
Holders: questions of experience
The incumbents said their children and grandchildren kept them up to date with day-to-day school concerns.
Wheat, for example, has been on the board for 20 years and has served four directors. he also served two terms with the Texas Association of School Boards.
The district has its issues, Wheat said, saying communication was key to resolving many issues.
Enriquez said he was an “active grandparent,” with a wife who teaches in the district.
It allows him to have a complex look at the impact of current issues, such as bullying, he said.
But complex problems, Enriquez said, don’t have “a simple solution,” while the state “imposes a lot of policies that we have to follow.”
“It’s not as simple as going in and changing all the rules,” he said.
Enriquez said he also brings a history of communicating with “underserved communities” who often don’t know how to access the school system.
Earles said she literally grew up in AISD, teaching a powerful thread in her life.
The past two years have “not been smooth and easy,” given the pandemic, she said, and there are many “gaps” that need to be filled.
“But we have tutors coming in, we have after-school programs,” she said. “We are trying to come up with new ideas on how to approach and work with schools and children.”
Wheat and other incumbents agreed that the number of those taking educational programs to become teachers is declining, necessitating a review of what is offered by the district.
This includes working with current universities and teachers, as well as possibly considering incentives or amenities, such as housing or childcare.
Power to programs
Incumbents and challengers seemed to find harmony on the quality of certain programs in the district, although most saw opportunities for expansion or change.
Additions such as a plumbing program and body shop appealed to Enriquez, while King said she would add practical life skills, including basic home economics, to the mix.
Wheat said he wanted to see bilingual education opportunities expanded at the elementary level, while Carr floated using students in related programs to help maintain facilities or those in computer-related streams to help maintain computer networks.
Anderson said he was generally happy with the programs in the district, though he wanted to see more people come for opportunities like parent career days.
He also wanted to see more early learning facilities, as well as a rebalancing of the district’s AP programs, which he said were dominated by mostly white students.
“We need to look at (the selection process) and audit it,” he said.
Adding a bilingual curriculum is an ambitious goal, Earles said.
But with the shrinking size of teacher-prep schools across the United States, she said, it’s hard to find good, qualified staff, while career tech streams need to have enough students to justify their costs.
Questions about the pandemic
The differences regarding the district’s pandemic response were significant.
King became visibly emotional as she recalled one of her children having to don a mask for kindergarten and Anderson questioning the effectiveness of vaccinations.
Several candidates advocated a data-driven approach, with Carr going so far as to say he had mined and worked with government data to try to better understand the situation and the resulting prognoses.
The district, in the event of a new pandemic, would take a close look at what it had learned and use that data to make good decisions, Wheat said.
“It was a matter of public safety,” he said. “We had to do everything we could to make sure the children and the staff were safe.”
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for Abilene Reporter-News. If you enjoy local news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.