Tomorrow, May 8, is Election Day for four Fort Worth ISD single-member districts. Up for grabs are the seats held by incumbents Judy Needham, District 5, Christene Moss, District 3, Jean McClung, District 2, and Chris Hatch, District 6.
In one of the hottest school board elections in years, Needham is being challenged by Linda LaBeau, Dennis Dunkins is running for Moss’ seat, Tobi Jackson is in a face-off with McClung and Hatch is in a tight race with Ann Sutherland.
Fort Worth Weekly does not endorse candidates. What we do endorse is voting. Traditionally, school board elections see the lowest turnout of voters for one of the most important – and some say thankless — volunteer jobs in the community. At stake is the very future of the city and the country: the education of our children. Yet, most of these races are decided by a mere handful of voters. This paper urges everyone to overturn that “tradition” and get out and vote tomorrow. It won’t take long and there is an impressive array of candidates from whom to choose.
All of the challengers are educators who bring years of expertise in various educational fields to the table. (“Upsetting the Apple Cart,” April 21.) While none of the incumbents are educators (currently only one board member, Carlos Vasquez, has an educational background), they bring years of trustee experience and at least two of them, Hatch and McClung say this will be their last race. Sutherland, a long-time classroom teacher who also taught at the college level, was the only candidate to be endorsed by the district’s largest and most powerful teacher organization, the United Educators Association. Hatch, a CPA has the endorsement of the Greater Fort Worth Realtors Association. McClung lists herself as a homemaker and community volunteer. Jackson, a former public school science teacher who is now an educational director at a private career college has been endorsed by city council members Sal Espino and Danny Scarth as well as former council member Becky Haskin.
LaBeau, an R.N. who works as an advocate for special education kiddos and their parents and Dunkins, who headed the district’s magnet program for 20 years, have no endorsements but they say they are gaining support by their grass-roots door-knocking campaigns. Their opponents, Moss and Needham did not respond to requests for interviews by this paper.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has endorsed all of the incumbents, claiming their combined years of experience and knowledge bring needed stability to the board. Fair enough. But in the last week two editorials by one of the paper’s senior editorial writers has thrown charges at the challengers of “hidden agendas, backdoor alliances, political machinations,” and accuses them of “trying to manipulate the outcomes to create a more opportune climate for advancing their own objectives.” Lacking, however, from these serious charges are any facts offered to support them short of questioning some of the statements in a mailer sent out by Sutherland. There is no explanation of what the “hidden agendas” or “their own objectives” are. Nor is there any proof offered of how the challengers are manipulating the “outcomes.” The “backdoor alliances” seem to point to Espino’s and Scarth’s involvement in Jackson’s campaign, claiming that the two councilmen are “underwriting” her campaign. And where did the writer find this proof? In Jackson’s financial reports, public documents for all to see, hardly a backdoor alliance.
The editorials offer nothing but guilt by innuendo and voters have more concrete — and factual — issues on which to decide these races.
Those range from fiscal responsibility (or irresponsibility as the challengers charge) to poor performance ratings at a growing number of the district’s schools to campus safety.
A dozen schools out of the district’s 117 that are eligible to be tested, including four high schools, are rated academically unacceptable by the state. Two of the high schools, Eastern Hills in McClung’s district and South Hills in Hatch’s district have been plagued with the unacceptable rating for three years in a row and face harsh sanctions by the state if the scores are not brought up by 2012.
Drop out rates have improved somewhat. When this paper reported that the minority dropout rates were more than double that of whites, Superintendent Melody Johnson took issue and wrote to board members that the figures were “inaccurate.”
However, data from the Texas Education Agency show that the district, with 70 percent of its students at or below the poverty level and a majority of them from minority families, had a near 22 percent dropout rate for African-American kids in the class of 2008-09 and 15 percent for Hispanics while only 7 percent of Anglo kids failed to graduate with their classmates. Do the math.
Financially, the good news is that its $594 bond program that is building six “green” schools and revamping eight more and installing state-of-the-art technology in hundreds of classrooms is progressing on time and under budget.
The bad news is the $20 million shortfall in the district’s $561 million budget and the botched implementation of a new payroll system last year that allowed 2,000 employees to be overpaid $1.5 million over a period of nine months. While most of the money has been repaid, the headaches continue for the district as it faces two lawsuits from former employees of the payroll department claiming they were fired as scapegoats for the overpayments. An internal audit of the foul-up that “found no fraud or mismanagement,” has been questioned by the challengers as a cover-up of a deeper problem of financial irresponsibility by Johnson’s administration as well as the board’s audit committee headed by Hatch, a CPA.
All four have joined with board members Juan Rangel and Carlos Vasquez as well as UEA president Larry Shaw, in calling for an independent external audit of the payroll department to determine if the losses were greater and more widespread given the fact that only 2,000 employees were targeted out of the district’s 10,000 employees. Hatch and McClung stood by the audit saying that most of the money has been recovered ($1.3 million) and that an external audit would be too costly and would not reach a different conclusion.
And while crime and discipline incidents have decreased over the past year by 29 percent, according to Johnson, critics such as Jackson and Shaw claim campuses are still not “safe enough” from disruptive students or those bent on doing greater mischief. They both criticize the district for removing the majority of the campus monitors last year in an effort to save money. “We need more monitors, not fewer ones,” Jackson said. Shaw said the problem of discipline is so bad in some schools that the district is losing good teachers to safer, suburban districts.
These are but a few of the issues begging for resolution as a new board takes over a couple of weeks after Saturday’s election.
Please vote. The children of this city are counting on you.