April 22: GCISD School Board CANDIDATE FORUM: Video and Additional Questions Answered

On Wednesday, April 22, 2015, from 6:30pm – 8:00pm, a forum of the GCISD School Board candidates was hosted by CHHS AP Boosters, GHS Advanced Academic Boosters and SAGE at Stacy’s Furniture’s, 3rd floor, 1900 South Main Street, Grapevine, Texas 76051.

Our goal was provide the entire GCISD Community a chance to hear from our school board candidates regarding their views on issues that impact overall academics in our schools and Advanced Academic and Talented and Gifted Students.

Video

Click here to view video of the forum on YouTube

Additional Candidate Forum Questions:

We received extra questions from the audience and emailed them to the candidates, and gave them the chance to respond if they chose to. Scroll down to read answers from:

  • Mark Assaad
  • Mindy McClure
  • Kathleen Thompson
  • Becky St. John
  • Jesse Hoffman

Mark Assaad, candidate for Place 1

1. What is your feeling about the new Humanities electives in middle school and what recommendations do you have to enhance those electives to meet the needs of all students?

Mark Assaad responds: I would like to evaluate some of these classes over the next 2 years to confirm the classes are providing an educational value to the students. I am concerned that classes like Independent Studies may not be driving educational skills or life skills for future use by the students. My daughter is in GT Future Problem Solvers that appears to be a good overall class. It is teaching the student multiple life skills that will be used in the future. I would recommend a more structured curriculum for all courses and course evaluation by parents and students to make sure the course is providing an added benefit the student’s academic body of work.

2. If budget spending is a priority, where would you propose cuts be made? Teacher salaries?

Mark Assaad responds: Allocating money for the classroom is my top priority including increased teacher pay. First review of the budget would look for reduced spending in administrative costs. Second review would request considering shared costs with other neighboring districts for similar services (i.e. busing, facility maintenance, etc.) this would be similar to the City of Colleyville joint agreements with neighboring cities for shared jail facility where the cities share the shared cost and provide a reduction in administrative expenses.

3. With the changes in the class weighting last year – How do you feel these changes have impacted our students? More specifically, the variance of 2 points from on­level to AP level classes. Do you think more students feel pressure to take an AP class because of the extra points and if the AP scores aren’t positive, will you support a change to lower the AP course value by .5?

Mark Assaad responds: I do feel the increased weighting system has placed students in a position to seriously consider an AP course over other classes like an extracurricular class that may not provide the additional points. I like that it is driving students to push themselves academically, and I believe in setting the bar high for all students. I am encouraged to see that students with a passion for education and who truly want to be college ready are selecting the additional challenge of an AP class. Last year I voiced that I would have voted for the recommended 1.5 weighting, but I would like to see the results after 4 years to see if the additional weighting is doing what was intended and determine if the weighting is helping or hindering our graduates. When considering these additional weighting systems you almost need a doctorate in math to understand how this may affect a student. As an engineer and MBA I provide the higher­level education to truly understand the factors and equations associated with an impact these weighting systems may provide.

4. The Aspire Academy is moving to middle school at CTMS next year. Why or why not is there a need for such an academy at the middle school level versus restructuring all middle school curriculum in such a way that block scheduling and GT electives can be offered to all of our GT students at their home schools?

Mark Assaad responds: Teacher training is the key component to establishing this kind of clustering opportunity, which needs to be phased in and monitored in a pilot program. I think CTMS is the pilot program for the middle school level, which will be evaluated for success and improvement opportunities. I would like to see additional ASPIRE Academies and STEM on other Middle school campuses, but I would first like to see other academy opportunities be considered. Fostering a student’s passion for learning is essential to the success of these students. Not all students are future engineers and inventors, which is nurtured by the STEM program. Not all students are Gifted and talented which is nurtured by the ASPIRE Academy. I believe the next academy will be a Fine Arts Academy or an International Baccalaureate (IB) school or a Foreign Language Academy (different than Dual Language). It is important that we as a district provide opportunities to bring out the passion for education from as many students as possible. The portrait of a graduate different than 30 years ago, we are not sure which one of our students will be leading the mission to Mars, or the next pop star artist like Demi Lovato (former Glenhope Elementary student), or the next Ambassador to China.

5. Bullying is quite an issue now. It is a huge concern for parents, teachers and students. What actions would you take to alleviate the problem?

Mark Assaad responds: This has been an on going issue for many years and not just in GCISD. GCISD provides great programs like Rachel’s Challenge, but this is not enough. It ultimately starts at home by developing good citizens at an early age that have respect for their elders, their friends and strangers. As a district we need take a hardline stand to show that bullying in any form (physical, verbal, or in cyberspace) is inappropriate. Like I said it isn’t just the students. Adults in the district are just as responsible for this issue as the students and usually it is a learned trait that student pick up from adults. If anybody has been on Facebook over the last few years or days you may have seen incidents where adults are bullying each other regarding a number of issues. This has to stop and it should start with the adults stepping up and showing the students how to respect one another. I would like to foster a Citywide Rachel’s Challenge and get with City, community, and local church leaders to help address this growing issue.

Mindy McClure, candidate for Place 1

1. What is your feeling about the new Humanities electives in middle school and what recommendations do you have to enhance those electives to meet the needs of all students?

Mindy McClure responds: I am delighted that we provided our students with choices. I think it helps them engage when they have some ownership about the class they are taking. Before making recommendations to enhance these electives, since it’s been their inaugural year, I would like to hear some feedback from the teachers. I’m most familiar with the class my 7th grade son selected, which is Independent Studies. This class is ideal for a GT student, simply because its easy to encourage them to go more in depth, or explore new ways of presenting the information they’ve gathered. It has a lot of built in flexibility for the teacher to individualize each student’s experience in the class. He signed up for the class again for next year—it’s a class that has been tremendously rewarding for Jay as a student, and for Rick and I as parents—he talks about his research almost every day, and his excitement about learning is a joy for us to witness.

2. If budget spending is a priority, where would you propose cuts be made? Teacher salaries?

Mindy McClure responds: First of all, the funding cuts made by the Texas Legislature in 2011 took $14 million from GCISD. They later refunded $3.2 million over 2 years. Our situation was already less than ideal due to the amount we send back in the form of recapture, aka “Robin Hood”. Fortunately, we have a great team in place in GCISD. Our Finance Department is award winning. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that this situation is a result of frivolous spending or irresponsible behavior.

We had a generous fund balance, due to being fiscally conservative, and we had a bond package pass which provided funding for needed improvements and renovations on many campuses, technology, and safety and security upgrades, among other items. Because of this, we have been able to continue offering new programs and improvements that prepare and equip our students for success in a rapidly changing world.

We are having this success while concurrently operating with a budget deficit covered by our fund balance. Personally, I believe administration is taking the right approach. I know they have a plan in place to implement cuts if needed. I appreciate that they have been conservative. Conservative early on to build that fund balance, and conservative now—let’s take a wait and see approach before cuts are made. Southlake is taking the same approach. We may have relief in sight with Rep. Aycock’s plan, or we may get relief when the Court hearing the case on appeal regarding the constitutionality of our funding system presents their findings. I believe the Legislature will take action before the Court, as it’s generally believed the Court will uphold the finding in our favor. I apologize for the length of my response, but the back­story is integral to the question. I would not be in favor of cutting teacher salaries. To continue to provide the quality of education we expect in GCISD we need to find ways of increasing those salaries. Please contact your State Reps and demand increased funding. I have links on my Facebook candidate page—Mindy McClure for GCISD Board of Trustees.

3. With the changes in the class weighting last year – How do you feel these changes have impacted our students? More specifically, the variance of 2 points from on­level to AP level classes. Do you think more students feel pressure to take an AP class because of the extra points and if the AP scores aren’t positive, will you support a change to lower the AP course value by .5?

Mindy McClure responds: I don’t know if I would call it pressure to take an AP class, I think I would call it motivation. I also believe that the experience of taking the class, even if you don’t get a 4 or 5 on the AP test, is great preparation for college. But I understand where you are coming from—we can’t have these classes watered down because students are taking them as a stretch. We talked about clustering in the forum, and clustering is just as useful in an AP class as it is in younger grades. The district is aware of these questions, and there is a plan in place to cluster in AP classes, to the best of their ability, beginning in August 2016. We just implemented these changes last year—a lot of time went into recommending them—I believe we need to give them a fair amount of time before any changes are made.

4. The Aspire Academy is moving to middle school at CTMS next year. Why or why not is there a need for such an academy at the middle school level versus restructuring all middle school curriculum in such a way that block scheduling and GT electives can be offered to all of our GT students at their home schools?

Mindy McClure responds: The same reasons that support the Aspire Academy at Glenhope. I think we are seeing a change in the way parents view the schools in our district. They appreciate having choices. I don’t think, given financial constraints, we could do Aspire justice by trying to make it fit for every campus. I love the fact that our families have choices, and they don’t lose by choosing the neighborhood school. We meet many different needs at all of our campuses.

5. Bullying is quite an issue now. It is a huge concern for parents, teachers and students. What actions would you take to alleviate the problem?

Mindy McClure responds: I believe that more interaction between our schools might help. When you serve alongside of someone that doesn’t look like you, it can change your mindset. I wish actions existed that would fix bullying. It’s horrible. My heart hurts for these kids that grow up in a society with so much pressure and the resulting stress. I wouldn’t want to be a kid today. It’s a different world, a harsher world. Has to be said, but we have grown up bullies in our society. We need to warn our kids that social media can get it wrong—and usually it gets it very wrong. And instill in them a confidence to stand up for what is right. Timberline Elementary is using a program that I would love to see in each one of our schools. They will be featured at the Board of Trustees meeting tomorrow evening. Thanks again for the opportunity to answer your questions.

Kathleen Thompson, candidate for Place 1:

1. What is your feeling about the new Humanities electives in middle school and what recommendations do you have to enhance those electives to meet the needs of all students?

Kathleen Thompson responds:  Complementary electives along with required courses can advance students’ critical thinking, problem solving and knowledge. I’m interested to hear from parents if they feel electives offered now are not meeting the needs of their students. I have not heard that to date.

2. If budget spending is a priority, where would you propose cuts be made? Teacher salaries?

Kathleen Thompson responds:  No, our teachers are already paid less than in neighboring districts. Before proposing cuts, I’d work to increase funds not subject to recapture. Education is an investment. I support (financially / otherwise) the efforts of outside funding sources not subject to “Robin Hood” like the GCISD Education Foundation, and strong relationships with public entities such as Tarrant County College and cities in the GCISD district, to make effective use of community resources, without adding to the current tax rate.

3. With the changes in the class weighting last year – How do you feel these changes have impacted our students? More specifically, the variance of 2 points from on-level to AP level classes. Do you think more students feel pressure to take an AP class because of the extra points and if the AP scores aren’t positive, will you support a change to lower the AP course value by .5?

Kathleen Thompson responds:  The AP courses I took at Grapevine High School served me well for future college courses. Before a change of course value, I’d support additional training for middle and high school level counselors, trained to provide AP and college advice.

4. The Aspire Academy is moving to middle school at CTMS next year. Why or why not is there a need for such an academy at the middle school level versus restructuring all middle school curriculum in such a way that block scheduling and GT electives can be offered to all of our GT students at their home schools?

There is a need for the academy at the middle school level. I have heard from middle school parents that the district should do a better job explaining what ASPIRE Academy is and how it differs from GT classes at all the middle schools.

5. Bullying is quite an issue now. It is a huge concern for parents, teachers and students. What actions would you take to alleviate the problem?

Kathleen Thompson responds:  Common safety concerns for families include Internet safety, campus and school bus bullying and volunteer background screening. Our district policies are smart, should be followed and retained. I expect our professional staff to treat bullying seriously. It needs to be handled through discipline and counseling, including parent involvement.

Becky St. John, candidate for Place 2

1. What is your feeling about the new Humanities electives in middle school and what recommendations do you have to enhance those electives to meet the needs of all students?

Becky St. John responds: I am glad the district opened additional Humanities options to all students and that several of the options are single semesters so students have even more exposure to areas of interest. The skills acquired in the FPS classes, for example, are valuable to all students, not just GT. I have heard both extremely positive and a few not­-so-­successful experiences with the Independent Studies option, and I think that particular elective requires strong discernment on the part of students and parents. At the same time, my strongest recommendation is to ensure that classes containing GT identified students are taught by a teacher with GT training and maintain the speed and high level of challenge often desired by GT students.

2. If budget spending is a priority, where would you propose cuts be made? Teacher salaries?

Becky St. John responds: My opinion is teacher salaries are untouchable for cuts. One of the penalties of Robin Hood and the state’s target revenue system that allocates GCISD approximately $6,000 per student is that it leaves GCISD at a serious disadvantage compared to surrounding districts that have a higher WADA yet a similar size student body (Coppell ISD, for example). In the budget cycles after 2011, campuses endured personnel cuts, limited expenditures, and no pay raises, and parents and students saw larger class sizes and reduced services. Thanks to conservative estimating, some energy savings, and additions to fund balance from non-­Robin Hood revenue sources, the board in 2014 was able to make market adjustments to teacher salaries, enabling personnel to start making gains against salaries in area districts, not to mention in their own paychecks despite rising health care costs.

Cutting teacher salaries would only serve to send the district into reverse. 87% of the budget (net of TIF and recapture/Robin Hood payment) is salaries; GCISD picked all the “low-­hanging fruit” in the 2011 budget cuts. Items seemingly eligible for cuts make up small portions of the budget(Extracurriculars, 3% or about $3 million, Transportation, 2% or about $2 million), and achieving significant savings through items such as these would require wholesale elimination of entire programs. While GCISD wisely added to fund balance for a rainy day, there is a limit to using savings to address budget deficits. As in 2011, I would support the creation of another SEAT­Stakeholder’s Economic Action Team, to generate cost saving ideas. The 2011 SEAT did present some options that were not utilized at the time that could be considered again, should the state and the legislature fail to address the school finance lawsuit and the shortfall in education funding in a timely manner.

3. With the changes in the class weighting last year – How do you feel these changes have impacted our students? More specifically, the variance of 2 points from on­level to AP level classes. Do you think more students feel pressure to take an AP class because of the extra points and if the AP scores aren’t positive, will you support a change to lower the AP course value by .5?

Becky St. John responds: The students I have spoken with are taking AP classes because of the possibility of college credit and the rigor and preparation for college-­level material. The GPA boost is an attractive incentive but not the sole reason I have encountered when I talking with students (and parents) for taking AP. When the GHS Advanced Academic Booster Club invited AP teachers to address members, I believe parents left feeling excited about the various AP options student have, the course content, and the teachers’ enthusiasm for their subject. Regardless of whether students are in the top 10% (and playing the “GPA game”), they want to take AP classes. I would not support lowering AP course value; AP and Dual Credit courses are college level, and the weighting should reflect that higher rigor.

4. The Aspire Academy is moving to middle school at CTMS next year. Why or why not is there a need for such an academy at the middle school level versus restructuring all middle school curriculum in such a way that block scheduling and GT electives can be offered to all of our GT students at their home schools?

Becky St. John responds: This question has several components. First of all, block scheduling typically requires more faculty than the traditional 7­-course schedule. Without some change to GCISD’s financial situation (additional state funds, generating more revenue locally, school finance lawsuit resolution), I see little ability to add the number of personnel that would likely be needed at 4 middle schools to have block scheduling. It may be possible to arrange a singular clustered GT schedule at all middle school campuses, but again, given the budget situation, that might involve significantly higher class sizes and could also limit students’ ability to choose non­-GT electives such as band and choir. I think the ASPIRE Academy is especially adept at providing an option for our most gifted students. With around 10% of our student population identified as GT, having several GT service choices without creating a one-size­-fits­-all model at all 4 middle schools is appropriate at this time.

5. Bullying is quite an issue now. It is a huge concern for parents, teachers and students. What actions would you take to alleviate the problem?

Becky St. John responds: On the night of the forum, I had the opportunity to speak with an audience member who was very concerned about this issue. There are several actions the district has already taken in the last few years to address bullying. Aside from large scale programs such as Rachel’s Challenge, more targeted actions include continuing to have School Resource Officers (SRO/police officers) at the middle and high school campuses, who are involved, visible, and accessible. The counseling department has seen changes under the new director, and each middle school was also assigned an additional Assistant Principal to help address campus needs, both of which allow more monitoring of students and lets principals handle issues out of the classroom rather than disrupting instruction time.  

Jesse Hoffman, candidate for Place 2

1. What is your feeling about the new Humanities electives in middle school and what recommendations do you have to enhance those electives to meet the needs of all students?

Jesse Hoffman responds: I am always pleased to see a new course offering in GCISD, and as a professional practitioner of one of the humanities, I am quite partial to those studies.  Some of our students, like my oldest son Lucas, have a mind geared for mathematics and hard sciences.  Others, like me and my middle son Asher, may have a greater passion for rhetoric, literature, and social or historical lessons.  An important part of our mission as a school district is to create those opportunities for our students to discover their aptitudes and develop a passion for learning which so often grows from studying the topics they are best at.  I believe that GCISD offers a breadth of courses unlike any other district, and this diversity is among our greatest strengths.  Like any other program in GCISD, we will continually develop and grow our humanities courses through monitoring and feedback from students, teachers, and parents.  This is an ongoing process of identifying and growing our most successful programs, and identifying the unsuccessful classes or projects so they can be improved or replaced.

2. If budget spending is a priority, where would you propose cuts be made? Teacher salaries?

Jesse Hoffman responds: Our budget is absolutely a priority, and my intention is to finally address GCISD’s sizeable deficit by improving our financial efficiency.  This needs to be accomplished at the administrative level, not by cutting beneficial academic programs or teacher salaries.  Among the most important reasons for fixing our deficit is to increase teacher salaries to become more competitive with neighboring districts.  Strong teacher salaries attract strong educators.  In turn strong educators attract more students to our district, which increases the funding available to our schools.  So my strong belief is that healthy teacher salaries are an important part of our financial health, but we will have to significantly improve administrative efficiency to protect that ideal.

The first place I will look to improve our financial efficiency is to the allocation of tax revenue we already have.  A portion of every tax dollar that our district receives is earmarked to be used exclusively for servicing debt, and the rest is used to pay for everything else, like teacher salaries.   That ratio is off right now, as it allocates more money than we actually need to service our debt, and $6 Million less than we actually spend on all our other obligations, like teacher salaries.  Rather than fixing that deficit, the Board has just been paying the shortfall from our district’s savings, and it issued a sizeable bond to pay for facility maintenance that otherwise would have been paid from our underfunded operating account.  We obviously can’t do that forever, and at this rate, GCISD’s financial analysts project that our savings will be depleted by the “2016 ‐ 2017 fiscal year.” I think it’s time we stop overfunding the debt account as if preparing for another sizeable bond, and we start using that revenue to fix our deficit instead.

3. With the changes in the class weighting last year – How do you feel these changes have impacted our students? More specifically, the variance of 2 points from on­level to AP level classes. Do you think more students feel pressure to take an AP class because of the extra points and if the AP scores aren’t positive, will you support a change to lower the AP course value by .5?

Jesse Hoffman responds: Yes, I believe the weighted courses incentivize students to take advanced courses, which is the clearest benefit to having adopted the new weight.  Whether it will have an adverse impact which overshadows its benefit is a question that only time will tell.  Anytime we institute a recommendation, like 2 point weighting, we need to give that program time to take effect. If in time we discover that the weight is too high, I would certainly vote to make a change.

4. The Aspire Academy is moving to middle school at CTMS next year. Why or why not is there a need for such an academy at the middle school level versus restructuring all middle school curriculum in such a way that block scheduling and GT electives can be offered to all of our GT students at their home schools?

Jesse Hoffman responds: The financial considerations for ASPIRE Academy are different from those related to our GT Pullout program with all the campuses.  Every course in ASPIRE Academy is taught by a teacher specifically trained for his or her highly advanced curriculum.  We do not have the budget to hire a separate group of specially trained teachers at every campus, so instead it has to be consolidated at selected campuses as we’ve done with the STEM program.  As we continue to phase out expenses that don’t prove beneficial, we’ll be able to spend those funds instead on expanding more promising programs like ASPIRE and STEM.  However the first priority is to make them available at every grade level, and if enrollment justifies additional growth after that, the priority would become an expansion into additional campuses.

5. Bullying is quite an issue now. It is a huge concern for parents, teachers and students. What actions would you take to alleviate the problem?

Jesse Hoffman responds: Teachers, Counselors, Principles, and Parents must work together collaboratively to address bullying, and strong communication among all of them is the key to successfully managing the social wellbeing of our children at school.  When Parents communicate a specific concern about bullying to their children’s teachers and principals, the schools must be reactive to those concerns and initiate a concerted effort to confirm and address them.  Unfortunately, bullying is a burden that some children will not feel comfortable sharing with their parents or other adults, so we need eyes and ears in the classroom as well.  Teachers are our front lines at the school, so they are also in the best position to observe and report these situations within their own classrooms.  The best way to ensure that is happening effectively is to offer teachers training in the best practices for recognizing bullying and intervening before it develops into a significant ongoing trend in their classroom.