Equity across the district and public school funding were two issues tackled by candidates vying for a pair of Hays CISD trustee seats during a March 28 debate.
The event, hosted by the Hays Educators Association, Texas State Teachers Association, featured Michelle Cohen and Will McManus, who are running for a Hays CISD Trustee At-Large seat up for grabs on May 5. Joining them was incumbent Hays CISD District 3 trustee Bert Bronaugh and challenger Michael Sanchez.
Susan Gray, a candidate in the At-Large race, and Valerie Hopkins, a District 3 challenger, did not attend the debate. District 3 candidate Alejandro Correa announced earlier in the week he was not participating in the race. However, Hays CISD officials said Correa missed the deadline to withdraw and would still have his name on the ballot.
Main points of discussion during the debate were public funding, teacher compensation and school safety. Equity across the district, however, was a major topic among all four participating candidates.
“I am not afraid to say it and there is no secret that we have underperforming schools located on the east side of the highway in predominantly Hispanic communities,” said Cohen. “I have a suspicion that resources are not being distributed equally throughout the campuses.”
But the issue could stem from problems in the home and not a lack of resources from the district. Cohen said students in these lower income areas often have parents who work long hours, which could hinder time for parent involvement.
Regardless of where the issue may derive from, McManus said the community needs to do a better job of not painting Hays CISD as competition between the east and west side, an issue he has seen for decades.
Bronaugh said the district does reviews of the students to see how they are performing. The best thing the district can do is support the teachers and make sure administration is on the same page.
“Most of what we do is monitor our students and take advice on how we can do better,” Bronaugh said. “Our student achievement is going up.”
Sanchez, however, disagreed and said there is a big drop-off between student performance on the east side of I-35 and with English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.
The solution is to look at schools who are performing well in the district and emulate those solutions across the board, Sanchez said.
All the candidates agreed that teacher compensation should be more competitive, giving educators more incentive to stay in district.
However, with public funding cuts at the state level and property taxes in cities already high, the district has its hands tied with how to bring this change.
McManus said increasing property taxes does not equate to more funding for public schools. Dollar for dollar, the state does not allocate funds back to the district from property taxes. The legislature defines that students are fined by a rates set by the state, McManus said.
“Property taxes cannot be the sole way we fund,” McManus said. “We haven’t seen a reciprocal amount from the state back to the district.”
Cohen said school funding is under attack and tax ratifications do not solve the problem. Changes must be made at the state level.
A National Education Association study showed Texas ranked 36 out of the 50 states in per-pupil expenditures for students K-12, raising public concern at the local level with how funding for public education should continue.
According to the study, Texas spends $2,316 lower than the national average per student.
Increasing property taxes in the area makes it harder for families to support themselves, a key component to the relocation of families from Austin to find more affordable housing options, Cohen said.
“We need equity across all our schools and we have allocated funds for some of the teachers at lower performing campuses,” Bronaugh said. “It’s a delicate balance between helping our teachers and not leaving others behind.”
Sanchez said he is not in favor of raising taxes to help allocate funds to schools, and said changes need to be made at the state level to help fund public education.
School safety has been a topic of discussion across the nation as students recently marched in Washington D.C. to protest gun violence in schools.
“Unfortunately, going to school isn’t like it was when we were growing up,” McManus said. “We had open campuses and it was never an issue. I know campus administration takes this very seriously and have to continue ensuring safety for our students.”
Cohen said school should be a place where students feel the most secure, and she does not believe the district is currently as safe as it could be.
“If you talk to our parents, safety is a main issue,” Cohen said. “Not enough money was allocated for safety in the bond last year and I will make that a priority moving forward.”