Educators voice concerns with HCISD turnover, board members

Accusations of micromanagement leading to a high turnover of Hays CISD employees has been levied against a pair of incumbent school board trustees running for reelection.

However, Hays CISD Board President Merideth Keller and Vice President Esperanza Orosco, the two trustees at the center of the allegations, said they refute the claims and that they’re based on a “false narrative.” 

The issue stems from emails from Taking Back Hays, a group that cites Keller and Orosco allegedly overstepping their roles as trustees.

Laurie Cromwell, a current Austin resident and former Hays CISD trustee, said she began digging into the issue when she heard at recent school board conferences that Hays CISD “has not been regarded as a place where you want to work” and that’s it’s gotten worse over the years.

Cromwell said the group, consisting of 11 former trustees and two former superintendents, alleges Keller and Orosco have regularly circumvented the superintendent and have dealt directly with staff, including employees, when it comes to business related and day-to-day items.

Cromwell believed it’s more common for a superintendent to hire a team and work with them based on “best practices” set by the school board, as opposed to trustees directly speaking with staff on matters such as financial oversight. Cromwell felt the latter example erodes the authority of the superintendent. However, no specific incidents of micromanagement were cited within the letter or by Cromwell. Several former trustees in the letter cited micromanagement concerns, but also didn’t list specific incidents. 

“If you’re talking to his (superintendent) team, it’s not his team and he’s not the coach,” Cromwell said.

Orosco said she and other trustees have the ability to speak with the superintendent and the cabinet of executive leadership. Keller said those rules are part of the board’s operation procedure, which is voted on by trustees every year.

Orosco said communication doesn’t go beyond the cabinet level. She added trustees can submit questions to the person in charge of a department if they seek more information.

While trustees can talk to anyone socially, Orosco said “it’s not our job” to communicate directly to employees and that the micromanagement claims were “ridiculous.” However, she said employees have the right to reach out to a trustee if they would like, per policy.

“Our job is to ask questions and make sure we’re looking out for the best interest for students,” Orosco said.

Keller, who has seen the letter and heard of the group, said the claims were a negative campaign ad. Keller thought it was “interesting to read that I am a nice woman who doesn’t know her place.”

“I’m not responding to negative ad campaigns and falsehoods and people I’ve never spoken to and the like,” Keller said.

Turnover concerns

Cromwell and several trustees also alleged micromanagement issues have led to a high amount of turnover within the district.

According to information submitted by Hays CISD to Cromwell, 13 district assistant principals and 13 principals have resigned or left their positions since June 15, 2015. Roughly 33 total employees who worked in administration, curriculum and instruction, Human Resources or special education left or resigned during that time period.

The district’s information did not list the reason for the departures.

Issues with governance and oversight has led to a decline in student achievement, and as a result, an increase in student transfers out of the district, Cromwell said.

According to information provided to Cromwell by Hays CISD via open records request, close to 1,400 students live within Hays CISD boundaries but attend a campus in another district, per Fall Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) as of October 2018. More than 500 of those students are enrolled in IDEA Public School, a Kyle-area charter campus.

Those issues have led to numerous former trustees to speak out, most of which has been “unsolicited,” Cromwell said.

“I know both incumbents and they’re nice people. They might be well-intentioned but they don’t understand the true role of the school board collectively,” Cromwell said.

Orosco said changes in the district occurred prior to her election to the dais but added most of them either moved to a different job outside of the district or had retired. Orosco said such turnover is normal with an administration change.

“With any big change in a big organization, you might find that’s the case,” Keller said. She added those numbers “strikes me as reasonable.”

Orosco said the claims in the letter are from those who have “sour grapes” and that they’re disgruntled former trustees.

Orosco said the district is moving forward and is improving. She cited increases in graduation rates and student achievement scores. Keller said the board is focused on “putting students first,” which she said hasn’t happened in some time, and that academics matter.

“In order to focus on student achievement as a trustee, you have to be involved and dedicated to the students in the district and you should have a strong history on the part of the process,” Keller said.

Cromwell said the community deserves a strong school system and that trustees shouldn’t be involved in the minutiae.

“It’s incumbent on the community to be aware and become engaged and try to make that a reality,” Cromwell said. 

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