San Marcos CISD at-large Q&A

Voters in San Marcos CISD will choose among Sophia Downing, Adam Gonzalez, Anne Halsey, Toby Hooper, John McGlothlin and Mike Occhialini for two at-large positions on the board of trustees in the district's May 9 election. Get to know the candidates more here.

Why are you running for a position on the San Marcos CISD board of trustees?

Downing: Since graduating from Texas State University, I've sought opportunities or ways to be actively involved in the community. Being on the board of trustees gives me an opportunity to serve the community in various aspects. I've sat on other boards and organizations advocating for young children and early childhood education in the past and I truly miss being involved with community projects. I want to serve the community that I live in, the community where my children are raised in. I feel I have an obligation to be involved and to give back.

Gonzalez: Throughout my life I've been deeply involved in community service. I have a passion for sharing my time, talents, and experiences to serve my community. I recognize our district has its challenges and I believe in working with the community to better our schools. We need to create stronger ties between school board trustees and their constituents. I want to draw more involvement from teachers and parents. Together, we can improve the quality of education for current and future students.

Halsey: I am running for the San Marcos CISD board of trustees because I believe public schools are the backbone of any healthy community. I want to stand up for my fellow parents, neighbors and taxpayers invested in the future of SMCISD and bring a fresh perspective and common sense voice to the board. I'm originally from Iowa, where my dad was a public school teacher and my mother was a public school nurse. I'm a proud product of—and champion for—public schools. My husband, Jeff Helgeson, is a history professor at Texas State University. We've been here since 2010, and we have three kids. We love San Marcos and I want to give back to the community that has welcomed my family with open arms. No one is more invested than I am in the success of San Marcos public schools. I have two children currently enrolled in the district and one who will begin kindergarten in the fall. When Jeff and I moved here, many people told us we should not send our kids to school in San Marcos. We were shocked. But we decided to assess SMCISD for ourselves. Thank goodness we did!

Hooper: The district's quality has progressed and is now at a transition point to elevate higher. I want to help make that transition happen. We must not lose this opportunity to move forward. Therefore we must have board members with valuable insight and experience. As a healthcare professional I've seen great transformational change and played an active role in its successful implementation. I want to bring that type of perspective and experience to the district leadership.

McGlothlin: I am running for school board because there are 7,500 kids in our district right now who cannot wait three more years for leaders focused on giving them the education that they deserve. Our schools have been making slow, steady progress forward, but kids are slipping through the cracks into joblessness, poverty and worse. As our district has inched forward, the world has become much more competitive. Our kids now have to compete for jobs with others in our state, and kids from across the country and the world. We cannot merely celebrate the positive progress we've made over the last few years, and we cannot keep electing trustees focused on past grievances because I don't believe that "good enough" is enough in this most-competitive world. I want a district that is world-class tomorrow. I believe that is what our kids deserve, and I believe the board needs new blood and new vision to get there.

Occhialini: For me this election means more than mere victory or defeat. I hope to raise awareness, improve involvement and promote community ownership of our schools. It is time to stop throwing money at our problems and return to the basic values of education that empower people to improve their lives and those of their families. The students in our schools are the next generation of doctors, lawyers, engineers and soldiers. We have the tremendous responsibility to prepare our students to face the challenges of life and make a contribution to society.

Why should voters choose you?

Downing: I have been told by parents of the children I serve at Lil' Bobcats Early Learning Center that I have a general passion for education and making education the best experience it can be for children and families. Humbly speaking, I have a desire to serve others. I [have a vested interest] in this community. Moreover, I can relate to the educational needs of the community, especially families with young children. I would like to be that voice on the board advocating for early childhood education programs. I am eager to listen to the community needs and help problem-solve by working with the general public to come up with working solutions. My diverse background gives me valuable insights on many issues that affect single parent households, economically disadvantaged households and blended family households. I have a child in elementary school, middle school and high school and a grandson in early childcare. I've been a single parent, a working student and economically disadvantaged myself. Currently, I'm a small business owner. I've earned a bachelor of applied arts and sciences from Texas State University with an emphasis in family and child development and early childhood education. I am resourceful and understanding of individuals' needs. Once elected, sharing experiences from past experiences, both good and bad, may be beneficial when making decisions about future programs in our community.

Gonzalez: I am unique in this race because I have not been out of public school that long. I can strongly relate to our current student body. Secondly, I am about to graduate from Texas State University as an electrical engineer. As an engineer, I am a problem solver at heart. I believe the school board has a lot to do with cost-benefit analysis and management, both of which I excel. I take financial oversight as a trustee very seriously. Electing me is not just putting one man on a seat, but a community on a seat. This is not my district nor the board's district, but the people's district. I'm not here to tell parents what's best for their kids, nor am I here to tell teachers how to teach. Instead, I'm here to allow parents and teachers to run the district their way.

Halsey: I will bring a fresh perspective and common-sense voice to the board as I work to represent all of the families and community members invested in SMCISD. I have served on the board of directors of the Presbyterian Parent Cooperative Preschool in San Marcos and was a member of the Local School Council in Chicago. Recently, I was appointed to the San Marcos Historic Preservation Commission. I also have considerable professional experience in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors, as well as education. I am a strategist, planner and able negotiator. Prior to becoming a stay-at-home mother, I was on the senior staff of a national literary organization where I directed a multi-million dollar initiative to expand the presence of poetry in the media. Before joining the Poetry Foundation, I worked at the University of Illinois at Chicago, conducting policy research and coordinating the activities of the dean's office. I got my start in the business world directing and implementing marketing campaigns for several cable networks, including Bravo TV where I managed a $12 million budget. But I'm not a political insider who hopes to use the board as a stepping stone. I am a stay-at-home mother who cares deeply about my family, this community and all of the children we entrust to our school district.

Hooper: To create the vision and lead the way to achieving goals the board of trustees must be a group that functions well together. The trustees are the keepers of a great duty to realize the mission of serving the children and families of the district. Board members must respect diversity of thought and different approaches to policy and arrive at sound-collaborative decisions. My experience as a nonprofit board member, an educator and healthcare professional and a parent of children in the district gives me the well rounded perspective needed to enhance the board and increase its productivity and leadership.

McGlothlin: Experience. My wife and I grew up in San Marcos and graduated from San Marcos High School, and I have worked in the community for years, which I feel gives me a unique level of experience with the challenges the kids, families and teachers in the district face on a daily basis. Leadership. I have served in a variety of leadership positions in my adult life, so I am prepared to lead the board into a new period of working with each other instead of against each other. Passion. My wife and I have four kids who attend or will attend San Marcos High School, from a son who is a sophomore to a 4-year-old who will start kindergarten at Crockett Elementary School in a year, so I am desperate for the kids in our community to have the world-class schools they deserve.

Occhialini: My family has lived in San Marcos for 23 years. Our sons attended San Marcos public schools, and we home-schooled for 5 years. I have a bachelor's degree in mathematics, a master's degree in business and have attended public and private schools. With my children no longer in the district, I am unbiased, objective, independent and can join with my other board members to make decisions in the best interests of all students. I will never forget who is paying the bill: our taxpayers.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the district, and what would you do to address it?

Downing: The growth in San Marcos has increased exponentially over the past few years. Meeting the educational needs of the influx of children has been challenging. However, the district has done what it could to provide education for the children in our community. As a member of the board, I will work with my fellow board members to proactively look at options to effectively handle the growth.

Gonzalez: I believe we face a financial challenge in the district. We need to be able to accommodate increased growth without asking more from taxpayers. Many of our schools lack necessities that need to be paid for. However, our large population of low-income and lower middle-class families present a challenge when coming up with the necessary funds. Our debt in 2014 was nearly $178 million; by 2038 our debt will be paid off at over $300 million (when including interest paid). I believe we need improved financial oversight and more discussion among trustees and constituents about the long-term effects of our financial decisions.

Halsey: Changing the image of our public schools requires addressing the concrete interests of our students and community members. SMCISD must hold true to its fiscal responsibility to the community, which means we must educate all of our students to become high-achieving, productive citizens. High-quality public education is key to economic prosperity and self-determination. I want to see the board held accountable for truly addressing equity issues across the district. We need a common-sense strategy for growth that draws on the wealth of resources, including Texas State University—an emerging research institution—and ACC, as well as the many innovative small businesses in our community.

Hooper: Leadership. And the trustees are the first line of leadership. They must set the example, the vision and the policy and choose the proper subordinate leadership for the district. Challenges such as the negative impact of poverty can be overcome, but only with the proper leadership that is innovative and inspiring. Without the right leadership, the district cannot make the transition to a higher level.

McGlothlin: There are too many distractions getting in the way of the teacher-student connections, be it classes that are too big, administrative burdens on teacher time, changes in curriculum, or too much campus mobility in our students.

Occhialini: In the past 10 years our school buildings have improved dramatically, yet our academic achievements have remained stagnant. Satisfaction with mediocrity should never be the norm. We should expect better and foster that same expectation in our students and employees. Our biggest challenge is to be better: better in the stewardship of our taxes, better academic achievement, better student participation and better community involvement. I will focus on more than just bricks and mortar.

If elected, what will you do to strengthen the education the district's students receive?

Downing: We, as the community, need to instill the love of learning into our children. In working with fellow board members, I seek to develop an alignment and partnerships between private early childhood education programs and district primary programs, including the district preschool. Additionally, I seek to develop partnerships and programs directed for latch key children (grades 5-7) that offer free or reduced tutoring, special programs and curriculum enhancements.

Gonzalez: San Marcos High School currently offers many courses that offer college credit or allow a student to get certified in a particular field. We should continue to adapt valued alternatives for students with different interests. The current courses are beneficial and interesting to students, and I believe will contribute to an increase in the completion rate of 84.6 percent (2012). We need to continue these programs and make sure they are properly funded. One issue that is present is keeping teachers in the district that are qualified to teach these programs. We need to ensure that our district stays competitive for these teachers.

Halsey: I'm glad that voters in our district decided to prioritize high-quality pre-K, as evidenced with the recent opening of the Bonham Prekindergarten School. We need now to make early childhood education available to more students with an affordable tuition-based program. We also need to accelerate the rollout of our high school academies. We have teenagers who cannot wait another two years to be college- and career-ready. And we must develop a plan that will allow us to place hard caps on class size so that teachers can do the job they are trained and hired to do—focus on the education of every individual child.

Hooper: To push for efficiencies within the organization. First, begin with the ultimate goal the district wishes to achieve. Is it to graduate an academically skilled young person who is also socially and emotionally stable? If so, all the resources and processes must be aligned to achieve that goal. All waste must be eliminated and conflicting policies changed, and all staff and leadership should be on board with the shared mission and goal.

McGlothlin: Over the last ten years, our community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars creating world-class facilities. Now we need to spend the next 10 years making the education inside the building reach the same standard. This will require more attention at the bottom and the top. I think we need to focus our money and energy on lowering our teacher-student ratio at the elementary grades; stabilizing and improving the administration at Miller Middle School; graduating 100 percent of our kids; involving community members to inspire and care about our kids; creating direct pipelines from graduates of our academies to jobs at a living wage; attracting and retaining the greatest teachers in the world; encouraging kids to take the hardest classes by giving greater grade rewards; enhancing the direct partnership between Texas State and San Marcos High School.

Occhialini: We as a community need to take ownership of our school district instead of placing all of our hopes in whoever happens to be superintendent. The school board is responsible for our public education. I will push for cost-effective, tried-and-true curriculums that emphasize rigor and the value of hard work. I will support extracurricular activities that complement academic achievement and character development. I will advocate for students to receive more personal attention from teachers in small classes rather than time alone in front of computers.

What can the district do to ensure the salaries it offers teachers is competitive with nearby districts?

Downing: The district should seek input from their teachers to ensure they are meeting their needs financially and giving them benefits that are beneficial to them. The district could ensure the teachers have access to adequate continuing education and professional development without compromising or adding to their work schedules. With salaries based on performance, experience and education, teachers will earn wages based on qualifications that set them apart from other teachers.

Gonzalez: First and foremost we should ask the teachers what we can do to stay competitive so we stop losing teachers to nearby districts. Additionally, we must allow teachers to be one of the first things we consider in a budget. If we make good financial decisions throughout the district, we should be able to accommodate the needs of teachers without raising taxes. However, if raising taxes is necessary, taxpayers should be the ones to decide whether or not they are willing to pay higher taxes to benefit teachers.

Halsey: Texas State has one of the top teacher training programs in the country. It is the largest university-based teacher preparation program in Texas—and a significant number of those student teachers train in SMCISD. After those teachers have completed their training in our district, we need to make sure that SMCISD is attracting and retaining the best and the brightest among them for our teaching staff. To do so, we must look comprehensively at our mechanisms for teacher training and support. We need a plan to place hard caps on class size so that teachers can do the job they are trained, hired and paid to do—focus on the education of every child.

Hooper: Salaries should be competitive and all connected resources brought together to make that happen. However, we must holistically focus upon the important goal of retention and recruitment of quality faculty. Let's bolster the overall package being offered to attract great talent. Compensation along with a good work life balance, quality health insurance, a work environment that is supportive and being part of a great mission and success story: These elements combined act as a magnet to quality staff.

McGlothlin: It is very important for the district to compete in the job market for the best talent. The district must offer more to new teachers so that we attract the very best, and we must incentivize and reward our strongest performers to reduce teacher turnover. Then, I'd like to work with our partners at the city and county to provide property tax incentives to teachers who move here and become a part of our community.

Occhialini: Most adults remember a special teacher or coach that made a difference in their lives–I know I do. We need to recruit and retain good teachers and coaches with competitive wages and benefits while at the same time monitoring employee performance. Competitive salary data is readily available, and there should be no reason why we cannot match what neighboring districts offer their employees. I am much more inclined to take care of our teachers than fund frivolous technology.

Early voting begins April 27 and runs through May 5. Election day is May 9. During early voting, residents may cast their vote at the Hays County Government Center, 712 S. Stagecoach Trail, San Marcos. On election day, voters may cast their votes at their district's polling places:

District 1

New Life Christian Center

4000 Highway 123

District 2

San Marcos Housing Residents Office

820 Sturgeon St.

Martindale Baptist Church

Main Street, Martindale

District 3

Dunbar Center

801 Martin Luther King Dr.

District 4

Crockett Elementary School

1300 Girard St.

District 5

Travis Elementary School

1437 Post Rd.

Candidate Jesse Ponce did not respond to the Q&A.
By Brett Thorne
Brett Thorne reported on education, business, economic development and city government in San Marcos, Kyle and Buda from 2012 to 2017. Thorne attended Texas State University in San Marcos, where he graduated in 2010. He joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in 2012 and was promoted to editor in 2013.


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