Heading into her second school year as Richardson ISD superintendent, Tabitha Branum spoke with Community Impact about her goals for the upcoming school year, safety protocols, book bans and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your main goals for RISD heading into the 2023-24 school year?

For 2023-24, our board of trustees adopted a North Star goal, which really is all focused on growth. We want to ensure that every student, every teacher and every leader meets or exceeds [their] growth goal. How do we make sure that our entire system is focused on ensuring that they are growing academically, socially and emotionally?

That is coupled with a continued emphasis and focus on a safe and secure environment. We know our students can’t focus on learning if they walk into school and are fearful and don’t feel like they are being protected. Continuing to implement our safety measures, continuing to make sure that our safety protocols are being followed by our campuses and that we’re communicating with our parents [is a priority] so everyone can have confidence in that safe learning environment we are trying to provide.

What are the biggest challenges RISD is facing?

I have to start this answer with the budget. We are currently operating under the same basic allotment per student expenditures as 2019. The state gives us $6,160 on average per student. That has been the same amount since 2019, even though we’ve experienced record inflation.

Our insurance bills are also rising. One of our bills went up $1 million, and another went up $60,000 per year, plus our deductible is doubling.

Knowing that we adopted a $14 million deficit budget, how do we rightsize our budget while still ensuring the high-quality programs and instruction that our community, our parents, our staff and our students deserve? By far, that is our greatest challenge. We will continue to advocate with the state and let them know that they need to fund public education. One of the greatest strains on our budget right now is the demand for teachers. You can’t go to any district website right now and not see a plethora of job openings. We need additional support and resources from the state to help us ensure that we have the resources to compensate our educators fairly.

How has the district addressed or planned to continue addressing learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

I am incredibly proud of our district leadership, our campus leadership and our teachers who really recognize that there were two impacts of the pandemic. One was the social and emotional challenges that our students had on the heels of the pandemic, and then academic deficits. Our staff has been all in on really making sure our students have what they need for both of those.

[There has been a focus] on how to provide great daily instruction. That’s where it all starts—making sure that every student has access to grade-level instruction with engaging lessons that get kids excited about learning; having strong tutoring and strong interventions in place when we see a student doesn’t have a grade-level understanding. We use tools like MAP, Measured Academic Progress, as an assessment that allows us to know whether students are growing and if what we’re doing is working.

We also want to continue outreach to parents and have our parents engage in the process, even with something as simple as attendance. Yes, if your kid is sick, we want them to stay at home and be well. But other than that, we need them at school. We can’t grow them if they’re not at school

A new law will require all public schools to have an armed guard on campus during school hours, starting Sept. 1. How is RISD preparing to implement this protocol, and do you have any concerns about it?

Our greatest concern is that this is an incredibly underfunded mandate. We received a 28-cent increase in our safety and security allotment per student, which equals $10,360, and we received $15,000 per campus, for a total of $823,000 in new money for a mandate that is going to cost the district well over $2 million—probably closer to $2.5 million. And that’s just the human resources cost. That is not the ongoing training cost and the cost to provide the security officers with the arms, uniforms and everything else they need.

I started this interview with safety, along with student growth and achievement, as our no. 1 priority. I don’t think there’s anything our board or district wouldn’t do to ensure that our kids are safe, but if the state is going to mandate a solution for all 1,100 districts, then we need the resources to be able to do it well.

Another issue is that all 1,100 districts are going to be trying to recruit safety and security officers that have the [right level] of security training, and there’s not enough of them available. We have met with the Richardson and Dallas police departments, and they have vacancies in their police forces right now. It’s a burden on them to ask them to try to increase their number of school resource officers when they can’t even build their current force.

We will continue with the [already existing] security resource officer model at our secondary campuses. As we get additional details with this bill, we will probably be looking at quickly posting jobs for additional safety and security officers that will primarily support our elementary campuses. More information will be shared with the board of trustees on Aug. 10.

Some school districts, including Dallas ISD, have implemented clear backpack policies for students to address safety. Why has RISD chosen not to implement a similar protocol?

Currently, clear backpacks are not a part of the series of recommendations from the Texas School Safety Center. We have a safety and security committee that meets at least twice a year, and we bring topics like this forward to that team. They evaluate and make recommendations to the board around the safety protocols that we implement.

We require clear bags [in the district's event policy], and during the day we have portable metal detectors. But currently, clear backpacks are not something that have been recommended by our safety and security team nor recommended by the Texas School Safety Center.

How are statewide book bans or restrictions affecting RISD?

I am very proud of the work that our district has done in partnership with our parents in creating what we call our opt-out program. In that program, at the beginning of every year, we provide a list of books, and parents can write in any book details that they don’t want their child to check out at the library. If their child was to maybe pull that book from the shelf and [try to check out], the librarian would direct them to another section shelf.

We believe that is really important because we do believe a parent should have a voice in what their child is reading. If there is a title that they feel like does not support their family’s beliefs or their wishes, they should have an opportunity to opt out. Parents who do believe that their child should have access to that book title should have the same opportunity as well.

With the uptick in school violence and tense political climate, how does RISD plan to address or maintain mental health among students?

Trauma-informed care is something we’re investing in, both in human and fiscal resources. We have a strong partnership with partners like the Momentous Institute, who are coming into our schools, working with our teachers and providing them with the strategies they need to identify when a student might be in crisis and help them de-escalate. We also are working with all of our campus counselors so they can partner with parents. If we know that a child is in crisis and we know that they have experienced trauma, we can make sure that they have the resources that they need, even above and beyond what the school district can provide.

I also want to say that the focus on a positive learning environment and removing the distraction of cellphones [with the district’s locked cellphone pilot program] helps this. When that distraction is put away and students can just focus on building relationships and connections with one another and their teachers, I think that’s a really positive thing for their mental health.

A new law will allow school districts to hire or allow uncertified volunteer chaplains to perform the duties of school counselors. Does RISD have any plans to take advantage of that law or implement such counselors?

At this time, no. We are so fortunate that we have highly qualified counselors that have gotten training, received their degrees and additional certifications. We have strong faith-based partners with churches and organizations across the community, and they provide additional support, but at this time, we are well-staffed with our counselors and don’t have a need to take advantage of that law.

Is there anything else you want to add about the upcoming school year?

My only other request of the community is to lift up our teachers. Our teachers love our kids fiercely, and they give their whole hearts to make sure that our kids are growing every day. Whether it’s through our Thank a Teacher program, or just sending a note or email of appreciation or even dropping off a Sonic cherry limeade to their teacher to say thank you for what they do, those things mean a lot to teachers and let them know that they’re seen and recognized. Being active through the district foundation or joining a PTA [makes] a real difference. Our teachers are superheroes, and we need to treat them as such.