Conroe ISD board of trustees candidates discuss challenges of growth, funding

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Updated Oct. 13 at 6:59 a.m.

Nine candidates are vying for three positions on the Conroe ISD board of trustees and will be on the ballot in the Nov. 6 election.

Candidates Kathleen Harmatuk-Swisher, Dale Inman, Paul K. Piper Jr. and Theresa Wagaman are running for board of trustees Position 1, a position currently held by board President Melanie Bush who is not seeking re-election this year. Bush is running for county treasurer.

Candidates Skeeter Hubert* and Jamie Quinn are running for Position 3, currently held by Hubert, while candidates April Andreski, Kevin McZeal and Ray Sanders* are running for Position 2, currently held by Sanders.

For more information about the Conroe ISD board of trustees, click here.

Correction: We incorrectly stated that Harmatuk-Swisher, Inman, Piper Jr. and Wagaman were running for board president, a position currently held by Bush. The candidates are running for Position 1. The board president is elected by the board.

*indicates incumbent

Conroe ISD Board of Trustees, Position 1

Paul K. Piper Jr.

Occupation: physician specializing in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism
Experience: local business owner, budget planning, membership and chairmanship of Carrollton, membership to the boards of the Texas Public Library and the Carrollton Capital Improvements Plan Advisory Committee
Top priorities: advocacy for students

What do you believe is the biggest challenge that Conroe ISD faces and how will you address it?
Piper: One of the biggest challenges for Conroe ISD is to effectively manage its growth. The rapid growth of our community and student enrollment is a source of both strength and potential challenges. Conroe ISD is tasked to keep pace and manage this growth with an eye toward capital projects, expanding the workforce, and new educational programming needs.

Are there any district expenses you feel are overfunded/underfunded—if so, which one and why?
Piper: As a school board member, I plan first and foremost to carefully consider the likely benefit to the educational success of CISD students of any proposed new district expenses.

What do you believe is a school board’s most important responsibility?
Piper: The school board is accountable to the voting public and interacts with many stakeholders, including the community, administration, educators and parents. But no responsibility is greater than the board’s responsibility to our students. The school board must adopt policies and approve budgets that focus on the safety and educational success of CISD students.

Kathleen Harmatuk-Swisher
www.facebook.com/kathleen4cisd

Occupation: Licensed Professional Counselor and former school counselor in The Woodlands
Experience: Licensed Professional Counselor from 2007 to present, school counselor from 1988 to 2010, Montgomery County Women’s Center volunteer facilitating Women’s Empowerment Group, key club mentor for The Woodlands Kiwanis Club, “Marriage Enrichment Program” founding member, group facilitator of St. Anthony of Padua, facilitator for parenting groups at local schools, board secretary for CISD Parent Teacher Organization and the Houston Licensed Professional Counselors Association
Top priorities: create safe learning environments for students and teachers, produce high achievement in our students, provide leadership to bring all partners (students, parents, teachers, counselors, community and businesses) together to work collaboratively to find the best solutions for all CISD students, act to find innovative solutions to address emerging issues to our ever-expanding district

What do you believe is the biggest challenge that Conroe ISD faces and how will you address it?
Harmatuk-Swisher:
Our district receives approximately 1,500 new students per year. With the student growth and the ever-changing teaching environment, we must remain agile in our ability to respond to the needs of our students, teachers, administrators, counselors and community.
My platform is about high achievement and safe learning environments. I will stay mindful of the physical, personnel and budgetary constraints on the district while partnering with students, staff, parents and community leaders to help us address real-time challenges such as safety and security, anti-bullying, positive school climate and access to good nutrition and student wellness. Together we will maintain the excellence that this district has already achieved on all fronts while speeding up our ability to respond to new challenges as they surface.

Are there any district expenses you feel are overfunded/underfunded—if so, which one and why?
Harmatuk-Swisher:
CISD is a large, diverse district and as such there will be differing opinions regarding overfunding/underfunding. District funding comes from different sources to meet specified needs. As a parent and a professional, I believe all students can learn and all students matter. Upon election to the CISD school board, I will listen carefully to all sides of the issue and help the board make decisions that are fiscally sound for our district now and for the future, which keeps the most important issue up front: What is the best decision for all of our students in the CISD district?
My emphasis for high achievement and safe learning environments will have our students, not just get by, but thrive. Additional funds could be allocated to help enhance the learning environment (i.e. anti-bullying programs, anti-violence programs, programs to help establish a positive school climate) which I would support.

What do you believe is a school board’s most important responsibility?
Harmatuk-Swisher:
Informed and purposeful decision making is the most important responsibility of the board to ensure high achievement and safe learning environments. The CISD school board responsibilities are vast. Financial oversight, instruction/curriculum, personnel, community relations, labor relations, student services, and facilities/food service and transportation services are all a part of regular decision making. We will be agile and responsive in our decision making by asking ourselves:
1) “What is the best for all of our students?” 2) “How does this align with the vision and goals for the district?” 3) “What partnerships are available to make the changes?”

Theresa Wagaman
info@theresaforcisd.org

Occupation: residential realtor
Experience: parent in the CISD schools with 14 years of experience within Parent Teacher Organizations, The Woodlands Rotary Club, The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce, Alden Bridge Village Association, Montgomery County Association of Business Women
Top priorities: growth, school taxes, school safety and mental health

What do you believe is the biggest challenge that Conroe ISD faces, and how will you address it?
Wagaman:
As mentioned, CISD will continue to grow as the population of Montgomery County grows. The state will continue to decrease school finance unless reform is brought to the 2019 legislative session. CISD anticipates a need to build more schools to meet population demands and will continue to set aside the requirement percentage for additional funds not yet allocated. Yes, a request will be made to the board of trustees to form an exploratory bond committee this fall to outline needs projected for the next four to five years. CISD will solicit information and feedback from businesses and taxpayers prior to bringing forth any bond to the voters. I look forward to the process, suggestions and healthy ideas this exploratory committee will put forth to continue the long-standing reputation of educational excellence.

Are there any district expenses you feel are overfunded/underfunded—if so, which one and why?
Wagaman:
Special education is the most underfunded department in every school district across the state. This underfunding is due to cuts by the state along with caps imposed on districts to limit the number of special education students. Due to federal orders, the state is currently looking to find and disperse $3.2 billion in aid to districts. Until the money is allocated, individual districts will be forced to look within their own budgets to find the funds. The CISD 2018-2019 budget proposes three additional special education support staff.

Special education covers a wide range of needs. It helps students with disabilities, autism and dyslexia and those struggling with mechanics and motor skills, reading, mathematics and behavioral issues. It also helps students whose first language is not English. In many cases, special education requires early intervention for students who show signs of a disability requiring individual evaluation. Services may start as early as three or four years old. Unaddressed issues can lead to student frustration, behavioral issues, bullying, low self-esteem and dropout.

What do you believe is a school board’s most important responsibility?
Wagaman: The most critical role of the school board is the selection and continued evaluation of the superintendent.
Within this critical responsibility the board must oversee three key elements:
1. Administration. The superintendent serves as the educational leader, managing the district’s day-to-day operations, and is responsible for designing and implementing procedures and board-approved policy.
2. Fiscal Responsibility. It is the school board’s job to provide oversight to the fiscal affairs of the district, to hold the superintendent accountable for the evaluation of other district employees or supervisors to review annual financial proposals so that value is received for every dollar spent.
3. Accessibility. The board must have a close working relationship with the superintendent as district priorities and goals are formulated. Each board member must commit to being involved, accessible and responsive to the district, community and taxpayers.

Dale R. Inman
281-460-4900

Occupation: pastor, homebuilder, cattle rancher
Experience: owned multiple successful businesses including Nationwide Insurance for over 25 years
Top priorities: effective education, friend of the taxpayer, student safety

What do you believe is the biggest challenge that Conroe ISD faces and how will you address it?
Inman: Student growth and enrollment numbers, school safety, making sure more dollars are going into the classroom and not too extraneous and extracurricular expenses.

Are there any district expenses you feel are overfunded/underfunded—if so, which one and why?
Inman: A
dministration and support staff positions are overfunded, teachers and the classrooms are underfunded.

What do you believe is a school board’s most important responsibility?
Inman: To hear from the parents and determine the vision the school district will take. Board members must use tax dollars as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Conroe ISD Board of Trustees, Position 3

Jamie Quinn
281-216-5012

Occupation: real estate broker, owner of Village Realty
Experience: former operations manager for Transamerica Commercial Finance for Montgomery County, realtor for 20 years, mother and grandmother of former and future Conroe ISD students
Top priorities: school safety, quality education, low tax rates

What do you believe is the biggest challenge that Conroe ISD faces and how will you address it?
Quinn: Reducing administrative costs in order to maintain a low tax rate. I will address this by making well-informed decisions, keeping the best interests of taxpayers in mind, and making students and teachers a top priority.

Are there any district expenses you feel are overfunded/underfunded—if so, which one and why?
Quinn: Administrative expenses are too high. CISD dollars should be spent in the classroom.

What do you believe is a school board’s most important responsibility?
Quinn: To be the voice and representative of taxpayers, students and teachers.

Skeeter Hubert*
713-478-9949
www.skeeterhubert.com

Occupation: financial advisor with Woodforest Financial Services
Experience: 18 years in financial planning, four years on CISD school board
Top priorities: safety for all students, continuation of conservative budget

What do you believe is the biggest challenge that Conroe ISD faces and how will you address it?
Hubert: School safety is a high priority. In the wake of recent horrible school tragedies, we need to make sure all kids are and feel safe and secure in our schools. I have supported the addition of more police officers in schools, that every school entrance have two points of entry and that every visitor is required to be buzzed in and then sign in prior to entering the school. I have supported the addition of security cameras in more places and the training of our teachers and administrators for emergencies. Along with Steve Toth, I initiated the first security and planning meeting held between CISD, the Montgomery County sheriff’s department, Montgomery County Hospital District, and other local elected officials. I approved the addition of two more crisis counselors for CISD to help kids in crisis as well as a pilot program that allows Tri-County Behavioral Health to come into CISD schools to work with high-risk students and their families.

Are there any district expenses you feel are overfunded/underfunded—if so, which one and why?
Hubert:
CISD is the biggest employer in Montgomery County with the largest public funds budget. CISD does a great job of managing a balanced budget and has approved a balanced budget for the last four years I have served on the board. Over 77 percent of our budget goes to teacher and administrator salaries. Our tax rate of $1.28 is lower than the rate was in 2008. In addition, our tax rate is lower than Montgomery ISD, Magnolia ISD, Klein ISD, Humble ISD and Houston ISD. CISD received awards from the Texas comptroller six years in a row for maintaining a transparent budget. Also, CISD received a cash rebate of over $86,000 for our energy-saving lighting program. CISD will continue to put new programs in place that save money and pass those savings on to taxpayers. The CISD website publicly provides summaries for financial transparency, debt transparency and contracts and procurement.

What do you believe is a school board’s most important responsibility?
Hubert: Setting the tax rate, overseeing the budget, hiring the superintendent and making sure school policies are being enforced.

Conroe ISD Board of Trustees, Position 2

Ray Sanders*

Occupation: banker
Experience: elected to Conroe ISD November 2010, re-elected 2014
Top priorities: academic success, financial efficiency

What do you believe is the biggest challenge that Conroe ISD faces and how will you address it?
Sanders: Conroe ISD is 348 square miles and is the 11th largest school district by student enrollment in Texas with over 7,000 employees and more than 60,000 students. The district grows about 1,500 students per year or more. The biggest challenge is managing the growth effectively while maintaining financial efficiency.

Are there any district expenses you feel are overfunded/underfunded—if so, which one and why?
Sanders: The three largest expenses of the district budget are payroll at 89 percent, purchases and contracted services (primarily utilities) at 5 percent, and supplies and materials (primarily fuel for transportation) at 4 percent. This makes up 98 percent of the budget. During my terms on the board, the district refinanced bonds which saved over $100 million in future debt payments due to lower interest rates. The biggest asset of the district is our teachers who impact students every day. We want to keep good teachers so we have to make sure they are adequately compensated.

What do you believe is a school board’s most important responsibility?
Sanders: The Conroe ISD board’s primary responsibilities are: to hire and contract the superintendent, to approve the budget, to approve district policies, to set the tax rate, and to ensure the policies of the district are performed in a cost-efficient and academically successful manner. Board members should also represent the taxpayers of the district and advocate on their behalf.

Kevin McZeal

McZeal has not responded to requests for information as of press time.

April Andreski

Andreski has not responded to requests for information as of press time.

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Kelly Schafler
Kelly Schafler is the editor for the Lake Houston, Humble and Kingwood edition of Community Impact Newspaper, covering public education, city government, development, businesses, local events and all things community-related. Before she became editor, she was the reporter for the Conroe and Montgomery edition for a year and a half.
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