Jeffrey Larson and incumbent Page Rander are running for the District 4 position; incumbent Jay Cunningham, Keith Esthay and Christine Parizo are running for District 5; and Jonathan Cottrell, Michael Creedon, Marlene Montesinos and Kevin Oditt are running for at large Position A. Esthay chose not to participate in the forum.
District 5 candidates were asked what they consider the best source of information to inform the board about actions to be taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parizo said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has “walked back” recommendations too many times, and their word should not be taken as “gospel.” The best source is local doctors treating those affected by the pandemic because it is information the district can act on and trust, she said.
Cunningham said he was part of the Safely Reopen Committee over the summer that asked a range of experts to come up with regulations and protocols that allowed the district to remain open during the school year. The experts include local doctors and other health officials and included guidance from the CDC and Texas Education Agency.
“I think when you’re dealing with a global pandemic, too much information is not enough information,” he said.
The at large candidates were asked how CCISD should respond to concerns that many students have fallen behind academically due to the pandemic.
Creedon said resiliency is the best response. The board should promote resiliency so students have the skills to adapt and overcome the challenges they face. There also needs to be a catch-up policy of after-hours or summer programs for students to regain lost educational time, Creedon said.
Montesinos said the district should continue to be proactive. Some students are disadvantaged with limited access to the internet and parents unable to help them with technical problems. The district could implement an employee whose job is to go into remote learners’ homes to help them, she said.
Oditt said the district needs to get more children back into brick-and-mortar schools. Students learn better in person, and it is better for their mental health, he said.
“Virtual learning is not nearly as effective as in-person learning,” Oditt said.
Cottrell said the district needs to listen to the students, parents and teachers working and learning from home to find out what works for them. Clear Connections is viable for some, but the board needs to remind the state of the funding the district is owed, he said.
“We need to work with Austin to get the money that’s due,” Cottrell said.
District 4 candidates were asked how the district should employ Clear Connections going forward knowing it is intended the virtual learning option will continue next school year.
Rander said Clear Connections Virtual School is a good opportunity for those who want to make the “individual decision” to continue learning remotely. She believes strongly in the plan the district proposed and believes it will work for certain families, she said.
“There are some families that are benefitting from Clear Connections,” Rander said.
Larson said Clear Connections would work best if it had its own identity. He also voiced support for school choice.
“Every family should be able to choose the educational options that suit their needs the best,” he said.
Candidates were later asked individual questions.
Cottrell was asked if CCISD’s STEM programs should be changed. He said STEM is ever-changing, and the district should work closely with community partners, such as NASA and nonprofits, to find the best path forward.
Creedon was asked if physical education should be changed in any way. Creedon said no; physical education should be held constant until the district addresses more pressing matters because already the district is under a lot of duress due to the pandemic.
Montesinos was asked the difference between charter and private schools. Montesinos said charter schools get subsidies to education students who cannot learn adequately in private or public schools. She ran out of time to explain what a private school does differently.
Oditt was asked the implications of CCISD’s changing demographics on its strategic planning. Oditt said the district’s existing strategic plan is very “aspirational” and it needs a new one. The district’s core mission to education children will nnot change significantly regardless of the strategic plan, but the district needs to find what new communities it serves and address their needs as well, he said.
Larson was asked what program improvements he would suggest regarding special education. Larson said special education parents have given wonderful input on special education programs in the past, and the district should continue working closely with them.
Rander was asked what improvements should be made to programs teaching students English as a second language. Rander said the district should consider expanding the program, adding the program to elementary campuses and immersing students who speak English as a primary or second language so they learn from each other.
Cunningham was asked the why the distinction between the board being the district’s government and the superintendent being the district’s management is important. Cunningham said the board is in charge of tax dollars and policy and an advocate for public education whereas the superintendent’s role is to make sure the board’s decisions are carried out. The board has a 30,000-foot view of the district while the superintendent deals with day-to-day operations, he said.
Parizo was asked whether she agreed with the idea that charter schools should not be bound by the same rules as public schools. Parizo said she did agree, noting charter schools serve a very specific population. But, she said, if CCISD is providing a high-level education, the district does not have to worry about whether charter schools are bound to the same rules.
The election is May 1.