Three new faces will be sworn in Nov. 17 to Montgomery ISD’s seven-member board following the Nov. 3 election. The new trustees have pledged for greater transparency, communication and accountability within the district following a widely-speculated hazing incident and a $1-million budget misallocation.

Two of the challengers—Mike Hopkins and Shawn Denison—ousted incumbents Adam Simmons and Board President Jim Dossey. The third, Laurie Turner, defeated Ron Herridge to fill the seat of David Eargle, who did not run for reelection.

Although Simmons and Dossey lost by 19% and 40% of total votes, respectively, the current board achieved several notable accomplishments, such as bringing a $2.8 million budget deficit to a balanced budget and approving a pay raise for staff shortly after.

Tough times

In October 2019, Montgomery ISD launched an investigation into an alleged hazing incident that ended with all necessary disciplinary actions being taken, according to the district, although details were not released. The incident stirred up widespread concern and speculation across the community, and many individuals spoke up at board meetings over a lack of communication and transparency.

"I ask that you at least communicate with us, because it is very frustrating not to know what's going on," said Jeanne Poulton, a mother of an MISD football student not involved in the incident, at an Oct. 15, 2019, meeting.

In June, Chief Financial Officer Kris Lynn uncovered a misallocation in the district’s 2019-20 budget: The district spent $1 million less than what it was required to by law spend on the career and technical education department. In a followup interview with Community Impact Newspaper, Lynn said this appeared to have been a common practice at MISD, one that officials probably did not realize was incorrect.

Board member Matt Fuller said with these widely publicized incidents, plus several sexual harassment allegations, it was natural for community members to take their concern the polls.

“The community knows and is paying attention to what is going on in our school districts,” he said. “And I think after the kind of year we had, it’s natural for people to ask, ‘What are they doing up there?’”

In their campaigning, the three new trustees spoke often about accountability, transparency and communication.

Hopkins said he saw disconnect between the board and the community, and moving forward, he would like MISD to have a communications page on its website, with board meeting minutes posted.

“The reason I ran for the board was also to bring a level of accountability ... and increase the transparency within the community,” he said.

Denison said he intends to ask questions during board meetings and hold the superintendent accountable when something does not seem right.

“It seems like in the past, when I would attend the meetings, there wasn’t much being brought out in public,” he said. “The public really didn’t know what was going on behind closed doors, so I hope we can bring more out in the open.”

Turner, who spent seven years as a teacher at MISD, said she hopes the district will update some of its policies, such as how it evaluates its administrators.

“Our teachers go through a lot to be evaluated,” she said. “As long as I was in the school, we never got to evaluate our leadership, but I think that’s a good thing to do.”

She added she believes MISD should continue the financial transparency that Lynn showcased when he came on board as well as the new townhall meetings Superintendent Heath Morrison launched to improve communication with the community.

“I think that’s awesome,” she said.

Ending on a good note

Alongside the challenges, the district brought a predicted $2.8 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2020-21 to a slight surplus under the current board. The shortfall, which was publicly announced in May, would take months to whittle down, an achievement that Lynn thanked the board’s leadership for.

The district also received an overall A rating from the Texas Education Agency for the 2018-19 school year. The TEA forewent ratings for the 2019-20 school year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The board hired Lynn as the new CFO April 1, and on June 30, they hired Morrison as the new superintendent, after former superintendent Beau Rees left for Weatherford ISD. The board agreed Morrison’s experience and extensive recommendations from various individuals qualified him for the position.

“We wanted the absolute best,” Dossey said June 30. “This guy is unbelievable.”

The district hired a director of communications, Justin Marino, on Nov. 3 and a new chief of police, Stephen Phillips, on Oct. 30.

After the board balanced its budget, trustees pledged to make MISD the highest paid district in the region. Trustees took one step closer to achieving this goal Oct. 20 when they approved a 2% pay raise for staff. Simmons said one of his last votes as a trustee was for this raise.

“If that’s the last thing I’ll do for the district, I’m very proud of that,” he said. “I truly feel that I have left MISD in a better situation than I found it.”

Simmons acknowledged the “tough times” the district faced but said he is proud of his time on the board and wished the new candidates success.

“My time is clearly up,” he said. “We are very proud of what we accomplished.”

Dossey declined to comment for this story but said he will give a lengthy final statement at the next board meeting.