Incumbent board members Tom Jackson, Julie Hinaman and Debbie Blackshear are running for each of the election’s three uncontested positions, but three candidates are vying for the Position 3 seat—Ryan Irving, Natalie Blasingame and Gilbert Sarabia, who was unable to attend the event due to a family emergency.
Jason Culpepper, the Houston publisher of Community Impact Newspaper, moderated the forum with submitted questions covering financial decision-making, employee health insurance, school attendance boundaries and the district’s changing demographics.
Current board members said when evaluating school attendance boundary changes as new campuses open within CFISD, they look at factors including demographics of the surrounding area, transportation resources and not splitting up neighborhoods.
“When we discuss boundaries, always foremost is trying to keep our neighborhoods together and to affect the least number of students when making these decisions,” Blackshear said.
Irving, a recent graduate of CFISD's Langham Creek High School, said he recalls being enrolled in classes with up to 35 students during his time as a student in the district. When class sizes get this large, it is difficult for students’ individual needs to be met, he said.
“My top priority with boundaries will be making sure that every single student can feel like they can have the attention of their teachers in their classrooms without feeling overcrowded,” Irving said.
Blasingame said paying closer attention to “vulnerable populations” to ensure families have stability is important when updating boundaries. She also said offering certain “programs of choice” could be a way to make more efficient use of space at underutilized campuses.
Irving said in addition to having CFISD increase its contribution to employee health insurance plans above the state minimum, he would like to see affected parties advocate for change in the state’s system for teacher health insurance.
“One thing that we can do is we can [implement] the same plan that we used for [House Bill] 3, which took students, administrators and trustees across the state [going] to Austin, and they lobbied for that bill to be passed during this past legislative session,” he said. “If we can use that same formula and implement that when it comes to educator insurance and insurance across the state in general, I believe that we will be successful.”
Running for his third term on the school board, Jackson said rising insurance premiums are affecting the general population as a whole—not just teachers.
After approving a $27 million deficit budget for 2019-20 school year, it was difficult for the district to increase contributions to employee insurance plans, Jackson said.
“Yes, the cost of insurance is very high here in the state of Texas, but that is not an issue that a school board member can resolve,” he said.
Blasingame said she would like to evaluate the district’s contract with the Teacher Retirement System of Texas as well as teacher pay to ensure annual salary increases are covering insurance premiums increases.
Supporting minority populations
As a former student, Irving said students of color receive harsher punishments than others in CFISD. His solution is to identify students who might be at-risk for disruptive behavior—such as those with incarcerated parents—and take a closer look at students’ home life.
Addressing academic achievement gaps within the district is a top priority for Blasingame, who said she partially attributes the issue to discrimination against minority students, she said.
“I think that the same achievement gap that exists is exacerbated by this overrepresentation of students of color in the disciplinary process, and so I think the district’s on a very positive path for [Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports] as positive ways to engage the whole community in building and supporting other students and everyone to success,” she said.
Many candidates spoke on the implementation of PBIS in CFISD, saying district data proves the program works to reduce the number of students facing out-of-school suspension.
For instance, the more time students spend in the classroom rather than being pushed out for disciplinary purposes, the greater opportunity they will have to learn, Jackson said.
“The district is continuing to look for opportunities to provide training in implicit bias at the teacher level, at the administrative level and at the board level so we can make better decisions and choices and policies for our students,” Hinaman said.