Fifteen of the 16 candidates running for five seats on the Houston ISD board of trustees that are up for election this November took part in a candidate forum Aug. 26, giving voters an opportunity to ask questions and hear their thoughts on some of the key issues facing the district.

The forum, hosted by Houstonians for Greater Public Schools, was moderated by Houston GPS Executive Director Jasmine Jenkins. All candidates running for seats representing districts I, V, VI and XI participated, while three of the four candidates running for District VII did as well.

A list of the candidates running in each race can be found here.

Paying teachers more

Some questions were targeted at specific candidates, while other topics at the forum were discussed more broadly. Falling into the latter category was the subject of increasing teacher pay.

District I incumbent Elizabeth Santos—who is seeking re-election and previously led an effort to give teachers a pay raise in June—indicated at the forum that she would continue to fight for more increases to make the district more competitive with others in the region. HISD ranks 12th in a comparison of the starting teacher salaries offered by 17 Houston-area districts, according to a recent analysis by Community Impact Newspaper.

"$23 million more would get us to be in the competitive range of the districts surrounding HISD," Santos said at the forum. "It would come from facilities contracts that we no longer need or use because of the new beautiful buildings that we have. It would come from fallout that we have leftover every year."

Meanwhile, District IX candidate Gerry Monroe said first-year teachers should be making $70,000 a year, a substantial increase from the starting salary of $56,869 being offered to HISD's first-year teachers for the 2021-22 school year. Alief ISD is offering the highest starting salary of the districts analyzed by Community Impact Newspaper at $59,700.

Multiple candidates brought up the importance of increasing teacher pay throughout the night, while several others, including District V candidate Maria Benzon, said they also wanted to increase pay for support staff such as cafeteria workers.

Jenkins pressed candidates to provide specifics on where the money would come from for raises. Responses ranged from addressing "executive glut"—as proposed by District I candidate Matias Kopinsky—to using zero-based budgeting to more rigorously reviewing every dollar spent, as proposed by District VI incumbent Holly Flynn Vilaseca.

District VII candidate Mac Walker pointed out that the district often budgets for a deficit at the beginning of the year and winds up with a surplus by the end of the year, suggesting that there may be money available for teacher raises if budgets were planned better.

"Either they don't know their numbers or there is a severe flaw in the process," he said.

District V incumbent Sue Deigaard discussed some of the past challenges in budgeting that could, if resolved, allow the district to increase teacher pay in the future. Instead of budgets being prepared on an annual basis, as they are now, Deigaard said they need to be planned in alignment with a long-term strategic plan.

"I think a large part of why this has happened over the last four years is the instability the district has had with a lack of vision and a lack of a permanent superintendent," she said. "It is my expectation, now that we have a new superintendent, that our budgets henceforth would not just be brought to us on an annual basis but a longitudinal plan ... that will be aligned to achieving our goals and demonstrate the strategies to achieving those goals."

Equity, special education and accountability

Other themes of the night touched on equity, closing achievement gaps and improving special education. After a September investigation into HISD's special education programming revealed "significant" shortcomings, the Texas Education Agency appointed two conservators to the district in January.

District VI candidate Greg Degeyter—an attorney who runs a nonprofit helping expecting mothers get social security disability benefits—said making improvements to how HISD handles special education could bring in more money to the district. He also balked at the idea of boosting "per unit allocation" funding—a calculation that determines the level of funding for each campus—based on demographic data or a school's location.

"Need knows no color; need knows no location," he said. "The money needs to go where the need is, regardless of if the community is labeled as underserved. Need doesn't know label."

Several candidates listed increasing equity among their priorities, offering different ideas on how that could be accomplished. District I candidate Janette Garza Lindner suggested providing better incentives for teachers to teach at HISD's neediest schools. District IX candidate Joshua Rosales repeatedly emphasized the importance of giving students a "world-class" education, including multilingual skills to better prepare them for the future.

A number of candidates—including Walker, Lindner, Santos and Deigaard—called for raising or adjusting the weighting of the district's PUA funding.

Some of the questions were specifically tailored to certain candidates, including a question about an ongoing investigation by the TEA about board member misconduct directed at trustee Vilaseca.

The investigation is related to an alleged violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act that took place during a 2018 meeting at a restaurant between Vilaseca, Sung, Santos, two former HISD trustees and Abe Saavedra, a candidate for HISD superintendent at the time. Following the meeting, former trustee Diana Davila made a motion at the next board meeting to replace Granita Lathan, the interim superintendent, with Saavedra without review of the entire board.

Leaving the open meetings act violation to the courts, Jenkins instead asked Vilaseca if she thought the actions were an example of good school board governance.

"It’s a regrettable decision," Vilaseca said. "I made that decision based on one trustee’s interest moving forward with the superintendent search, but it's regrettable. It should not have gone down like that, and I apologize."

Parent engagement, mask mandates

The importance of getting parents more involved in the district—particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which HISD's student enrollment dropped by an estimated 10,000 students—was another top subject of the night.

Sung said it was important to look at schools with high parent engagement rates to replicate what they are doing, whether it be coffee events or using bilingual programming. She added that the board itself could create a more structured way to engage families.

District VI candidate Kendall Baker said he would put a system in place that would allow him to stay in contact with families in his district and would share the system with other board members. District VII candidate Dwight Jefferson emphasized the importance of wraparound services to reach communities while also suggesting using a financial incentive to get parents involved.

Toward the end of the forum, all 15 candidates were asked to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to indicate their stance on mask mandates. HISD implemented a mask mandate for all students, teachers and staff on the first day of school, Aug. 23.

Candidates who gave a thumbs down included Baker and District V candidate Caroline Walter. Walter was able to elaborate on her stance when asked about the topic earlier on in the forum.

"My thought on this has nothing to do with masks themselves or the ongoing debate on whether masks work or don’t work," she said. "I believe it is an overreach of the power of the board to make a decision whether you are putting a mask on a child’s face or you're pulling a mask off a child’s face."

Early voting begins Oct. 18 for HISD elections, and Election Day is Nov. 2. Look for candidate Q&A's for local races in the Oct. 1 edition of Community Impact Newspaper in the Bellaire, Meyerland and West University area, as well as in the Oct. 2 edition in the Heights, River Oaks and Montrose area.