Christie Whitbeck took the helm of Fort Bend ISD in September 2021. She took over the position from former superintendent Charles Dupre, who announced on November 16 his intention to resign by December of 2021. Whitbeck comes to the district having served four-and-a-half years as superintendent of 16,000-student Bryan ISD, deputy superintendent of Fort Bend ISD for four years, assistant superintendent of academics in Alvin ISD, and as a principal in Katy ISD. Whitbeck first began her career as a teacher and language arts specialist in Alief ISD. Community Impact Newspaper spoke with Whitbeck to hear about the current and future challenges facing the school district.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What brought you back to FBISD?

First of all, my time in Bryan ISD was wonderful. I love it, I have connections with Aggieland. My daughter got her degree while I was there.

Drawing me back were multiple things. The challenge of a much larger district. I’m a driven person. I started as a first-grade teacher, and I always gravitate towards the next challenge. There’s certainly self-motivation there. Can I make a difference on a larger scale? To me, it’s about making a difference. I don’t want to be anywhere where I don’t make a positive difference.

There were also search firms who call and recruit you, which certainly happened. I did not seek them; they did seek me. I do have enough familiarity with this district to help us move in the right direction, but not so much familiarity that I’m going to be stuck in a certain way of doing things.

You spent four and a half years as superintendent of Bryan ISD. Fort Bend ISD is significantly larger. What hurdles does that bring, and how do you get yourself up to speed?

For CEO jobs in any company, size depends on the amount of senior leaders that you have who report to you. Then how much can you actually get to the core, which is the classroom? So I’m further from the classroom in a district that is this large, so how do I still keep my hands on enough knowledge to know what is happening? Then, how do I listen?

That’s my greatest challenge, to find those avenues. I’ve been finding them. I’ve been on a listening tour, I’ve been in multiple schools with one on ones with principals and a tour of the school, and I’m going to slowly get to all 80+ campuses. So I have to balance that. But also, it is a CEO job, and you have to have strong people in all of these schools and all of these departments to do their job well and I need to let them do their job.

At the beginning of school, there were a lot of concerns about COVID-19, mask mandates, and different safety protocols. Is there anything, looking back, that the district should have done differently, that you would do differently, or was the district operating within the constraints of the law?

I think the district handled it as best as it could. What happened with all school districts in the fall of 2021 — and I think my colleagues would agree — was that 2021 was harder for us than 2020. You would think it shouldn’t have been, but it was. Some of that is the ambiguity of the law changing, governor orders, back and forth, you can mandate and then you can’t, this one is overturned... So the schools are sitting in the middle, honestly. And they’ve been playing a pawn in that play.

It is what it is, and it became very political. For us, we need to depoliticize these issues because for us, children are children. It doesn’t matter where they come from, who their parents voted for or didn’t vote for. It’s the kids. So we’re going to have to take a stand on things, and particularly with masks. And no matter what you decide, you’ll make half the people mad.

How do you view safety in Fort Bend ISD schools, and any illicit student behavior you’ve seen or heard within the district?

What we’ve seen an increase in the last few weeks are social media-related issues. I can speak very clearly to parents: this is a responsibility. When we give a child a device, whether it’s a phone or a computer at home, there is a responsibility associated with that for them and for us as parents. I encourage parents to monitor, to let their child know they are going to monitor. You have every right to tell them that you’re going to check their devices periodically. Get with your other friends and help each other monitor what is going on with kids in their chats, and their different social media platforms.

I will also tell you that when people will perhaps have a threat that they’re going to harm the school, and it’s done through social media, we have a very robust police department here, with 75 officers and a strong police chief who knows what he’s doing. We will go the extra mile to trace it. We have already done that in the last week, having to go through subpoenas to get to this account, the next account, the next account, and guess what? There it is, and there’s the person who did it. We will prosecute to the fullest extent that we are capable, both through district consequences and the law.

Honestly, these threats are sometimes not done by the typical person you think. Sometimes they’re done by an adult, or someone in a whole other community.

How has the pandemic affected enrollment? How do those effects shape the district looking forward?

So the budget is determined based on projected enrollment. The enrollment that showed up in August [2021] was less than what was anticipated. Therefore the budget was developed with many more millions of dollars anticipated to be revenue.

What we do first and foremost is ask: where are our children? Because the right thing to do is ask, ‘Where are the children?’ Because the children need to be in school. We have multiple plans with a team working on how we find our kids, and where they are.

For example, a family in Fort Bend right now can enroll over the winter break. We have a team that will be on standby so that if someone wants to enroll, there is someone who can call them, check those immunizations, and help them over the break.

We have to then look at our budget. We know it’s a shortfall because of that. There was no way the district could have known that, truly. Now we have to deal with this.

I’m going to walk in and work with the team and the school board for how do we handle that? We’re also going to look at the things we’re doing now, things we don’t really need to be doing. We need to be fiscally responsible. We’ll be taking a look at these things as we head into the new year.

We could have cut several teaching positions after the year began — about 50 — and we opted not to because of the disruption.