Incumbent Jim Rice faces Ashish Agrawal, Afshi Charania and Sam Popuri in this year’s election for Fort Bend ISD trustee Position 3. The area encompasses the west division of the school district, most of Sugar Land and portions of Richmond. Community Impact Newspaper asked candidates their thoughts about the Sugar Land 95, public education funding, future school planning and challenges facing the district.
Experience: 20 years in helping small and large companies solve complex challenges across industries; Fort Bend ISD Campus Based Leadership; active leader/member of homeowner association resident committees; organized volunteer group to deliver meals for Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.
Top priorities: Stop rezoning madness and take back control of FBISD; unite all communities as opposed to taking actions that can be divisive; drive transparency in decision-making, including making data available in advance (as much as possible) prior to meetings; ensure everyone has the opportunity to learn and develop and the educators have the resources necessary to deliver on this promise; build a feeder system for STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics] while strengthening our sports/athletic feeder system.
Website: www.ashishforfbisd.com, www.facebook.com/ashishfortbendisd
Occupation: Business owner
Experience: 20 years owning and running successful businesses
Top priorities: rebalancing enrollment across the district, financial stewardship of taxpayer dollars and bond money, accountability for both the administration and the board
Phone number: 281-606-5202
Occupation: information technology professional
Experience: 25 years
Top priorities: stability, transparency, equity
Phone number: 832-983-6778
Occupation: program manager
Experience: 8.5 years serving on the Fort Bend ISD board of trustees; president of Rice & Gardner Consultants; previously served on board of directors and advisory for Literacy Council; Education Division vice chair for Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce; chairman roles for Boy Scouts of America; co-founder and director of Fort Bend Cares; building committee chair of Christ United Methodist Church
Top priorities: Ensure all students receive a quality education, we have safe and secure campuses, continue to support the EDGE and Early Literacy Center initiatives, minimize the need and impact for re-zoning and create opportunities for our religious institutions to assist with after-school programs offering educational enrichment to our students.
How would you have managed the Sugar Land 95 reburial process?
AGRAWAL: I would have managed this historically significant process with respect and dignity. My approach would have been to establish a memorial. I would have also collaborated with local, state, and national organizations and encouraged everyone to establish a foundation to fund kids’ education in our area.
CHARANIA: A trustees’ first and primary responsibility is to the students of FBISD. I would have directed the administration to work with all the parties involved, the city, the county and the community on coming up with the best solution to give the remains a dignified burial. Since Fort Bend County has now agreed to take responsibility for the matter, I would work to ensure that funding is allocated back to the school district so that the programs that are delayed or lost can go on as planned.
POPURI: I agree with the community that the school district should rebury ‘Sugar Land 95’ at the site where they were found. A number of elected officials also issued a letter supporting that request. FBISD should have taken the lead to uphold its social and moral obligation to preserve this piece of history and educate the generations to come. I would have pursued the district to change the building design and allow the students to experience history. I would have advocated for a memorial in the flex space of the building and a small museum displaying the information and artifacts about these historical findings. This would have been a win-win for all parties involved.
RICE: Though much has already been published in the press about this issue, I would refer those who wish to avail themselves of the facts to visit www.fortbendisd.com/historiccemetery. Fort Bend ISD pursued all reasonable precautions and due diligence before starting construction. Construction workers discovered the remains, and Fort Bend ISD has been unflinching in bringing to light this sordid piece of history that occurred on former state prison land. Fort Bend ISD is happy to now be working with Fort Bend County to reinter these remains in a perpetual care cemetery that will be owned and operated by the county along with a memorial that can serve as a teaching experience for our students as well as our citizens.
What changes should the Texas Legislature make on funding schools?
CHARANIA: Property tax reform legislation is a priority of the governor and the lieutenant governor this session. As that legislation moves forward, school finance reform will certainly follow. As a trustee I would be diligent in following any proposed changes in order to ensure that FBISD is adequately funded. I applaud the recent move to provide a $5,000 raise to all Texas teachers, and I fully support more funding directly into the classrooms.
POPURI: If no change is made to school finance, state funds will account for less than a third of school revenue in 2023, according to the Texas Commission on Public School Finance’s final report in December. This means districts will struggle to find funds outside of state funding. The state needs to find a way to find funds for education. One example would be to revamp the old sales tax system and include many businesses and professional services that are excluded from sales tax. The state also needs to stop issuing unfunded mandates to the school districts, which shifts the priority from critical areas of needs.
RICE: The Texas Legislature should reduce its over reliance on local property taxes to supplant their fair share of funding. In 2010, the split was 52 percent local property taxes and 48 percent state funding. Today, the split is closer to 70 percent local property taxes and 30 percent state funding. We need a reliable revenue stream to meet the needs of our growing community. Unfortunately, the state has grown accustomed to this reliable revenue source (local property taxes) and it is very difficult for them to ‘fix’ school finance funding without creating an alternative revenue stream.
How do you see Sugar Land running out of available land affecting future school planning?
AGRAWAL: Frequent rezoning in FBISD is an indicator of systemic failure of planning. The current board appears to be very “reactive” as opposed to being proactive and thoughtful in its handling of FBISD matters. This failure is evident across many levels like overcrowding, breakdown of A/C systems in schools, big variance in school performance across the 70+ schools, etc.
CHARANIA: While the city of Sugar Land may be running out of available land, its population is also aging. Thus, I would expect to see enrollment in FBISD decrease accordingly. We have already seen this reduction in some of the older schools in the district. We need to ensure we balance school attendance while minimizing the constant rezoning of neighborhoods.
POPURI: Sugar Land running out of available land has had a significant impact on school planning. Current board and administration have repeatedly undergone the cycle of brainstorming, collecting more information, engaging community, making decisions and then ‘revisit and revise.’ The present state of affairs calls for some difficult decisions, such as rebalancing of schools. It may require adults in the community to accept some compromises as we do what is best for our children. The areas of anticipated growth must include land earmarked for schools. The key is to not engage in analysis paralysis but imbibe the best
solutions as we grow as a district.
RICE: As the amount of land for new development dwindles, the need for more new schools will correspondingly begin to diminish. There will always be new development and redevelopment in parts of the district, and we will continue to meet this challenge in new and innovative ways.
What is the biggest challenge facing FBISD, and how do you plan to address it?
AGRAWAL: To put it simply it would be a “Failure of Planning.” That is why my campaign mantra is “Stop the Rezoning Madness.”
CHARANIA: The incumbent has been in this position for nine years and has avoided addressing the issue of rebalancing the entire district. Schools have been allowed to sit empty while others are overcapacity. I am running so that our children are not constantly ping-ponged, at a time when they need stability the most in their life. Our current trustee has failed to address this. The passage of the recent bond should help the process; however, we need to follow this closely.
POPURI: The biggest challenge that faces FBISD is the inaction that emerges from poor planning, lack of focus and accountability. There is also a significant implementation gap as district initiatives travel from the board to top management and finally to the classroom. We need to dig deeper into the root cause of the problems plaguing the district and then address them. One of our board members recently stated ‘We’re not doing what we say we’re going to do.’ A strong board needs to hold the administration accountable for their decisions and actions. That is going to be my role. To create a system for accountability and responsibility towards our community and kids.
RICE: There are several challenges for the future: 1) Adequate school funding. Everything we do takes money. To get this we must lobby with our state legislators and work to keep the community informed. I have written several op ed articles on this topic and through the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce have hosted several meetings to keep our business community and our community at large informed. However, it will take the entire community to advocate on this matter to our state representatives and senators. 2) Dealing with the effects of high-stakes testing through STAAR. Tests should be used to diagnose student performance so teachers can know when to provide additional help. Tests should not be used to judge and then label students, teachers or campuses through A-F. 3) Continuing to improve school safety and security. An ongoing effort.