Updated March 21, 2019 to remove Cynthia Lenton Gary as a candidate.
Jason Dobrolecki, Allison Drew, Lily Lam, Christian Sommer and Pam D. Sutherland will face off in the race for Fort Bend ISD trustee Position 5 on May 4. Their area encompasses the east division of the school district, including parts of Sugar Land, Missouri City, Arcola and Fresno. Community Impact Newspaper asked candidates their thoughts about the Sugar Land 95, public education funding, future school planning and challenges facing the district.
Occupation: chief marketing officer for the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston
Experience: executive leader in the nonprofit sector with over 20 years of leadership experience making an impact in the communities he has served; served on the board of directors for YMCA of Greater Houston’s Tellepsen Family Y and the Houston chapter of Playworks
Top priorities: ensure all communities and schools in the eastern district of FBISD have the representation and advocate they deserve who will fight for educational equity in all of our schools and provide the resources needed to improve schools both in educational adequacies and capacity building
Occupation/experience: 20 years as an enterprise data architect
Top priorities: rebalancing enrollment; equitable, innovative course offerings at every campus; facilities improvements
Experience: Vietnamese kindergarten teacher assistant, advocate for special education students, occupational therapy assistant student, Hightower High School 2017 graduate
Top priorities: mental health awareness, special education inclusion, quality education
Occupation: homebuilding executive
Experience: 17-year resident of Fort Bend and Brazoria counties; 19 years in Houston-area residential new home construction; tenured in Fort Bend County (and Houston area) land acquisition and development; 10-year member of New Hope Church (Rosharon, Brazoria County); member of The Harvest United Methodist Church in Sienna Plantation; graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine; married for 19 years to Jessica; father of three FBISD elementary school children for the last six years (grades kindergarten, 3 and 5); longtime parent involvement with FBISD’s gifted and talented program; active supporter of extended educational programs: Duke TIPs, IDTech, Kanakuk Camps; active fundraising partner to Fred and Mabel R. Parks Youth Ranch (Richmond, Fort Bend County); active supporter of Child Advocates of Fort Bend County; volunteer coach pitcher for son’s baseball team
Top priorities: listen with an unbiased ear; learn from our wonderful Fort Bend County families and class-act current FBISD trustees; keep one goal in mind at all times: serve the families of Fort Bend County as they provide for their children, our future
Pam D. Sutherland
Occupation: mother, small-business owner/entrepreneur, autism expert
Experience: bachelor of science in accounting from Tuskegee University, CarFlagLady president and CEO, Student Health Advisory Committee, Resource for Students, 2017 Bond Committee, Vision and Planning Taskforce Committee, District of Innovation Committee, Pre‐Bond Discovery Process Committee, District Advisory Committee, Parent/Teacher Organization treasurer (2009-15), Parent/Teacher Organization president (2015-18), parent volunteer
Top priorities: free appropriate public education for all students, increased priority and support for special needs children and their transition to becoming productive citizens, intelligent and thoughtful rezoning in FBISD that makes sense, repairing the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund, increased security on all school campuses, ensure all elementary schools have a preschool program with qualified teachers for children with disabilities, enhance the special education program for all grade levels, single-member districts, increased teacher pay
How would you have managed the Sugar Land 95 reburial process?
DOBROLECKI: This has been a disappointing process to witness. FBISD’s inability to engage with community leaders and advocates soon after the discovery made this situation exponentially worse. Engaging sooner in a process to identify solutions respectful and palatable to all parties would have allowed a solution to be found sooner and saved significant time and resources.
DREW: First and foremost, we have to honor the remains of these victims of convict leasing in a dignified way that tells the story of their lives without whitewashing the atrocities of the past. Let’s use the discovery of these 95 bodies as a way to educate our children about Sugar Land’s history and the state-sanctioned tragedies which occurred in the late 19th century. The community should be engaged in deciding the most honorable way to memorialize these remains. At the last board meeting there was community outcry to leave the remains in situ and create a memorial park around them. I fully support this action. We should not think of the resolution of the 95 bodies as the end of the story; rather, it is a beginning for our community to engage in historical research and honor all those who sacrificed their lives in the convict leasing program.
LAM: With the controversy over the Sugar Land 95, I would like to ask for local support from our commissioners office and police department in order to properly transport these victims to be further investigated by forensic analysts. Once the victims are relocated and identified, construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Education Center can resume knowing they are well-respected and honored. The 95 victims should be commemorated at the center for all students to understand and acknowledge the importance of their education and how it was built upon.
SOMMER: I felt the district and our Fort Bend families handled the sensitive situation in an applaudable manner. As community leaders, our mission is to seek the best outcome through well-thought-out decisions and action plans. I felt that was achieved with our board’s decisions regarding DNA testing, subsequent outreach to living descendants and making the decision for reinterment in the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery. Many families may be able to learn about their own ancestors’ history and contributions. We can’t rewrite history, but we can recognize and honor the people who have shaped our lives and cultures of today. I look forward to seeing next steps from all involved to memorialize these Texas ancestors and their contributions to what we enjoy today in this great state.
SUTHERLAND: I believe the 95 bodies found should be moved to a respectful burial site where they can be memorialized. However, I don’t believe the school district should have listed the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery as the reburial place within its interlocal agreement with the city before task force members could vote on a burial option.
What changes should the Texas Legislature make on school funding?
DOBROLECKI: The outdated funding equations need to be updated and allow more local taxes to remain local, and the “Robin Hood” recapture provisions need to be closely reviewed and reconsidered. Local taxes, local funding and local control needs to be the guiding principles moving forward. State and local funding of special education needs must also be closely reviewed and improved to ensure all kids are provided the tools and resources they need to be successful.
DREW: The Texas Legislature is considering a 2.5 percent property tax cap. FBISD is predicting approximately five percent growth in property values within the district. If the Legislature passes a property tax cap without addressing school funding formulas (which they have avoided addressing for decades), the district could see a 50 percent reduction in the additional revenues generated by property appreciation next year. FBISD will face serious budgetary challenges in upcoming years if the Legislature does not address the school funding crisis. It is imperative newly elected school board members lobby our state legislators to address Texas school funding this session in a way that stabilizes or increases the amount of state revenue FBISD receives. We cannot afford to eliminate the cost of the education index as is currently being proposed. Additionally, the Legislature must find alternative funding sources to offset any property tax cap passed this session.
LAM: We’re running into a common trend of an increased annual budget deficit—we’re spending more than we can afford. Over the past few years, we’ve increased the amount of resources for students, but that also means we’d require some financial backing to continue to offer and run these programs. In a sense, the state needs to properly allocate funds to school districts as well as prioritize our expenditures. By understanding the allocation of funds toward our resources, it can guide us toward economic sustainability, which will put us on the path to quality education for all students.
SOMMER: The Texas Legislature is considering making changes to school funding during this session. Let me start by letting you know I am inquisitive. I seek to know all the facts and outcome projections before stating an opinion or deciding on a course of action. Today, I can only answer from my personal perspective, and I feel our educators need to receive higher compensation. State-to-state comparatives show woefully low rankings for Texas when it comes to teacher pay rates. I know teachers who have to charge their electric bill to a credit card just to make it to the next paycheck. Not acceptable! Secondly, I think the state of Texas needs to give their fastest-growing counties what they require, not what is easy to allocate. Our county has limited avenues of financing school district improvements short of raising property taxes, yet the state does possess the resources to help alleviate our rising tax rates and conjunctively increase funding to our schools. Legislation is currently in process to increase the state’s contribution for each student enrolled, and I agree it is time for this to happen. We in Fort Bend County are doing a lot to give back to our great state’s future. I’m wondering why FBISD isn’t treated more justly when it comes to Legislature funds?
SUTHERLAND: I believe in a change to the state constitution that requires the state to pay at least half the cost of funding public schools; this also speaks to my support for repairing the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund.
How do you see Sugar Land running out of available land affecting future school planning?
DOBROLECKI: FBISD has been severely lacking in its ability to plan for long-term growth of the district. The mismanagement of capacity formulations and the slow response time to build capacity through brick and mortar has resulted in severely overcrowded schools across the district. We continue to see significant growth projected in the southeast and northwest portions of our district, and the time to plan for that growth is now. Spending the bulk of their educational years in schools with significant levels of students being housed in temporary buildings is not acceptable. They deserve better.
DREW: The key to future school planning is to work collaboratively with area developers to identify land within new and existing subdivisions where schools can be built. FBISD must develop a comprehensive approach to plan for future growth by engaging with all stakeholders to make collaborative decisions. Our community no longer supports unilateral decision-making by FBISD administration. As a new board of trustees member, I will fight to include all voices in the community when important decisions related to school attendance zones and construction are under consideration. Acquiring land through eminent domain should only be used as a last resort to resolve immediate growth issues.
LAM: Since residential neighborhoods are rapidly expanding, this also indicates a result of overcrowding in schools. An overcrowded school is definitely not an ideal environment for a student. When there are too many students in a classroom, it places strain on not only the students but also the teachers, making it challenging to provide the proper attention each student needs in order to succeed. When a school is overcrowded, students and teachers are not getting the necessary resources they need. With this one issue, implementing beneficial school policies and addressing other issues and concerns will not be as effective.
SOMMER: Lack of land results in less new home construction, and this affects all aspects of our economy, including school districts. New schools can’t be built without communities to attend them. As seen in more densely populated cities, homebuilders end up having to shift focus in these land-deficient areas. To house population growth, area builders will try to find opportunities to build out multi-residence or higher-density developments where permissible. That becomes burdensome to our established schools and forces them to build more space to accommodate more students. In my opinion, it is good for Sugar Land to plan for sizable expansions and improvements to existing school district infrastructure and buildings. Investment in new technologies and appropriations for increased school district staff needs to play a large role in our district’s future plans. I’d also like to see the city explore possible annexation of outlying neighborhoods that might offer FBISD new avenues for physical growth to house our county’s growing educational needs.
SUTHERLAND: My thought is when current schools develop denser student populations, intelligent and thoughtful rezoning in FBISD that makes sense will become a priority.
What is the biggest challenge facing FBISD, and how do you plan to address it?
DOBROLECKI: Repairing FBISD’s relationship with the communities it serves is its biggest challenge. The current trust deficit it is experiencing has a wide-reaching impact in all other issues in the district because it’s a rot at the core of its decision-making process. Regardless of the decisions the board makes, many in the community do not trust the decisions because they believe the district is manipulative in its process and do not believe it engages in authentic community input. One solution to this process would be to provide transparency to community focus groups and committee projects by allowing the group to sign off on their recommendations and committee deliverables as they will be presented to the board. These deliverables and recommendations can continue to be altered, supplemented and adjusted by admin for recommendations to the board, but this must be done in a transparent way so it is clear what recommendations were derived from committees and focus groups and what recommendations come from admin. FBISD must also re-examine its community engagement process and find more effective means to engage in authentic dialogue.
DREW: The biggest challenge, which emerged at the most recent board of trustees meeting, is balancing school enrollment across the district. The board must develop a consistent set of principles, which then can be applied equitably and fairly in all communities across the district. Input from the community must be one of the key, nonnegotiable principles for this framework. Our communities expect collaborative decision-making regarding school zoning, rebalancing and new construction. A second challenge, corollary to the first, is building facilities equitable to surrounding districts. Specifically in the areas of athletics and fine arts, our facilities are not on par with other districts with whom our students must compete. Due to the current board’s hard work, we were able to pass the 2018 bond with 75 percent voter approval; however, we must develop a comprehensive vision regarding the manner in which facilities support the education of our students. Additionally, it is imperative we offer innovative programs at every campus so students are equipped to compete with their peers around the city and state. FBISD has to bridge the gap on innovative programming and scheduling. With new leadership on the school board, we can make FBISD a shining example of innovation and opportunity.
LAM: Mental health is the biggest challenge in FBISD. There have been many instances and reports within the district, and something needs to be done. A way to address mental health is by offering an in-school mentorship program. Upperclassmen would be mentors to underclassmen; each mentor-mentee relationship can build a rapport with one another where they can guide each other academically, socially and personally with the assistance of school counselors, teachers and administrators. I believe this is the first step in creating a safe environment for students to acknowledge and be aware of the importance of mental health.
SOMMER: I feel the biggest challenge facing FBISD is school performance disparity. We have a huge district and a lot of schools. Our district holds an obligation to all county residents that FBISD will provide top-notch education to all county children. Our families should be able to expect that no matter where they live in the county. I don’t know all the answers to this yet, but as I said before, I’m an inquisitive person. I like the Educators Dedicated to Growing Excellence program and will continue to support its growth. I feel there are more avenues to resolution we may not have considered yet. It’s a work in progress, but we will get there if we stay focused on the same goal—serve the families of Fort Bend County as they provide for their children, our future.
SUTHERLAND: Without a doubt, school finance. We have got to work with state officials to make education an economic priority. My agenda includes support for House Joint Resolution 24—to change the state constitution to require the state to pay at least half the cost of funding public schools—and focus on repairing the $44 billion Texas Permanent School Fund.