Q&A: Meet the three candidates vying for Tomball ISD Position 6


Tomball ISD board of trustees Position 6

*indicates incumbent

Justin Unser*

Occupation: global synthetics alliance and revenue manager at ExxonMobil

Experience: appointed trustee in 2019; Timber Creek Elementary principal for a day; Leadership Tomball program; 2019 delegate to Texas Association of School Board Assembly; 20-plus years at ExxonMobil; father of one current and one future TISD student

Why are you running for election to the Tomball ISD board of trustees?

JU: I had the opportunity to learn about the district and how it operates during Principal for a Day at one of our elementary schools and also during a multi-week program called Leadership Tomball. At the end, I walked away being thoroughly impressed and humbled by the amount of work and professionalism I witnessed. It inspired me to want to help my community, and I believed I had the right skills and experience to make an impact. Now, after serving on the board for over a year, I have a solid foundation of board-specific experience to build upon. I want to continue the tradition of excellence in Tomball, where we deliver a high-quality and high-value education throughout our community.

What do you believe is one area in which Tomball ISD can improve, and how do you plan to help the district improve in that area?

JU: The district is doing very well. Our children are getting a great education. We have the best educators in the state and a great administrative team with a pipeline of up-and-coming talent. Our facilities are well taken care of, and the district finances are in a solid position. We should be proud as a community of what we have all built together. One area where we can improve is our advocacy at the state level, where we can better voice our local concerns and needs to our state representatives. As a member of the newly formed district advocacy committee I intend to strongly represent Tomball ISD during the next legislative session in 2021. For example, adjustments are needed to the 2019 House Bill 3 to provide equitable treatment in funding for fast-growth districts such as TISD.

What do you believe is the most important role of a school board member?

JU: Members of a school board need to fulfill a variety of roles. He or she needs to be a strong leader, setting out a vision for the future; cheerleader, empowering the administration to execute the vision; an equitable decision-maker, considering the greater good; a mentor and role model for the leaders of tomorrow; and last but not least, a school board member needs to be a conduit for the community, listening for feedback and ideas on how to improve.

As TISD is a fast-growth district, what do you believe will be the biggest challenges over the next four years?

JU: As a district and community, we are all aware of the many challenges and hardships created so suddenly by the arrival of COVID-19. The full economic impact at the local, state, and federal levels will not be well understood for years to come. But we already know Texas is facing its largest budget shortfall in history, at nearly $5 billion. While in the near term, the state may be able to rely on the Economic Stabilization Fund to bridge gaps, locally, we need to continue to be mindful with our spending and looking for ways to save money without lowering our standards. Should the Legislature cut education spending, as they did in 2011, we will want to be in a strong position, like we are today. The district is projected to continue to grow in the next few years, which is also a challenge. Will COVID19 and a slower economy temper the growth? Do we have enough space, or should we build? I am confident with the right leadership, TISD will smartly navigate through.

Ursula Gassaway

Occupation: stay-at-home mom

Experience: parent of a Tomball ISD sixth-grader; worked in oil and gas industry for 20-plus years; volunteer with Big Brother/Big Sister and Interfaith of The Woodlands; mentor; youth Sunday school teacher

Why are you running for election to the Tomball ISD board of trustees?

UG: Tomball ISD is an amazing district, and I would love the opportunity to contribute the skills I’ve learned in my professional career. The board sets the tone at the top and is responsible for defining priorities, implementing policies [and] allocating resources, and I will be ready to contribute to these activities on Day 1. My goal is to enable district success by being an advocate for teachers, students and families and ensure collaboration between the community and businesses to make a positive lasting impact.

What do you believe is one area in which Tomball ISD can improve, and how do you plan to help the district improve in that area?

UG: Communication and transparency. We should use the push-not-pull method for devising communication strategies. Being proactive in communicating provides the community a sense of trust and awareness that we are engaged. We must celebrate and share success OFTEN and inform of challenges and changes early.

What do you believe is the most important role of a school board member?

UG: The most important role of the school board member is being present and aware of what is going on in the district. Those we serve should see us and know who we are. As an elected official, the school board member must act in the best interest of the students. We must be fiscally responsible and ensure our students thrive in a safe learning environment that meets their specific needs.

As TISD is a fast-growth district, what do you believe will be the biggest challenges over the next four years?

UG: Attracting and retaining a quality, diverse workforce. Continuing to expect and elevate academic excellence at all schools. Maintaining the “small-town” feel that people have grown to love in Tomball.

Joseph Ferguson

Occupation: Lone Star College System professor of education, Texas State Guard lieutenant colonel

Experience: substitute teacher, classroom teacher, assistant principal and college professor; four years each serving in U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve Components; 14 years in Texas State Guard

Why are you running for election to the Tomball ISD board of trustees?

JF: While previously serving as an assistant principal in Tomball ISD, it was my job to enforce district policy with students and staff. I always trusted the decisions made by the trustees and central office administrators, but over the years, I began to think that I could also make great contributions to making policy instead of just ensuring compliance. I began contemplating a future run for Tomball ISD board of trustees while working in Tomball ISD, but I could not do so at the time without giving up my employment in the district. In the spring of 2014, I was presented with an opportunity to become a college instructor beginning the following fall semester. Accepting that position was an easy choice, but at the same time, leaving my hometown school district that has given me so much was a very difficult one. After a lot of thought, I decided that in addition to the amazing new experience of teaching at a college, this move would also provide me with the chance to be a candidate for Tomball ISD school board in the future.

What do you believe is one area in which Tomball ISD can improve, and how do you plan to help the district improve in that area?

JF: I don’t believe that Tomball ISD is something that needs to be fixed. ... I believe it would be beneficial to have an experienced professional educator on the board to provide a voice that deeply and uniquely understands the needs and challenges of our students and their teachers. Over the last 20 years, I have worked with thousands of students... I have had the privilege to work with students who were at risk, students from low-income families who were on free or reduced-[price] lunch programs, special education students, second-language learners, students who were frequently visited by CPS agents and students who had severe behavior issues. These students and their families need a representative on the board of trustees who has experience working with all kinds of kids and families, not just a few. When the opportunities for improvement present themselves, I plan to use the knowledge gained from my experiences working with and learning from these diverse populations to guide the decision-making process. Looking forward at something more specific, I have been very impressed with the work done by Tomball ISD in creating the Tomball Virtual School. Once the dangers of the pandemic have passed, I’d like to see the program continue in some form at the high schools.

What do you believe is the most important role of a school board member?

JF: To ensure the maximum opportunities are provided to students in a way that that is fiscally responsible with taxpayer money. Public education is an investment in the future, and if we want the United States of America to have the best scientists, business owners, artists and leaders in the world, the first step is to wisely invest our community’s money in the most innovative educational system possible, free of waste or irrelevant costs.

As TISD is a fast-growth district, what do you believe will be the biggest challenges over the next four years?

JF: One challenge would be to remain competitive with neighboring districts to attract and retain the highest-quality educators possible. Having the most qualified and dedicated professionals working with our students should be the bedrock of our growing district. We can build state-of-the-art facilities and pack them with the latest technology—and we should—but without the right people, we can’t expect the same successes we’ve had in the past. Another priority is to make sure that we don’t get so big that we forget who we are. When my family first came to Tomball and I was enrolled in Tomball Elementary School over 34 years ago, we were welcomed to “A Hometown with a Heart.” I am glad that we are growing, and I do agree that some things need to change with time, but the core of what is Tomball ISD needs to weather these changes and be a constant beacon to us to keep us on course.

By Anna Lotz

Editor, Tomball | Magnolia & Conroe | Montgomery

Anna joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. In July 2017, she transitioned to editor for the Tomball|Magnolia edition. She began covering the communities of Conroe and Montgomery as well in 2020. Anna covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in these communities. Prior to CI, Anna served as editor-in-chief of Cedars, interned with the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., and spent time writing for the Springfield News-Sun and Xenia Daily Gazette.


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