Leander ISD Q&A

Board president Pam Waggoner faces challenger Jim MacKay in the LISD race. Grace S. Barber-Jordan and Russell Bundy are uncontested.

Why are you running to be on the school board?

MacKay: I'm running because I was asked by a number of parents to take a look at what they call impossible debt. Right now we are at $2.7 billion in total debt, and it's unsustainable. We use a system to fund that debt called capital appreciation bonds, and those instruments are so toxic that some states have banned their use, and [lawmakers] have bipartisan bills to ban their use in the state of Texas. Leander ISD has made heavy use of those bonds. So this brought up that we have a lack of communication and enormous debt, and it's time for some fresh perspective.

Waggoner: I'm running for the school board because I've lived in this district over 16 years, and I just have a passion to make sure kids have the tools they need to succeed in their life, and the board service allows me to do that. Plus there's a few more projects that I am working on that I would like to see come to completion. One is regarding some traffic issues, and the second is some different viable educational models that I'd like to see brought into Leander ISD. Those two topics are of great concern and great excitement to me, and I want to see those to completion.

What makes you the best candidate?

MacKay: I have no agenda to seek higher office. I have more than enough to keep me busy. I want to get into the school board, see if I can effect some positive change, and then once we've turned this ship around, let me go back to what I've been doing. I don't see myself as being a long-term board member. My thing is research and communication. If it's broken and I've had a hand in breaking it, I have no problem admitting that and seeking the advice of people who are much smarter than me to fix the problem. But what we've had [on the board] is a lot of fluff and not a lot of substance, so it really boils down to open, effective and honest communication.

Waggoner: Experience. I've come up through the ranks from PTA president to booster club president to board member to board president. I know this district, and I know our culture. I just feel experience matters, especially when we're having to deal with financing more high schools. I believe that our growth is fixing to increase. You can see Leander has put down 10,000 new residential lots that are ready to go, and that means growth. And growth means children, and children means building. So I have to make sure we have the finances in order and we have room to grow and taxpayers are getting the biggest bang for their buck in education.

What are biggest issues facing LISD right now?

MacKay: Until I did about eight months of research and started talking openly about capital appreciation bonds and how bad they are, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody who could tell you what a CAB was. And that goes back to open, honest and effective communication. We have no room to borrow any more money, to sell any more bonds without jeopardizing the 50 cent test.* What they do to get around that is they take a large chunk of our debt, they push it off to the future, and it frees up the current ability to sell more. As a school board member, I would be responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of residents' and taxpayers' money. I have got to be asking those questions like, 'What are the negatives to making that kind of decision?'

Waggoner: It's partially the budget, but it's really the debt side of the budget. It's being able to build our schools at the most economical means we can build them and provide a world-class education. But a school must stay within that 50 cents per $100 of property value test,* or we are heavily punished. Having to do that means you're going to have to fund your schools by bond. That's it—there are no alternatives to that. It's a challenge to bring in new schools and finance money because we are constantly going to be pushing that 50 cent test like all fast-growth school districts in Texas. But it's important to me to educate our communities and our constituencies of what that really looks like. Frankly we are really handling this money wisely, to the best of our ability, and we are using what means we have to make sure we deliver a good education for the dollar.

What topics would you like to see discussed in board meetings?

MacKay: Parents that I've talked to are very frustrated by what they feel is being stonewalled and a lack of communication. I've experienced that myself. [Board members] are elected by the residents and parents to shape the best possible education we can for our children. That's why we are all here. If you have parents who have issues with bullying or in the special education program, we need to figure out a way to engage them and bring them to the table—not tell them that because of the open meetings requirements, we can't put you on the agenda. That's disingenuous. They are trying to, like every other parents, to get the best education for their child, so that's big. Bullying, special education, those are two topics we need to have town hall meetings on. I want to get parents involved and right now they're not involved and it's not because they don't want to be.

Waggoner: We in Leander have been talking about how to bring back career and technology education to the forefront and make it as meaningful as an academic degree. The Legislature has basically handed districts an opportunity to do that now so I'm very grateful for that, to give our kids some different opportunities they didn't have before, to be able to graduate and apply what they know and have some skill in what they want to do. So it's important to me to bring in that educational model. And I would really like to see some alternative education work. Not like a charter school, more like a magnet school ran through the public school system that focuses on one thing, whether it's career and technology or fine arts, engineering, whatever the community wants it to be where children who are interested in pursuing their high school degree in that fashion can go an get it. And it could be the same thing. That's what we've been talking about and we are waiting on the legislature to see what kind of money we have but it's exciting. We are going to be on the forefront of really offering a first class education by using some different models of education.

In your view, how does Leander ISD compare to other Austin-area districts?

MacKay: We have enjoyed very high-quality education for many years. Our reputation is built on that, but I see today you have the academic side of the district and you have the business side of the district. Academically, we are fine. We are exceeding the tests, our kids are academically engaged. Are there ways we can improve that? Absolutely. We need to start introducing some more vocational education programs back to our students. But the academic side is doing well, and I would hold it up to several of our peer districts. When you get to the business side of the district, we are in deep, deep trouble and there are so many assumptions being made in regard to using CABs to finance our way out of debt. Something as simple as the interest rates rising a quarter of a percent will compound our problem exponentially. And interest rates are not going to get any cheaper. I would have rather five years ago, raise our taxes 5 cents and pay cash for what we are doing than wait and pay 5 cents just to pay interest and never make a dent on the principal. The district will implode of nothing changes.

Waggoner: Education, I think we are the best there is. I think we are still trying to do high-quality, world-class education with a variety of courses, from bringing in biomedical technology to engineering classes to the culinary art classes. All of the specialties we do at the different high schools, I think we are very unique in that. And I think that gives kids a variety of opportunities. As far as on the finance side, we look different. If you want to compare to Austin ISD, AISD has plenty of businesses and a large property tax base that they can pull from. If you think about LISD, and we are rooftops. We're not businesses. Our [interest and sinking] side [which funds debt] comes from rooftops, from taxes. So it's not like we can tax a Dell or a big huge business that's overwhelming in our borders to help out with our growth. So, we depend on our residents.

How can the school board address lawsuits facing the district?

MacKay: Leander [ISD] has spent, in some years, $800,000 on lawsuits. When I approach the board members they say of course we are going to do this to defend ourselves. That's not the issue. The issue is, we are not even talking about whether these lawsuits are with merit or without merit. That's not the issue. It's, what is Leander [ISD] doing to put itself in a position to face so many legal challenges? As a school board member, I would want to figure that out. We have two main areas where we're seeing lawsuits in the district. One is bullying and one is special education. So instead of vilifying these parents who are only trying to protect their children, lets bring them to the table, ask them what the issue is and then ask them, "What do you want us to do?" I'm not talking about putting up a sticker that says anti-bullying. What action do you want us to take? Items. If we do A, B, and C and you agree we've done it, is that what you are looking for and is that enough to get you to stop suing us? So that's how you fix lawsuits. This is probably a living document. It's a self-regulating problem.

Waggoner: There's no such thing as a good lawsuit. You really hope you can settle differences prior to getting to that point. But if you look at these lawsuits, they have several things in common with each other, and I think it gets to a point where it's so emotional on the parents' side and the district has offered all it can do. So at some point you have to have a decision made. When it goes into the lawsuit stage and the attorneys are involved, the emotion is taken out of it, and it's just the facts. Sometimes that's what you need. You have to deal with the facts. I think there are four lawsuits pending now and 34,000 students. One big one was settled, and it's on the TEA due process hearing site you can read all about it. They settled it. But we certainly want to work with all of our parents and nobody wants that to happen. It's hard on parents, teachers, staff. As board members, we don't want the school to be involved in lawsuits, but it gets to a point where decisions have to be based on facts and sometimes it has to go that direction to get a conclusion. It's just part of doing business.

* The tax rate to pay a school district's total debt cannot exceed 50 cents per $100 of property value