Sharyland ISD candidates face off in forum

Whether parents of Sharyland children, products of the system themselves, or both, candidates for the school board all are successful in their own right, and they want the same for the students in the district.

Early voting begins Monday, April 27, and in preparation for the May 9 election, Progress Times held a forum Saturday for all candidates.

20150425 SISD Candidate forum 3485Candidates for Place 3 trustee are Melissa Martinez-Smith, a retired educator and co-owner of Frank Smith sales, and Cesar Aguilar, a 28-year-old attorney who graduated from Sharyland High School in 2004.

In the race for Place 4 are Kevin Sparks, a chiropractor who graduated from Sharyland High in 1983, and Jose “Pepe” Garcia, principal at Treviño Middle School at La Joya ISD. A third candidate, Suzanne Peña, manages the office for Peña Eye Institute and was unable to attend Saturday’s forum because of a family wedding scheduled the same day. A fourth candidate for Place 4, Robert Puente, announced his withdrawal from the race at a student-run forum Friday.

If elected, Sparks said his three biggest priorities would be finances, education and restoring trust to the district.

“That’s probably my biggest reason for running was some of the budget problems with the new school and the operating budget,” Sparks said.

Sparks said he’s been involved in construction projects and maintaining facilities, and that experience will help him as a board member. On education, Sparks said he’s not a fan of standardized testing, but the district has to find a balance between studying for a test and genuinely learning.

Garcia said he wanted to secure financial transparency, improve academic excellence and collaborate with the community.

On fiscal transparency, Garcia said administrators in the district had to be held accountable, and before the board decides whether to spend money on certain things, assessments need to be conducted to ensure “that it’s in the best interest of our children, and not because of our own personal agendas, per se.”

Nobody likes testing, but it’s required, he said.

“However, we need to invest time and effort and research best instructional practices for our students because they can still be measured for a test, but we can still teach them to think critically, and most important, logically,” Garcia said.

Smith said she wants to ensure the district has a sound budget. She also wants to instill trust in the district’s leaders and push for 100 percent student attendance and 100 percent college and technical readiness when students graduate.  Smith said she wants to work to pay teachers what they deserve.

“As a former teacher, I know that I was not the only one who was there for the love of the career, not for the love of the paycheck,” she said.

Smith said board members need to trust their superintendent, and the superintendent needs to choose good people to help move the district forward.

Aguilar said his main priorities are accountability and ensuring fine arts programs are properly funded. He asked people to hold him accountable, as he plans to hold others accountable if he gets elected.

While block-walking, Aguilar said he’s had teachers tell him film production, drama and the arts haven’t received enough funds and are lacking equipment.

“The majority of the people don’t further their sports after high school,” Aguilar said. “It ends there for them, but it doesn’t end there for film production, drama and the arts.”

On the issue of transparency, Aguilar accused current trustees of meeting for dinner at a local restaurant before board meetings to come to an agreement before the actual meeting.

“If I do get elected, I assure you that I will not be meeting them anywhere else,” Aguilar said. “The only place I will meet with them is at the board meeting.”

Smith said she would rely on the public to get involved in order to increase transparency. To increase transparency, she said residents should read what is public knowledge, attend board meetings and talk to board members.

Budget cuts or higher taxes?

Sparks said without question, he’d work to cut the budget before he’d vote to increase taxes. For example, he said he recently saw an agenda item to spend $60,000 on tractors for mowing.

“If I lose money, if I take a pay decrease or they’re cutting my hours at work, I’m not going to go out and buy a new car right now,” Sparks said.  “I just don’t know if that’s the right decision. Maybe there’s some fat in the budget that we can cut back and trim, and that doesn’t really affect the kids.”

Garcia said nobody wants to increase taxes, but district leaders need to ensure they’re meeting the needs of students. The question board members should be looking at, he said, is if the expenditures are in the best interest of the children.

It takes baby steps to get the right resources to the campus, he said, like increasing technology at Pioneer High School.

“Every year you look at the budget, and every year you show where you have some money saved. Then, you can probably allocate it for the following year,” Garcia said.

Aguilar took a hard line against increasing taxes, and Smith agreed with Garcia that the board should base its decisions on the needs of the students.

Smith said all candidates agree that their priority is teachers and students over constructing grand buildings. The district needs to ensure proper staffing and take care of its teachers, she said.

“The loss of teacher aides is very concerning to me,” Smith said. “I don’t know how many of you have ever been in a room with 28 kindergarteners. You cannot teach. You don’t need a beautiful glass façade in order for your children to excel academically.”

Meanwhile, Aguilar said as a former board member of a nonprofit, he has experience in asking for grant funding from state and federal agencies. It’s time to cut back, Aguilar said, though not a lot of people like to hear that.

Standing in the library named after his former teacher Penny McLeaish, Sparks said he’d take a proven educator like McLeaish teaching in a bus barn over the Taj Mahal. Garcia said teachers need to be supported, but “we can’t give up on everything else.”

When asked whether classroom waivers were a viable solution to budgetary issues, Smith said it depends on the class. A teacher can handle 28 AP high school students in a room together, but a roomful of 5-year-olds is a different story, she said.

Aguilar remembered a teacher who took part of her lunchtime to help students with their math. He said the district should look at alternative solutions, like that.

Meanwhile, Garcia said UIL and fine arts programs should receive the same attention as sports.

“We have to be sure that we support all of our students in every aspect,” Garcia said.

Sparks said Sharyland has won at UIL events for decades. He has a child in the drama program, but he said he wouldn’t show favoritism to drama because of that.

“You have to be fair. You don’t want to do just fine arts. You’ve got to look at chess club. You’ve got to get them all equal,” Sparks said.

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