Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Local, Local, Local

At our most recent local Tea Party meeting, we heard from candidates for one of the positions on the local school board of trustees: position #3 of Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD). This is in a relatively conservative area, in Harris County, northwest of Houston, mostly suburbs. It is the third largest district in the state.
Darcy Mingoia CFISD Board candidate
photo: David Wilson, Cypress Tea Party
The specifics of this post will probably only help local readers. But the larger question is probably worth thinking about. In this government entity probably closest to affecting our lives, lifestyle, and future, how do we know what we need to know as voters, and how can we influence our leaders in the best direction?
I, like about 70% of taxpayers in this district, do not have a student in the school system. We did our first two years here, and despite the district’s reputation as one of the best around, our schools were woefully incapable of meeting our family’s needs. We ended up homeschooling and moving our kids into dual-credit community college courses by age 16. Leaving them in these public schools was not an option we were willing to risk. We paid the full taxes, plus the personal costs of our kids’ alternative education route. That is what we felt we had to do.
So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t have a romantic idea that public schools are the sacred source of our nation’s future. I understand the concept that all children should be given the opportunity for an education. But I’m not convinced that taxing and forcing everyone to use the public institution, unless they’re wealthy enough to pay additionally for alternatives, is the proper role of government. I would rather see a paradigm of a full gamut of private options, with philanthropy (mostly from businesses who have a stake in hiring an educated workforce) offering scholarships/grants for those who can’t afford their own. But I also recognize that will not be the paradigm in my lifetime, so the goal is to make schools as effective and cost-effective as possible.
Bill Morris, CFISD Trustee
photo: David Wilson, Cypress Tea Party
We have an eight-member board of trustees in CFISD, with different positions coming up in different years. This year two positions are up for election, with one incumbent on the ballot.
It has only been a few years that I’ve been paying much attention to local school board elections. Before that I didn’t know how to learn more, until I heard about a candidate forum. These have apparently been going on for a long time, but the audiences are filled with teachers, who get notified and encouraged to go, and the public who happened to hear about it, possibly through a teacher. (Besides our Tea Party opportunity, there is a scheduled forum to get to know these candidates, on October 16th.)
I am not anti-teacher; I know the value of a good teacher in a student's life. I probably qualify as anti-teacher union, however. I believe unions stand in the way of connecting incentives and quality teaching; I think they prevent outcomes that good teachers, parents, and students want. What I see at this local level is a board that is controlled by the teachers’ organizations. This is a non-partisan election, so we aren’t provided information about the political party of the candidates. All of them claim to be conservative, because they must be perceived as conservative to get elected in this area. However, because of the basic anonymity involved at this level, if you say you’re for the best education of the students and are fiscally conservative, who knows otherwise?
Lillian Wanjagi, CFISD Board candidate
Photo: David Wilson, Cypress Tea Party
But what I perceive is that there’s one current board member, definitely a democrat by all reports, who runs the meetings, decides the agenda, and dismisses the ideas put forward by any board member he doesn’t favor. (The teachers’ groups adore him.) And he is supported by fellow board members that mostly vote as a bloc. Interestingly, this voting bloc results from a PAC that seems somewhat controversial among our Tea Party members. There are members of the PAC who come to our Tea Party. It may be that many in that group see themselves as conservative. But the result is that there has been a lot of money put together to put onto the board a slate of candidates. Since this PAC started combining money and efforts, essentially every candidate they put forth has been elected. We were down to what looked like two actual conservative board members, both up for election this year. One chose not to run again.
These two conservatives had a “black mark” against them. It related to a vote on teacher raises a couple of years ago. At that time, with the turndown in the economy, the district faced some difficult decisions. Teachers hadn’t had a raise for three years, so there was a lot of sympathy for them to get something.
CFISD, everyone enjoys pointing out, is honored as one of the most efficient districts in the state. But since the district is given less money per student (decided by a formula set up by the legislature) and is simultaneously required by law to balance its budget, efficiency is the only possible outcome. Then the question becomes a matter of priorities. The year in question, in a year when the public was suffering pretty severely, the board voted for a teacher raise of 5 ½%, as well as an administrator raise of 5 ½%. It was either this whole massive raise or nothing. To the two dissenting votes (Bill Morris and Larry Youngblood), during that particular year’s budget shortfalls, giving such a raise seemed unconscionable. I agree. I think a smaller raise for the teachers, and possibly nothing for administrators, would have been acceptable. (The superintendent, and possibly other higher administrators, make nearly $100,000 more a year than the governor. And it is my opinion that there are far too many administrators, sucking resources that could otherwise go to the classrooms.)
Compromise was not allowed as an option. So, with that outgo for teacher and administrator salaries, cuts had to come to other budget segments, including programs like special education. At one meeting, a mother of a special ed student asked about this effect, and she was booed. This is not what you’d call open dialog with the constituents.
The three candidates for position #3 are Darcy Mingoia, Bill Morris, and Lillian Wanjagi. Ms. Mingoia is the PAC candidate (running on a slate with Kevin Hoffman for position #2, whom I know nothing about yet other than the PAC affiliation). Mr. Morris is the incumbent. Ms. Wanjagi is a newcomer that I found interesting; this is her first foray into politics.
During the two hours we had with them, I had the opportunity to ask the candidates this question about priorities: You have three constituencies that you’re accountable to in your elected position as school board trustee: taxpayers, students, and teachers. How do you prioritize these constituencies, and why?
Since the full report on these three is too long for a single post, I’m leaving off today; in the next post I’ll let you know how they responded, and what I think that tells us.

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