RISD’s Justin Bono (center) speaks to ECLH members Sherman Burns and John Torres

In a speech to the Exchange Club of Lake Highlands last week, Richardson ISD School Board President Justin Bono said “things are moving in the right direction” as he begins his 6th year as a trustee. “We’re starting to hit our stride.”

Bono had high praise for Dr. Jeannie Stone, RISD superintendent since 2016.

“She has brought a lot of energy, and she’s doing great work. The board is 100% behind her efforts.”

The culture of RISD, he said, is also improving.

“When I first got on the board, we were having challenging exchanges in the community about school additions and other issues,” Bono said. “Our district is becoming a more outwardly facing organization and doing better outreach to the community.”

Here are 9 takeaways from his district update:

1) RISD launched its “Pre-K for All” program this year for homeless or low income families, English learners, military dependents, children in Foster Care or other eligible students. Teaching large numbers of adorable 3- and 4-year-olds has been easy. Herding them all into the lunchroom, not-so-much, Bono joked.

2) RISD’s ACE (Accelerating Campus Excellence) Program completed its first year at four campuses and recorded gains, particularly at Forest Lane Academy in Lake Highlands, where the accountability rating increased from a “D” to a “B”.

3) The board settled its Voting Rights Act lawsuit last year with former trustee David Tyson, setting up its new system of 5 single member districts and 2 at-large – “the most hybrid system possible,” Bono said. Lake Highlands and Hamilton Park voters will vote every year, he noted, since those specific districts are on the ballot in 2019 and at large districts are up for grabs in 2020 and 2021. Bono is mapped to an at-large district and is up for re-election in 2020.

4) The bond election of 2016 is currently funding a 3-pronged construction project at LHHS: the MAC (multipurpose activity center), student space including a new library and cafeteria which will “fill in the gap” between the high school (L building) and the former freshman center (H building), and new classrooms in the former library and cafeteria. Bono said he expects kids to be eating in the new cafeteria before school is out and hopes the entire project will be done before school begins in 2020. Though MACs at the other 3 high schools began construction before LHHS, significant rains delayed them, and they aren’t open yet. A comprehensive facilities study is now being done in anticipation of a May 2021 bond.

5) RISD received “valuable recommendations” during a recent third party security audit and will shore up security concerns brought to light. “Every building is different and every building has different challenges,” said Bono, “but we’re taking action to make sure our campuses are as safe as they can be.”

6) House Bill 3 will add $20 million in additional state funding to RISD coffers, Bono estimated, pushing state funding from 25% to 45%. The new money enabled RISD to give a minimum 3.5% raise to all staff, stair-stepped to 5% for veteran teachers. The district also gave a $500 stipend for supplies to start the school year. Total yearly cost for employee raises and stipends: $11.5 million.

7) Teacher turnover rates, Bono said, have continued to tick downward into the 16-17% range. The turnover rate tracks closely to a district’s enrollment rate of economically disadvantaged students, he said, so Dallas ISD’s rate is higher, and Frisco’s is lower than RISD.

8) The district has seen a significant increase in refugee resettlements coming in from Catholic Charities and other groups. About 25% of RISD students are English learners, and almost 90 different native languages or dialects are spoken in RISD homes. “That’s a significant challenge for us and one we haven’t cracked the code on,” said Bono. “I’d like to see RISD develop a newcomer center so kids from Ethiopia or Burma or whatever tragic situation can get some intense instruction and stability before they move on to another campus.”

9) Though the Dallas County Schools (DCS) bus system collapsed, RISD was “ahead of the curve” because the district already had its own operations center, storage and maintenance facility ready to take over RISD bus operations. “It’s been a great transition,” Bono said. “It’s cost us more money because what DCS was charging us wasn’t enough, but we got more control and more flexibility.”

RISD Election Day is Nov. 5.