Lake Highlands Blue hosted a forum Thursday night for candidates seeking to become the District 7 at-large trustee for Richardson ISD. Six of the seven candidates attended the virtual event: Amanda Clair, Nicole Foster, Nick LaGrassa, Chris Poteet, Blake Sawyer and Eric Stengel. Gavin Haynes did not participate.

Clair is an educational consultant with 3 children, and she lives in the Richardson High School feeder pattern. Foster is a product of RISD schools and a teacher in Dallas ISD. She has no children and lives in the Richardson/Pearce feeder pattern. LaGrassa is a security guard with twins on the way, and he lives in the Lake Highlands feeder pattern. Poteet is a civil engineer with two kids, and he lives in the LH feeder pattern. Sawyer is a technical trainer with 3 children, and he lives in the RHS feeder pattern. Stengel is a medical staff services administrator with one child, and he lives in the Berkner feeder pattern.

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Answers to 3 questions have been shared below and have been edited for clarity and brevity.

LH Blue: What is the most pressing need in RISD?

Eric Stengel: The most pressing need in RISD and all school systems, and part of the reason I’m running, if you look at the capitol riot – that’s an educational problem. We’re full of a bunch of ignorant schmucks. I’m sorry to be blunt, but we really are. We need to have a more informed citizen population. We need to get education right. We need to challenge our students. We’re in the 21st century and – I’ll put this in cowboy language – we need to “cowboy up.” We need to get together. We need to stop bickering and stop all this nonsense, because we’ve got to train our kids for the future of tomorrow. And we’re not doing a very good job of it. I put myself in the Generation X category. We say it’s the Baby Boomers or the Millennials that dropped the ball. Well, we all dropped the ball. Look at our students falling behind – that’s not right.

Nick LaGrassa: I agree with Eric on increasing educational outcomes for our children’s sake, and I believe the best way to do that is to dramatically increase teacher pay, making sure teachers have the most tools in their classrooms to meet the needs of their students and teach them as much as possible the best way possible with as little outside interference as possible. By ensuring that future generations are smarter than we are.

Amanda Clair: We’ve made a lot of strides in RISD with our commitment to this idea “All Means All,” but I would say that we still have a lot of opportunity. The single most pressing thing we need to develop are strategies around holding tight to goals around reading and math readiness, as well as college, career and military readiness. We do that by making sure we are grounded in research-based strategies that engage all students and provide proven results and outcomes for all kids.

Blake Sawyer: The most important thing this pandemic has shown us specifically is just how hard it is for teachers right now, and how hard it is for kids. My kids, for example, have been going in person, but they sit right next to an iPad because someone else is having to work from home because their family is not feeling as though it is a safe place for school. So we need to make sure that every kid has a chance to learn, every kid has what they need to learn, and the teachers are resourced so they can teach, can reach these goals we’ve got and they’re not going to be a part-time systems administrator who also has to make sure all the Zoom meetings are working and the Google stuff is set up, and they are free to just teach.

Nicole Foster: One pressing need is for Richardson to be proactive in developing hiring practices that draw the kind of educators we want and also be proactive in finding or writing curriculum that matches the diverse population we are privileged to serve in RISD. RISD is one of the healthiest-mixed demographics around, compared to the 4 districts around us. We can serve everyone better, including teachers, with hiring practices that draw the kid of educator we want. I agree with Nick – a lot of that is pay. You get what you pay for. I think what Dr. Stone is doing is being proactive and fighting these little tidbits of racism in the classroom, and I would like to support her with that, and with the curriculum and administrative aspects of what she is trying to do now.

Chris Poteet: Equality and teacher pay are issues we’re working on, but what really hits me in the face right now is the pandemic and what is at risk in the culture – the culture in the buildings and the culture in the district. Without the proper leadership and culture, we’re not going to be able to attract those teachers. I can’t imagine being a kid working on an education degree, a sophomore at A&M or wherever right now, and looking at what they are having to do in a classroom and being excited. We’ve got to sell them on a culture that they want to come to and stay with. Trustees approved a retainment bonus back in January, I believe. That’s a great measure to show the kind of culture we’ve got and want to maintain. That’s teachers – not to mention students. Coming out of COVID, we’ve got to determine the impact on the children. We’ve got 37,000-plus kids, and they’ve been impacted through what they’ve gone through in the last year. Specifically, we’ve got a very large at-risk population, and those have been impacted more than any. We’ve got to determine what that impact is and how to bring them back up to that level.

LH Blue: Let’s talk about COVID. As a trustee, do you agree with RISD protocols on PPE, and if not, what would you change? Will you take the vaccine when eligible? How will we know when it is time to bring all students back to the classroom? Should teachers be prioritized for the vaccine?

Chris Poteet: We went face-to-face with both kids from the get-go. I told Dr. Stone when there are things I don’t agree with, that I have heartburn over, whether it’s the quarantine policy – we’re all backseat drivers, right? I told her I fully respect that the district initiated a plan. They put together a blueprint when this all kicked off, and other districts are still trying to figure out which direction to go. I like the fact that RISD put a plan together, executed a plan and was open to adjusting the plan based on changes in the circumstances. I give credit to Dr. Stone and the current board for that. I plan on getting the vaccine, but I can’t currently because I had COVID over Christmas, so I’ve got to wait 60-90 days before I get in line. I think teachers should be a priority – they currently qualify if they are over 65 or have comorbidities – but if we want them at work every day, and they are working with such a great number of kids, I think they need to be a priority.

Nicole Foster: I deal with COVID every day. Today, I had to pack up my whole classroom because of the pipes bursting, and I realized I was packing up things of another era – pens, paper, markers – we don’t need them anymore because everything’s digital. Do I feel comfortable right now? No, to be honest. I have 6 to 7 kids in my class right now and the rest are going remote. I have a mask on, I have sanitizer and a shield, but there’s a point where kids will be coming back to school. I think we’ve done a disservice that teachers are not put on that priority list. We are around so many children and so many germs daily. Many teachers get sick over Christmas break and spring break, and it’s because their immune systems are down because they’ve been around children. So I think we have to prioritize that. If we really want teachers back in the classroom, then we have to do something about keeping them safe. I understand about other sectors being out in the midst of COVID, but we’re dealing with your children, and we have families. I have to look out for my family, just like you have to look out for your kiddos.

Blake Sawyer: We have 2 kids and we sent them both back in September. We’ve seen how the plan works and we’ve had both of them home a couple of times for quarantine. There haven’t been many big outbreaks, which has been great. The plan that the administration put into place, and the plan the teachers are following seems like it’s done a really good job. I know it’s a lot. I know it’s tiring for kids in the classroom. We walked our block the other night and saw a kid we hadn’t seen in a while. They’re still going online. They’ve got a kindergartener – to see a kid that only learns through and iPad is a lot. We talked through that and we were able to give words of encouragement and know that at some point, this will all be over. We’d love to do whatever to make that happen. Teacher vaccines should be a priority. My wife and I both qualify and have been able to get the first round because of some health issues, and that will help. We feel like it’s important to have kids in school, to be able to socialize vs. a Zoom meeting. We see that here today – it’s just not the same. We trust the administrators and the plan that’s in place and the wisdom in that. Setting those barriers, making sure students have the protective gear they need – it’s been a godsend for the district so far.

Nick LaGrassa: First and foremost, we should not be returning to pre-COVID classroom size until each and every teacher is comfortable doing so. Yes, teachers should be on the vaccine list, should the State of Texas Board of Education decide that we should return to pre-COVID level classroom sizes. My number one thing is following what the data says. Nationwide, 14% of cases can be linked back to school contacts. To minimize those cases, we need to be maintaining the current level of PPE. You can make the argument we can go even further – if it saves one life it could save hundreds. Ultimately, this problem is not going to go away by the fall, and we need to manage our expectations accordingly.

Amanda Clair: 100%, teachers should be prioritized. The TEA, under legislation and guidelines from Abbott, requires that school systems offer face-to-face instruction. You cannot be 100% virtual. Therefore, we are requiring our teachers and students to be given the option to come back. Therefore, we must prioritize our teachers. If we are mandating it, we have to back that up with support to keep them safe. I had the vaccine Tuesday. I felt awful last night and worried I wouldn’t be able to be here, but 24 hours of flu-like symptoms was worth it to bring security to our teachers and students. When thinking about the PPE, what Dr. Stone has said is that it aligns with what epidemiologists and scientists and experts are telling us about what we should do. We should continue to listen to public health officials and not act in isolation. We need to take what we know about high-quality instruction and how kids learn best and meet with health specialists about how to give kids a way to have the best learning environment possible. What that means is taking surveys from our teachers about how that PPE is affecting their ability to teach. We know in pre-K that part of phonics is the ability to see mouth movements. With masks that’s really hard. So what are some adjustments – not lowering expectations – but what adjustments might be needed to ensure that all kids are learning as we navigate this time. You asked a really deep question about when it’s time to return to face-to-face instruction. The answer is when the experts say it’s safe to do so. But what we’ll probably find is that there’s always consideration around safety protocols that we need to consider putting in place. We may not return where there is no longer a virtual option. We have actually seen some kids who are excelling in this virtual learning, so we need to make sure we are taking notes on kids who weren’t excelling in the face-to-face option but now are. Some are supporting families, and this is a way for them to work during the day and take school at night. What can we learn from this and how can we become innovative so that we aren’t going back to normal, but we’re taking what we learned and going back to greatness?

Eric Stengel had to leave early and did not answer.

LH Blue: A good portion of this bond is set aside to move Forest Meadow and Lake Highlands Junior High from a 7-8 grade junior high to a 6-8 grade middle school design. This will cost $110 million, and the plan calls for 6 more schools to be done in RISD over the next bond cycle. Do you agree with moving 6th graders up, and how are you going to make it happen?

Amanda Clair: I agree with moving sixth graders up. It allows for a more authentic opportunity for students to engage in extracurriculars that often have to be drawn from the junior highs to elementary schools. It also allows for a longer transition before they get to high school. But more importantly it allows for the district to make good on this promise of pre-K for all. Without the movement, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to expand, and what we know about pre-k for all is that if we have 4-year-olds in our schools and we are given the opportunity to teach them phonics and math and reasoning, the trajectory changes – specifically for our students of color but also for white students. They have opportunity later on, both in our school system and their life. It’s a big price tag, but when we pull back and think about what illiteracy costs us a nation and a school district, this price tag is nothing compared to creating students who are college and career ready, and it ultimately sets them up for success.

Nick LaGrassa: I have no strong feeling about moving the sixth graders. That’s how it was when I went to junior high, and it worked out for me. As far as the amount of money – it has to come from somewhere. The concept of a bond cycle gives me pause, regarding whether that’s the most fiscally prudent manner of funding schools. I recognize that our state and federal funding is drying up at a rapid rate, and I recognize that more funding is going to have to come from the local area, but I have a problem with every four years coming back to the voters and saying we need more money. Especially with this bond package not having an answer for where this money is going to come from. If given the opportunity, I would investigate a variety of means to fund that package, not necessarily solely relying on the eventual property tax increases. You can say this bond won’t be tied to tax increases, but we all know one way or another our property taxes are going to go up to pay for these projects with those price tags. At the end of the day, we need to get creative with how we are going to fund these types of expansions going forward.

Nicole Foster: Richardson is rare to have junior highs. I think having a 6-8th grade setup is beneficial for several reasons. The rest of the districts around us have that. More people are moving to Richardson, and when kids move here, they are used to having been in sixth grade. They’re used to being on the cheerleading squad and the football team – doing all the extracurriculars a kid loves to do. Then to revert back to elementary – if I was a sixth grader, I’d be devastated. I think it would help the community flow better. The price tag – everything is expensive that we want to do in Richardson, but in the long run, everything will go much smoother. I hope the voters will see that, too.

Chris Poteet: I was on the bond steering committee, so I have a little background knowledge. The price tag is high because LHJH is at the end of its useful life. The facilities audit showed it will cost more to limp along and repair it each year, and it’s become irreparable. At some point you have to rebuild a building, and that’s what we’re having to do at LHJH. I saw this with my sixth grader in band – the band director has to come from the junior high to each of the elementary campuses for practice and instruction each week, so putting sixth grade under the same roof made sense. We were also told the state curriculum was designed around 6-7-8 for middle school, so we’ve been going against the grain by maintaining the junior highs. I did hear one of the junior high principals say the junior high is like a steppingstone, a brief stop between elementary school, where you have 7 years, and high school, where you have 4. It’s really hard for the teachers to connect and forge relationships with kids when they’ve only got 2 years to do it. Finally, pre-k is critical. There’s so much data to support that, and those with means, like a lot of us – our kids go to pre-k. A lot of families in RISD don’t have that opportunity, so to get them started off correctly, we need facilities and space to do that. I think the cost is somewhat unavoidable, but the timing is spot on. We can’t wait another 5 years to start worrying about buildings that are falling apart now.

Blake Sawyer: I agree with a lot of what was said. I know the bond is a lot of money. It’s not something fun and exciting. It’s not like we’re building a new band hall or football stadium – it’s maintenance, it’s replacement, it’s air conditioning, it’s roofs, it’s crowded schools. The good thing about living in RISD is a lot of people want to come here because we have a good program. We’ve got to make sure we maintain that program and do the best we can with the resources we have. My son, who is in the sixth grade, goes over to the junior high twice a week so that he can go to band, and that’s a bit of a hassle. I think he enjoys being the oldest in school, but I can understand his wanting to go to junior high, especially after going over there and being able to see that. Having the opportunity to move to a middle school program is good. It’s more cost effective for the taxpayers as we adjust the size and capacity of a few schools as opposed to every single elementary for pre-k. And pre-k is really important. So if we’re trying to find a way to help with the over-crowding and help students get ahead, a lot of people can afford to send their kids to preschool, but for those who can’t that’s a big missed opportunity. I think it’s worth doing.

RISD reps also discussed the $750 million proposed bond, involving facility, equipment and technology upgrades.

“I’ve worked on a variety of bonds during my 25 years at LHHS and my four years as a trustee,” said board president Karen Clardy. “I can honestly tell you this is the best bond I have ever seen RISD bring forth. There are no bells and whistles. It is neat, it is smart and I am so very proud of that. “

The bond proposal will be in two parts, said Sandra Hayes, RISD’s assistant superintendent for facilities and operations, as required by new legislation which mandates that the purchase of technical devices be offered separately on the ballot. Prop A, for $694 million, will begin the junior-high-to-middle-school transformation and fund the rebuilding of LHJH and the renovation of FMJH. Six other RISD junior highs will be handled by the 2026 bond. Additions based on growth will be made at Pearce High, Mohawk Elementary and Brentfield Elementary. Renovations for student safety will include connecting two buildings at Brentfield Elementary, connecting the auditorium to the main building at Hamilton Park Pacesetter Magnet, and improving Northrich and Stults Road elementary schools. Purchases for teaching and student support will include additional network equipment, materials needed in classrooms, new buses and security vehicles and other items. Prop B, for $56 million, will fund technology for students, teachers and district staff members.

“This particular bond will not change the tax rate,” Hayes said. “It does not require a tax rate increase. Our tax rate will remain consistent,” Hayes said. “One thing to note with all bonds that schools put on ballots is the new required ballot language. When you go to the polls to vote for either of these propositions, you will see ballot language that is required that says ‘this is a property tax increase.’ We have to put that on the ballot even though, for RISD, there is no property tax rate increase.”

Voters in the Pearce/Richardson area will also be electing a new trustee for single member District 1. Election Day is May 1 and early voting runs from April 19-27.