RISD candidates at the Exchange Club forum.

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Exchange Club of Lake Highlands members welcomed Jan Stell, Kile Brown and Rachel McGowan to their Richardson ISD District 5 candidate forum Friday. The three shared their views on raising taxes (they won’t), hiring a new superintendent and enticing students back to the post-pandemic classroom.

Jan Stell focused on her previous experience as an educator and shared her concerns about RISD’s falling test scores. “I have a master’s in education and I’m the only candidate that’s actually worked in RISD as a teacher. That differentiates me since we’re looking to raise academic standards district wide,” she said. “When I learned district third graders mastered reading and math to 31%, I was stunned.” RISD has been struggling for 10 years, she opined, in part because 45 minutes per day are spent on non-academic programs such as social emotional learning (SEL).

Kile Brown said his experience in governance and hiring make him the right choice for district voters. “When I got out of the Army, I was an executive recruiter. One of the first things we’re going to have to do is hire a superintendent, and that’s a big job.” He also discussed volunteering at Wilshire Baptist Church, working with international companies in contract negotiation, and collaborating with a diverse group of people.

Rachel McGowan still has children in Lake Highlands schools, so she’s in touch with critical people and issues on LH-area campuses, she said. “I’m the only candidate with kiddos in RISD schools, and I was born and raised in District 5. I’m here to support our children and to uplift the children and families here in our community and to make sure our children achieve high academic standards.”

Moderator Larry Patterson asked the candidates about a recent poll of district teachers, who said classroom discipline ranked near the top of their concerns.

Brown said his first order of business will be hiring the right superintendent. “A lot of what happens in the classroom trickles down from the leader on board. I’m looking for someone with experience raising the bar academically, someone who has a passion for teachers and teaching, who understands what it is to deal with the challenges in the classroom and can help equip teachers to handle those, someone who has developed a culture of joy and professionalism in the teaching corps and gives them support when they come to the district and brings them a path to flourish. Safety in the classroom is non-negotiable.”

McGowan said parental involvement is critical. “I think parents should be held accountable for their actions in our schools, and we need to hold children accountable for disciplinary actions. I don’t think teachers should have to handle it – they have enough on their plate. They are not here to parent our kids. Teaching should be the number one focus in the classroom. We do have to hire a superintendent that knows the culture of the whole district. Data is very important – we need to study the data and figure out what is happening in our classrooms, what is causing these things, what is the root of the issue and try to solve them.”

Stell agreed discipline is a problem. “We realize that the teacher cannot handle 20 or 30 students and take care of academics and be the policeman. The classroom must be a safe place. They must feel the support and have the support. Discipline ends up being the role of the principal and vice principals. We need to have strong educators and those who understand what the culture is in RISD but are willing to step up to the plate and meet with the teachers.”

When asked about the qualities of an ideal superintendent, Brown said he’d be looking for someone who has experience raising the academic bar, developing a culture of professionalism and joy, and working in an economically and racially diverse district. McGowan would seek an excellent communicator, someone familiar with RISD culture and demographics, and someone savvy in public school finance. Stell said she’d pursue a candidate who is excited to be in our community, glad we are financially solvent, and ready for the challenge of a diverse student population.

All three candidates said raising taxes isn’t necessary to educate students. McGowan said “getting more bodies in seats is the only thing that will raise more money for the district, because that’s how we are financed by the state,” and she vowed to build bridges with state legislators. Stell noted that 28% of RISD taxpayers – more than many surrounding districts – are over 65, which caps district revenue. “Hopefully with a half billion dollars, we can figure out how to educate 37,600 students,” she said. Brown noted the good news that district home values have appreciated the past couple of years and the tax rate has fallen, although tax bills have gone up for many. “We need more students in our schools to bring in more revenue, and we need to work creatively with our state legislators to make sure the way Austin is financing our teachers and supporting our schools evolves,” he said.

About 2,000 students left RISD during the pandemic, and Patterson asked the candidates what can be done to bring them back.

“It’s all about academics,” said Stell. “If they feel like their children are getting 7 hours’ worth of learning, they’re happy. If they do not, they’ll pull their children. I’ve talked to parents who’ve gotten together and hired tutors and they’re either homeschooling or putting them in private schools. That breaks my heart. Your school is your soul of your community. We all know schools where none of the homeowners in the area support it. There’s not a soul in that school. We rally around the academics, the football, the soccer, the Espree and all those things, but if the homeowners that live, whether in apartments or houses, do not support the school, our soul dies. We’ve got to make sure from the board level down that we put academics back as the thrust to support our teachers. It will all trickle down, but it starts at the top, that’s where the snow starts and melts. To fund the schools, to fund the teachers, it’s not just programs – we can all have iPads – but that’s not what learning is about. It’s the touch of a teacher.”

“Our public schools are the vanguard of our democracy,” said Brown. “To ensure that those public schools remain strong is vital. We’ve lost almost 2,000 students post-pandemic in our own district, and we’re not sure where they’ve all gone. Some have gone to private schools, some have stayed home in homeschool programs and some have just vanished. Statewide, attendance is down 160,000 – that’s a city – and no one really one knows where all of them have gone. We do have to stay competitive versus other options for parents, and part of that is continuing to communicate effectively about the great kids that we have in our district. We have amazing kids accomplishing great things every day, and we’ve got to advertise that. These schools are looking for kids who have a profile of being involved and being leaders in public school. We’ve got to advertise that effectively. If people understand the product and what they get out of it, they’ll come back next fall.”

“We need to study the data closely and see if we can trace where our kiddos are going and why,” said McGowan. “It appears the majority of kids we’ve lost are from our multifamily community. We need to work more closely with those communities and their owners to see where we can bridge the gaps and open and broaden communications there. I work for a company that focuses on multifamily communities, the Texas Apartment Association, and I hope that maybe I can use some of that expertise at the state level and see if we can attract those families and kiddos back to our district.”

Election Day is May 7. Early voting begins April 25.

The answers of the candidates have been edited for brevity and clarity.