Leadership ISD, a non-partisan education advocacy nonprofit founded in 2011, recently issued questionnaires to school board candidates in Richardson ISD and districts throughout North Texas. The group works to promote academic excellence and racial equity in public education, and they provide leadership training, coalition building and trustee development. Former RISD superintendent Dr. Jeannie Stone is chairman of LISD’s board, and former RISD trustees Lanet Greenhaw and Kris Oliver serve as LISD board members.

Since Lake Highlands voters are eligible only to vote in RISD’s District 6 at-large race, and with the permission of LISD, Lake Highlands Advocate has opted to share responses from candidates Eric Eager and Blake Sawyer (in alpha order). You may read responses from Bonnie Abadie and Debbie Renteria, candidates in RISD District 3, online here.

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Tell us why you are running for school board. If you are an incumbent, what do you wish to pursue through continued service? If you are a new candidate, what do you hope to accomplish?

EAGER: I have been honored to serve our community as a RISD trustee for the last 3 years and have helped lead our district through one of the most challenging times in the last 50 years. I believe we have the team to make transformational change for our district. With extensive input from the community, we created the graduate profile that defines what we want to equip our kids with for success after graduation. I hope to continue our efforts in ensuring all kids are life ready via academic excellence combined with the necessary life skills to succeed no matter which path they choose. We will equip our kids with academic skills (Critical Thinking/Problem Solving), life skills (financial literacy, effective communication, emotional intelligence), and community skills (communicating and collaborating across cultures, advocating for self and others).

SAWYER: I am running for the Richardson ISD Board of Trustees because I believe that effective governance is crucial for ensuring great education for our students. As a new candidate, I am committed to fostering a culture of excellence within RISD. I am passionate about helping every student reach their full potential by advocating for policies and budgets that provide teachers and students with the necessary resources to succeed.

Even prior to COVID-19, there was a decline in student achievement, but I believe that RISD has the potential to be known as a district of excellence. I have been actively involved in our community as a board member of our local PTA and serving on committees such as the Technology Advisory Committee, SEL Family Involvement Committee, and District Planning Committee. I have also volunteered in various CTE opportunities.

I believe that strong public schools help build strong communities, and I am committed to working towards building strong schools throughout RISD.

If elected, what current issues will be your top priorities over the next 3 years?

EAGER: 1) Creating Life Ready Students – I believe every parent wants their child to be equipped with the tools to succeed when they cross the stage for graduation. In today’s world, we need to equip our children to excel academically, the ability to adjust to changing environments, and have the necessary life skills to be successful no matter which career path they choose.

2) Teacher retention and recruitment – The teacher shortage is real and the problem is only getting worse. Our children’s success starts and stops with quality teachers, school leaders, and support team. For the last couple of years, our teachers have dealt with unprecedented stress and anxiety. We need to show our appreciation and respect for the teaching profession.

3) Addressing School Funding Cliff – Within the next 3 years, RISD along with a number of surrounding school districts are facing a financial cliff due to bidding wars for teachers, increased cost due to inflation, and flat or reduced school funding from the state.

SAWYER: If elected, my top priorities over the next 3 years will be to ensure that every student in RISD is growing every day. Based on my involvement in community sessions on the upcoming strategic plan, I believe the district must address three main priorities.

First, we must steward our community resources well and structure our finances and services to accurately support our students’ current needs and create a foundation for the future. Second, we need to focus on student achievement to ensure that every student receives a quality education and is prepared for success after graduation. And finally, we must support our teachers and staff so that they can focus on our students.

As the son of an educator, I know firsthand the dedication and personal sacrifice it takes to help students succeed. It’s crucial that we work with our excellent staff to empower them to provide the best possible education for our students.

What guiding principles will serve you in your decision making process as a trustee?

EAGER: With every decision we make as part of the RISD board, it will not only effect current students but also generations of future students. With every decision, I evaluate whether this is the best option to ensure every child will be given the resources and opportunities to grow academically and whether this will help prepare them for life after graduation.

During my time on the board, I also helped lead creation of the RISD Board’s North Star. We all worked together to agree on a common goal.

RISD Board North Star: Every student, teacher, and leader will meet or exceed their academic growth goals. This means that we will make sure that every child, no matter where they are academically, will reach their annual growth goals. From gifted to special needs, every child will grow academically each year.

SAWYER: Having someone in the role of a board member who can listen first, focus on solutions, seek to serve everyone, and lead with honesty and compassion is vital to the success of our district. I think my background, experience, and faith have built in me all these characteristics.

Growing up, my parents taught me to not only look out for my own interests, but also the interests of others. They demonstrated this daily, with my mom even returning to school to help kids with special needs. In our own home, we have tried to do the same, servings in our community, advocating for policy that serves and protects all children, and opening our home to foster kids in need. Professionally, I have been able to make hard decisions to guide our small business as it grew amid COVID and financial uncertainty. Finally, my faith teaches me that everyone has worth and value, and how we treat those needing extra support says a lot about who or what we believe.

What will be your approach to closing the social and academic gaps exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic?

EAGER: We have a culture of high expectations, and we are not going to accept the pandemic as an excuse for low performance and low expectations. We expect kids to succeed.

We will ensure teachers have the necessary resources and support to accelerate learning. We utilize MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) as a tool that allows us to progress monitor the growth of every student on a frequent basis. While ensuring all students are accessing grade-level materials, it will enable us to identify learning gaps quickly. Once learning gaps are identified, the district provides interventions via a multi-tier system of support (MTSS). This allows us to increase assistance at various levels depending on the student’s needs.

SAWYER: There are several things we need to do to make sure every child grows every day. My approach to closing the social and academic gaps exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic would be threefold. Firstly, I believe in utilizing proven curricula and adapting them as needed to ensure individual success. As our students’ success is of utmost importance, we cannot rely on untested ideas or tools that may be short-lived.

Secondly, identifying and supporting students with learning difficulties must be a priority. Dyslexia is just one example of a learning difficulty that can be challenging to identify and address, and we must do better in providing adequate support.

Lastly, I believe in the importance of developing human connections. While technology can be helpful, nothing can replace face-to-face interactions and personal relationships in providing the support and encouragement our students need to thrive. As JFK once said, ‘What unites us is far greater than what divides us.’

What do you believe is standing in the way of all children receiving a high quality public education?

EAGER: Funding. Depending on which research group you look at, Texas will rank either 40 to 42 in the US in per-student spending. The answer is not always just throw more money at it but it has been proven the more personal attention and assistance you can provide a child the better the outcomes. This requires more teachers with more time to help students. We must find ways to provide adequate compensation for great teachers, so they stay in the profession. I was shocked to learn that while our property taxes continue to rise, RISD would receive about the same amount of funds. Basically, we pay more locally, and the state would contribute less to even out the amount. I have been and will continue to be an advocate for education funding with our representatives in Austin. I was elected by my school board peers in N. Texas to be one of 10 people to represent 130 school districts and 880,000 students to set legislative priorities with the Texas Association of School Boards.

SAWYER: To ensure that all children receive a high-quality public education, we must prioritize great teachers, foundational curricula, and effective resource allocation. Teachers are critical to student success, but they are often burdened with administrative tasks and responsibilities unrelated to teaching, which can detract from their ability to effectively educate students. Allowing teachers to focus solely on teaching can empower students to learn and achieve their full potential.

Additionally, having a solid, foundational curriculum that teaches essential academic skills and adapts to individual learning differences is crucial to academic excellence. Every student has unique needs, and by adapting teaching methods and resources accordingly, we can ensure that all students receive the education they need to succeed.

We can prepare and inspire our kids toward a bright future with a firm foundation. Helping them understand how to learn readies each student for their societal roles.

Describe your view of the roles of the school board and of the superintendent. What is the ideal relationship between them?

EAGER: The RISD school board has 5 main responsibilities: 1) Establish Vision, goals, and priorities. 2) Adopt policies. 3) Hire and evaluate the superintendent. 4) Adopt a budget and set tax rates. 5) Communicate with the community.

The board only has one employee, and that is the superintendent. The best-run school boards establish the vision/destination of where they want the district to go, and the superintendent puts together the plan on “how” we are going to get there and what resources they will need.

We work together as a team. The board sets direction, and superintendent executes the plan. The board should give clear direction of expectations and work closely with the superintendent to measure progress to make adjustments as needed.

SAWYER: The school board’s primary responsibility is to understand the community’s needs and ensure that students are equipped for success. This involves overseeing the district’s operations, providing guidance, and making informed decisions. While there are many good ideas, the board must focus on the best ones to achieve the district’s goals.

The superintendent is responsible for managing all aspects of the district The board supports the superintendent by providing guidance, feedback, and a diverse perspective based on the needs of the stakeholders.

My role at work allows me the opportunity to coach employees in their tasks, help them think through new ideas, and consider the wisdom in doing things another way. I see the role of a board member similarly, helping the superintendent be the best servant of the district. By working together, the board and superintendent can create a strong partnership to achieve the district’s goals and improve the educational experience for all students.

When you review the district budget, which contains hundreds of pages, what will be your process to determine if you will approve it?

EAGER: Preparing the district budget is a multi-month process. We break it down and evaluate it department by department. We then review it on a consolidated basis to determine if the total amount fits within our budget constraints. We also determine if the district is allocating proper amounts to address the board’s goals. We never have enough funds to fund every need, so we look at each department to evaluate and ensure we prioritize the resources with the biggest impact in achieving student outcomes. Like the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

SAWYER: In reviewing the district budget, my focus will be on how each item contributes to the success of our students. Much of the budget is allocated to providing essential services directly impacting student achievement. We are a service industry, so most of the budget is spent on providing services, like the preschool teacher helping my son to walk, the bus driver who picks him up daily, and the robotics teacher who helps students prepare for the jobs of the future.

To ensure that the budget is aligned with our needs and goals, I will carefully examine our expenses in comparison to other similar districts, consult with district experts, and seek input from external sources. With the current budget shortfall and demographic changes, we must make strategic decisions to prepare us for the future and balance our resources accordingly. While I understand that tough decisions need to be made, my goal is to ensure that all students have access to the resources and support they need to thrive.

How do you identify underserved student populations and what is your strategy to ensure all students are being served?

EAGER: To help identify the needs of our underserved population, the district has created pathway to equity programs. Pathways to equity plans are co-developed with campus leadership and the RISD equity department to identify gaps in enrollment, advanced course enrollment, and lack of parent engagement, among other areas of need. Once a gap is identified, a robust action plan is developed to bridge that gap.

One example of the success of this approach is Parkhill Jr. High implemented a pathway to equity plan that resulted in an over 100% increase in Hispanic students enrolling in advanced courses and recently celebrated a 98% passing rate.

SAWYER: Every student in RISD matters and deserves a quality education. Each student coming to a RISD school should know that they are seen and cared for by our staff. Part of caring is knowing when a student needs additional support. I am so thankful for a second-grade teacher who said something about reading challenges, helped my child get tested, and on the path toward a thirst for reading. I would want our great staff to see needs and advocate for any student they encounter. Each student is different, and success looks different for everyone, but having an equal opportunity shouldn’t depend on the elementary you go to or a junior high’s extra-curricular programs.

Many hurdles can limit student readiness (e.g, learning differences, family support, and basic needs). This may mean working with groups like the council of PTAs or the Network of Community Ministries to so the school can build into the local neighborhoods, especially when the neighborhood needs help building into the school.

Share a concrete idea for supporting each of the following groups: 1) district teachers and employees, 2) district students, and 3) district families.

EAGER: District teachers and employees – Employee infant day care: many teachers struggle with the cost and locating reliable infant day care centers. I am proud to say we have created very affordable options to help our new parent teachers.

District Students – Increasing affordable elementary extracurricular activities: There is a direct connection to student access and involvement in extracurricular activities. We need to make sure there is an affordable option for every student.

District Families – Increased parent assistance via Let’s Talk: We can continue to make it easier for parents to get answers to questions and assistance by going to one spot to get help.

SAWYER: Each part of our system, students, employees, and families, are better together than they are individually. As such, each group is important to me and the district, even if support looks different depending on the group.

For teachers, staff, and employees, that looks like regular check-ins, opportunities for growth, and benefits that retain those we hire. For students, we can strengthen the graduate profile to prepare them for college or a career, ensure they have the necessary resources, and provide opportunities to serve the community. For parents, we should look to follow the Vanilla Ice model: Stop, collaborate, and listen. We can create more transparency and communication in decisions and incorporate more representation on district committees. For everyone, we can partner with local businesses to provide resources and incentives for school participation. Regardless of the group, I seek to be available, approachable, interruptible, and goal-oriented.

What role should the community play in the district and how do you expect them to hold you & the board of trustees accountable?

EAGER: They are community schools, and the community elects 7 individuals to oversee and represent them in making decisions in the best interest of all our kids. We need engaged parents to provide input and feedback to ensure our decisions reflect the values and dreams of our kids. Trustees have to earn the trust, support, and the vote for the job they are doing in producing great student outcomes.

SAWYER: When I started my career, we moved to a post-9/11 New York City. Everywhere there was this sign, “if you see something, say something.” It helped the city come together, work for a common goal, and look out for the betterment of others. I am thankful when someone brings to my attention something I can do better, especially when it comes to helping our kids excel. As a board member, I would want someone to go to me directly if there was an issue, to keep the accountability short, and to expect the best from our interaction. I would do the same and have done so in my time as a parent in the district. When we have had an opportunity for improvement in the district, I have gone to the closest person to the issue to work toward a resolution. Often these conversations lead to a great partnership, we are both better for it, and the school or district is an indirect beneficiary.

Election Day is May 6. Early voting begins April 24.