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Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

Marissa and I adopted our youngest daughter, Aseres (Ahs-Res), from Ethiopia. We had a full house, but Ethiopia had a generation of parents ravaged by HIV and many orphaned children as a result. We felt that one of those children was our daughter, so we began an adoption process that usually took nine months and one trip to Ethiopia. Our process was not usual — after more than two years and one ten-day trip to Ethiopia, we were back in San Marcos but Aseres was unable to enter the US.  This limbo lasted four months with no end in sight.  We prayed a lot and felt strongly that we were to go to Ethiopia without resolution. When we arrived, we were stuck and I remember inquiring whether I could get a job at the university in Addis Ababa. Then out of nowhere, the embassy called me on my rental cell phone and told me that Aseres’ visa was ready. I recall praying in a walled garden outside our guest house and feeling a reassurance that it was okay to leave this wonderful people, poor in resources but rich in culture and relationship. Even though we were headed back home to San Marcos where we had lived our whole lives, we were not returning the same as when we started the journey.

It is always tough to return to the states from the developing world, because you move from a land of deep resource poverty to a land of plenty and waste. As I struggled with that, my pastor and I went to an eggs and issues breakfast that the Chamber hosted. The guest speaker was Mark Eads, the new San Marcos Schools’ Superintendent. He shared that our district had almost 300 homeless kids. While I had grown up in San Marcos and knew it was a poor community; it took new meaning that there were hungry, displaced kids right across the street that I had missed on my way across the globe. Our local mission work at River Stone and Mission San Marcos was born that day. One week after the meeting, we hand delivered groceries to 19 struggling families to help them make it through the holidays. Over the next three years, we placed more than 200 mentors with Travis kids, launched Kids Rock Club, an after-school option to 150 kids on Wednesdays, and we tutored and played soccer on other days. We developed summer day camps around the purple bus lunch deliveries where we made friends in the neighborhoods, and we developed Affordable Christmas to give our new friends an empowering hand-up at Christmas.

One day, I was in a home meeting a single-mom and grandmother of one of the children in our mentoring program, when it hit me real hard that the mother had been right where her child was 15 years before and the grandmother had been where her grandchild was 20 years before that. That child has statistically almost as good of a chance of dropping out as being college ready, and that isn’t okay. He needs a mentor, but he needs more than a mentor; he needs an education that allows him to reach further than his mother before him. Education is his greatest hope, his only hope. Yet in the past, I never heard board candidates talk about the kid in that home; I usually heard campaigns that said everything was fine and we had a perception problem. When I looked around the mobile home that evening and thought about the kid in front of me, it was not a perception problem, it was a poverty problem. And the solution to San Marcos’ poverty problem is education. We have to put all of our resources in the classroom to give every kid in our district the world-class education they deserve. The young kids need classes small enough to give them a chance, the college bound need to be college ready, and those who decide that college isn’t for them need to be able to learn the skills to get a job at a living wage.  I want to draw a circle around the 7,500 kids in our district right now and say that our generational poverty stops now, through education.

The election has been hard. I have been outspent 3 to 1 and opposed by special interests, and I still have heard some of my opponents talk about our perception problem.  But we knew what we were getting into — change is hard, but it is time.  The kids in our district can’t wait another three years for a board that understands where we are and is ready to make the tough decisions to get us where we need to be, so I need your vote. The election is going to be incredibly close.  Today is the last day of early voting, so please go by the Justice Center before 5:00.

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A Very Big Day

I am excited by how much my message of a renewed focus on our schools with smaller classes and more money in the classroom is resonating with folks in San Marcos.  Local teachers have been encouraged, and I even saw that a mailer sent out by a special interest group attributed my message to the other candidates the special interest was endorsing.  I might prefer more honesty, but it means our message is winning.

Still, winning the message does not guarantee a good election result.  I have been outspent by more than two to one and faced special interest opposition by folks who stand to lose if the district moves forward.  If you do not vote, this election could be another missed opportunity where the board has new faces but the same tired ideas.  There are 7,500 kids in our schools right now who deserve more out of their education, and they cannot afford to wait three more years for a board ready to fight for change.  Today, the Justice Center is open from until 7:00 to accommodate voters.  I will be out there after work until they close, so join me and let’s make today the biggest turnout day of early voting.  It should only take five to ten minutes, and your vote could be the first step towards changing San Marcos’ future.

Go Vote

At the beginning of the campaign, I felt lonely talking about making sure all of our kids leave school college ready or with employable skills, and I was the only one talking about reducing class sizes and putting money in the classroom.  But as the campaign has progressed, our message has resonated so much that it is now echoed by other candidates.  This is great, because we are having the real conversation about our schools which has been missing for a long time in our community.  The conversation has shifted so much that some voters say that it will be okay no matter which two candidates win.  I disagree.

As two of the seven candidates move from the campaign to the board, ideas that were embraced by the voters are going to face significant headwinds.  Every dollar that is allocated to hire more teachers and lower our student-teacher ratios has to come from somewhere, and there is going to be resistance.  Change is hard and it takes a lot more than nice talk.  It takes tough decisions, focus, and resolve.  That is why this election matters so much.  Hiring more teachers takes a complete understanding of our complex budget and the will to overcome the resistance from the vested interests who stand to lose from the teachers’ gains.  And it takes leadership to build a consensus around our vision that will withstand attacks from those who want to preserve the status quo.

I am uniquely qualified to move from ideas to action.  As an attorney, I have faced tough fights on behalf of my clients and overcome resistance.  And I have experience leading groups and building consensus on boards and in business.  We can’t take a chance that a candidate will grow into the job, because we cannot afford to be where we are now in three years. There are 7,500 kids in our district today, and if they do not get the education they deserve, our community will stagnate.  From day one, the new board has to be singularly focused on getting our schools from good to great, with words and action.  That is why I am running and why I am asking for your vote.

Election day is May 9th, but early voting has already started at the Justice Center on Stagecoach Road.  I voted yesterday and it was very easy — use the side door to the far left so you don’t have to pass through security.  If you live in Martindale or out Ranch Road 12 or out Hunter Road, anywhere that pays property taxes to the school district, you get to vote.  Please vote today.

Class Size and One Magic Student

I firmly believe that smaller classes improve student performance. My position on class sizes has been reinforced as I have met teachers out on the campaign trail. I hear stories of middle school classes in excess of 30 where teachers want to get to everyone for individual instruction but time that could go to teaching is instead spent managing the large numbers, and elementary teachers with too many kids in their class to properly deliver all the instruction they feel the children need.

Unfortunately, our district and the current board have requested waivers from the state to exceed the maximum student to teacher ratio of 22 to 1 in grades one through four. I am against these waivers, and if elected, I will work to move beyond waivers by keeping all our elementary classes at 22 to 1 or lower. I then want to move beyond those grades, because we have more than 30 students per teacher in a lot of our fifth through eighth grade classes. I want to provide immediate relief to classroom overcrowding, and I believe we can pay for this without a tax increase by increasing the percentage of our money that goes into instruction from its current level of 58.3% of expenditures. To state the obvious, 41.7% of our expenditures are on things that are not instruction; so we can eliminate a few non-essentials to move more money into instruction, since instruction is really the whole reason we have schools.

I have been talking about classroom sizes since the campaign began, so I was encouraged that there was an agenda item to discuss classroom sizes at this month’s board meeting. Mrs. Guerra reported that there is space at some campuses that is not currently used as classrooms. This means all it would take to get our student to teacher ratio lower would be to hire some teachers. However, the discussion disappointed me in a few ways. First, there did not appear to be a broad consensus on the current board that decreasing class sizes was something the board should do. Second, I was disappointed that no action came of the discussion. Talking of class sizes does not make the class sizes go down – awareness is the first step but action has to follow. Finally, I was disappointed to once again here the old magic student argument. The argument goes that we must seek waivers because you can be at 22 to 1 then one student can move to a house right next door to Travis.   We have to take this student at Travis and then we either have to hire a teacher to teach this one student or we bust the number.  This argument reminds me of the movie JFK when the theorist testified about how the bullet that hit the President travelled, because this one student must really get around — our average class size in first grade is 22.7, our average class size in third grade is 23.9, and we exceed the cap across campus and across grade levels.

We very clearly didn’t need waivers because we had a student move during the semester; we needed them because we planned from the outset to exceed the cap at certain grade levels. It is time to make a new plan that values student performance and smaller classes. And if despite all our planning, a handful of students move, Section 25.112 of the code provides for temporary waivers when the district has to accommodate a new student. This change in approach is going to be hard and going to require a fight, so the district needs a trustee who values student performance and smaller classes, and has the strength and leadership to build a consensus around those values. I need your vote, early voting starts Monday and election day is May 9th.

Small Town Lawyer

After four years with a mid-size firm in San Antonio, I opened up my own law firm on the square in San Marcos.  My daily commute was taking a toll, and Marissa and I decided that the risk of me running my own business was outweighed by me being more available to help with the kids.  It has been almost four years, and it was one of the best decisions we ever made.  I get to represent real people struggling with real problems, and ot help small companies often fighting for their survival.  I now have a full-time paralegal (Jodie, a Rattler of course) who helps me keep everything on the tracks and a part-time admin.  My dad had a shop on the square for two decades, and the windows in my office looks out over his old location.  I am blessed to have enough business to provide for my family and for my staff, but my schedule is flexible enough that I can make most of the kids activities and I can even squeeze in an election for school board.

I feel that being a small-business owner in San Marcos and being the attorney for many other local businesses gives me a unique perspective on what we need of our young people as the enter the workforce.  Many of my clients are some of my most vocal supporters, which I think speaks well of the job I do for them and the job they feel I will do on the board.  I also feel that being trained as a lawyer to explore topics in depth and to ask tough questions are traits that will serve me well if you elect me to serve on the board.  Everybody brings something different to serving in such a position, but I feel that what I bring to the table is the right skills for this board at a time like this.  This is one of the reasons I am asking for your vote — early voting starts Monday and election day is two weeks from Saturday.

The Superintendent

I met Mark Eads pretty early in his tenure when he was new to town. He worked with me as we shaped some of our programs for Mission San Marcos and River Stone, and he was a great resource and a great encouragement. I know him to be a good man with a great heart for the kids. The district is better off now than it was four years ago, and Mark Eads deserves credit for that. I feel he has all the tools necessary to serve effectively in his role, and I hope he remains here for years to come.

Over the last two weeks, I weighed in on two important matters before the current board – the principal at Miller and the administration building. I was the only candidate to publicly articulate positions and my reasoning, because this is too important an election for voters to be left to wonder what the candidates will do if they are elected. We have tried that again and again as a community, and the results are a board that is as dysfunctional now as it was when I was in school here. Mark Eads’ position on Miller lined up with mine, but we differed on funding the administration building. I am sure if I am elected, there will be far more areas of agreement than there are areas of disagreement, but there will probably be both. That seems healthy to me, because everyone brings a different perspective to decisions and everyone has slightly different experiences that they draw on.  Any board member who simply rubber-stamps the administration recommendations 100% of the time is not an effective trustee because they are not bringing an independent voice and perspective to important decisions. On the other end of the coin, any board member who constantly opposes the will of the superintendent is not an effective trustee, because they are not giving the administration what they need to be successful. For too long, our board members have fallen into camps as pro-superintendent or anti-superintendent which I find to be false, unhealthy tribes. I am an independent voice, and I think that is what is needed on the board.

This is not an election about the superintendent. This is an election about a second grader living in Rancho Vista or Redwood or another neighborhood that has about the same chance to graduate college ready than he has a risk to dropout. This is an election about a middle class kid whose parents went to college. Half her friends moved to nearby districts, and her SAT and ACT scores are lagging theirs. If she makes it to college, there is a 1 in 4 chance she will need remediation. This election is about those kids and a lot of others, and what kind of school district we want to be. Mark Eads and I both want to calm the headwinds these kids are facing in their education, but for things to change, the voters have to elect independent board members who are ready to make the tough choices necessary to put more money and focus on the classroom.

Administration Building

At tonight’s meeting, the current board will consider an action item to build a new administration building. The same matter was discussed at last month’s meeting. At that time, the board declined (4-3) to allocate $6 million out of the district’s fund balance to construct a 24,000 square foot administration building. Proponents argued that renovating the current 6,500 square foot structure would cost millions, and seem to feel that the administration’s proposal is the only option. I feel that putting millions into the current building is a straw man argument, because almost everyone agrees that there will be a new administration facility within the next six years on a location other than where the current facility sits. The real debate should be how we are going to pay for new facility.

For the last ten years, the community has spent a bunch of money to build world-class facilities; now we need to put all our resources and attention in the classrooms where the teachers meet the students. Generally, the district can only fund classroom instruction with maintenance and operations (M&O) revenue – the $1.04 on your property tax bill. The only money beyond M&O revenue that is available for instruction is money that remains in the fund balance. Our fund balance is thus vital because we are able to use it to keep bond interest rates low and anything left can be used the same as M&O money.   Yet the administration proposes to take more than $6 million of money that could go into the classroom and instead use it for yet another building — a building where no instruction takes place.

Putting all of our resources into the classrooms is one of the fundamental tenets that I will use to make decisions as a board member.  If I am elected as your at-large board member — I will not support funding an administration building with money that could be put in the classroom.  I am the only candidate of the seven who has shared specific principles and how those principles will guide decisions if I am elected.  I am being this specific so that voters know what they are going to get, because too often in the past, we have elected nice candidates that sounded good, then nothing has changed once they got on the board.  This election is too important to take a chance on vague notions and broad themes, because our kids don’t have another three years to wait for a board that is ready to turn the page on the past and completely focus on student performance.

Miller Middle School

When people hear you are running for school board, they always have something to share.  The most common concern that I have heard from parents is the current state of Miller Middle School.  Former teachers have confided about the culture they left, parents have talked of their kids’ struggles, current teachers have complained about what they are seeing, and community members have shared performance concerns.  My oldest son went to Goodnight for middle school, so Miller is the campus where I have spent the least amount of time.  Today, I decided to go have a look for myself.

Mrs. Jones was very gracious with her time to give me a tour.  I also got to visit with several administrators and a few teachers. I met good people giving what they have to give, and the consensus seemed to be that considering the disruptions and changes, they were holding things together pretty well.  Maybe so, but we don’t get graded on a curve like that.  We have to be honest with ourselves — before we work as a community to address a problem, we have to first admit there is a problem. Simply put, there are more than seven hundred kids at Miller right now who are not getting all they wanted or deserved out of middle school. That is a problem, so we need to tell the parents that we are sorry and promise that we are going to do everything we can to fix the problem and never let it happen again.

Once we are all on the same page, we know that Miller Middle School needs a strong leader TODAY.  The board needs to provide Mark Eads all the resources he needs to hire the very brightest star TODAY for the important work of reinvigorating that campus and restoring discipline and pride in the faculty, the kids, and the parents.  And once we have the right leader, we need to give him or her all the resources they need to be successful.  Then we need to keep Miller top of mind and top of agenda for the board and the community in the months and years to come.  A single board member is never going to have all the answers to a problem, but the first step to solving a problem is admitting it exists.  For too long, acknowledging problems has been taboo, as if it somehow would insult the faculty or kids attending right now.  I think the most pervasive insult is low expectations, or worse, apathy and ambivalence towards another’s plight.  To our Miller faculty, parents, and kids, we love you and we are going to do everything we can do to give you the middle school you deserve and expect.

The Purple Bus

I remember the first time I talked to Mike Boone in 2011. Mike was and is the head of child nutrition for SMCISD. A very unassuming man, he spoke with passion and understanding about hungry kids and their parents. He told me he had money to feed kids in the summer but he couldn’t get the kids to his food. His idea was that he would take the food to the kids; he would customize an old retired school bus and make it into a mobile food delivery bus – purple and all. I thought my church could help gather some kids for the bus every day, so we held summer day camps in two neighborhoods for kids.

It was a wonderful partnership. Every day, our team of four to eight would hold a one hour camp of sports, or art, or music, or water fights, and then when everyone was exhausted, the bus would roll in and deliver lunch. There were days where we had eight kids, but there were days at the end of the summer where we had 30 or 40 kids. The relationships we made that year are a true treasure. One of the kids from that first summer liked my Facebook campaign site last week, and that endorsement means as much to me as any that I have received. And the members of the team were the best, and they are serving kids today as a SMCISD teacher, a non-profit leader, and as parents.

We renewed our partnership last summer and I hope we get a chance in the future to partner with the district and its programs. The best ideas aren’t always the grandest; they are usually a simple solution to a problem, but they are always the product of someone who has a heart for someone else who is hungry, or displaced, or otherwise in a bind. The purple bus is a great example. I think there are more opportunities out there for the district to reach out and engage with the community that it serves, and I hope to be a part of fostering those relationships from the school board.