Guest Commentary by Dr. David Velasquez, Katy ISD Board of Trustee Challenger for Position 3 ~ Website of Dr. Velasquez
For Katy ISD Incumbent Ashley Vann, Words Speak Louder Than Actions
In a recent article by Community Impact Newspaper-Katy, incumbent Ashley Vann, my opponent, listed the students, the teachers, and the taxpayers as her top three priorities should she get re-elected for another three year term.[i] In light of Ms. Vann’s voting record for the past three years, which directly conflicts with her professed priorities, this begs the question of why she has consistently voted against the best interests of all three during her tenure on the Katy ISD School Board. During her three years on the Board, Ms. Vann has ignored school overcrowding and academics in favor of a high-priced high school football stadium, she has voted in favor of decreasing the qualification for teachers, and has ignored the wishes of the tax-paying community by increasing their financial burden in the face of financial harsh times facing the Katy ISD in the very near future.
Has Voted Against the Best Interest of Teachers
During the Katy ISD School Board meeting held on October 24, 2016, Ms. Vann, along with all 6 of her fellow School Board members, voted in favor of allowing Katy ISD to pursue a State-sanctioned status known as “District of Innovation” from TEA, a designation that would afford the school district flexibility and immunity from having to conform to several areas of Texas school accountability measures. Such flexibility is not necessarily a good thing for our teachers – and our children – because that could set the school district on “a slippery slope into destructive decisions.”[ii]
Under such a plan, Katy ISD, among other things, would not be required to follow Texas teacher certification hiring practices for certain teachers. For example, under such a designation, Katy ISD would be able to hire individuals without teaching certificates to teach classes in such professional areas as engineering.[iii] Under such flexible authority, the School District would be able to potentially privatize instruction by allowing corporations to lease out engineering professionals to Katy ISD to teach in these designated areas, essentially eliminating any incentive for such professionals to pursue a teaching certificate.[iv] Needless to say, such a practice will only hurt teachers because it will essentially serve as the first proverbial nail in the teaching profession’s coffin because it would put them in direct competition with uncertified teachers for their hard-earned jobs. Once this practice is allowed for subject areas as engineering or other like-professions, it will not be very far-fetched to think that other areas might subsequently follow the minute that these practices prove to be financially feasible and economically convenient to school districts allowed to operate under such a designation. In light of the financial mess that school districts like Katy ISD currently find themselves in as a result of poor financial decisions taken by local school board members such as ours, it is not difficult to predict a future scenario where uncertified teachers would predominantly be allowed to teach our children, consequently lowering the quality of their education because it is economically feasible and convenient to do so.[v]
Although Ms. Vann’s vote in favor of such anti-teacher policies, as exemplified by her pursuit of a “District of Innovation” status for Katy ISD is bad enough, it is not an isolated instance of her voting past – it is a pattern of established practice. It should not go unnoticed that Ms. Vann also voted to hire the current superintendent at a salary significantly above market value while ignoring and failing to use the incredible leverage she had at her disposal to hire him at a much lower salary. In a recent Q&A piece by a local newspaper, Ms. Vann proudly reminds us how she had been among the board members who hired the superintendent,[vi] while showing no remorse for her fiscal irresponsibility in having done so. In having hired the superintendent at the salary that she and her fellow board members did, Ms. Vann made future teacher salary freezes a much more likely reality in light of the fact that such extravagant spending will make it harder for Katy ISD to keep up with teacher salary increases when it will soon become a property-wealthy school district subject to Texas’ Robin Hood public school finance law. In light of such short-sighted economic vision, how exactly can Ms. Vann defend her professed priority of being a champion for teachers?
Ms. Vann’s voting history over the past three years as a school board member has communicated quite clearly that despite her claims that she considers teachers as one of her top three priorities, her actions loudly say otherwise. Because of her past voting patterns against teacher interests, teachers are now more likely to be competing with teachers not required to hold teaching certificates in the near future as a result of her vote to allow the superintendent to pursue a “District of Innovation” status for Katy ISD. If anyone should ever doubt that such foregoing measure is in fact anti-teacher, one should listen to Ms. Vann’s fellow school board member George Scott, who described the measure in the following manner: “The district of innovation creates a trojan horse opportunity where private corporations could privatize the provision of providing of classroom teachers to districts and create a two-tier system of teachers,”……”It’s the beginning process to allow school districts to breach contracts.”[vii] Incredibly, such a bleak characterization of the measure didn’t stop Mr. Scott from voting in favor of the measure, just like it failed to stop Ms. Vann from voting in favor of the measure. Is this what being a champion for teachers mean for my opponent?
Has Voted Against the Best Interest of Students
Despite her claims to the contrary, Ms. Vann has consistently voted against the best interests of our children. Not too long ago and shortly after having been elected to the Katy ISD School Board, my opponent voted in favor of what one reporter called at the time “the most expensive high school football stadium in the world.”[viii] Most importantly, she voted to spend our very limited resources on an overly priced project at a time when she was fully aware that the School District was experiencing serious overcrowding at some of our schools. In fact, after the 2014 bond election was passed, Ms. Vann and company decided to subsequently add $12 million more in order to cover the budget shortfall of the overly-priced stadium while sacrificing much needed classroom space to address the School District’s burgeoning student population.
When questioned on the $12 million dollar expenditure, one of Ms. Vann’s fellow Board members defended the decision by admitting “that the board may have to take money out of the operating budget of the school district to address the issue.”[ix] It was further reported by Covering Katy, which published the story, that such an admission brought to light a “revelation…[that]…means the board was fully aware that they were giving the stadium project an additional $12 million of unspent bond while there was a looming overcrowding problem that needed to be addressed. The move signaled that the board was more interested in dealing with stadium problems than overcrowding issues.”[x] It should not go unnoticed that Ms. Vann, along with the rest of her colleagues, voted to ignore our overcrowding needs in favor of a non-instructional school item. Now is such an action, along with many others over the course of her three years on the Board, consistent with my opponent’s outrageous claims that she champions the cause of our children? Once again, her words speak louder than her actions time and again.
Yet another issue that has occurred under Ms. Vann’s watch that has also been detrimental to our students, and contrary to her claims of championing the cause of our students, has been the District’s busing issue, which has forced some of our children to walk through perilous situations on a daily basis in order to get to school. According to an article written by Covering Katy, our students have been forced to walk in excess of 2 miles and for more than 49 minutes just to get to their schools.[xi] What’s even worse is that our students have been forced to navigate through these dangerous routes just because the School District, in its infinite wisdom and without a reasonable basis, has determined that such routes are not only not dangerous, but within the 2 mile radius, facts which have often been disputed by several affected parties, including yours truly.[xii]
According to Katy ISD’s busing guidelines, if a student lives less than two miles from school and is not required to walk through a route deemed by the School District to be hazardous, such student does not qualify for school transportation. As I have indicated earlier, Katy ISD has not been very transparent and forthcoming in its defense of its arbitrary and highly questionable practices to deny our children a much needed service. In fact, I personally felt vindicated when I read how the Covering Katy reporter investigating the Tays Middle School transportation woes herself reached the same conclusions that I as a parent had reached earlier when faced with a similar situation. Apparently not convinced with the School District’s claim, the reporter personally walked and measured a specific distance that the School District had claimed was less than two miles and arrived at the following conclusions: “Some measurements would take the students to the back of the school – which is fenced and has no gates. The district also at times uses the “as the crow flies” measurement, which is not close to being accurate because children don’t fly to school, they walk.”[xiii]
To further dispute the School District’s questionable ways of doing things, the same reporter investigated Katy ISD’s claims that the route in question was also not dangerous. However, contrary to Katy ISD’s claims, the reporter found that: “The intersections were so unsafe that after the school year started, the district decided that law enforcement was needed to direct traffic. Covering Katy requested to interview the district officials involved in these determinations, but the request was not granted.”[xiv] Unfortunately, parents have had very little recourse to address their concerns. In attempts to address these concerns with the School District, several parents filed grievances, but to no avail.[xv] As is not surprising given my own personal experience with the School District, many parents were unfortunately introduced to Katy ISD’s arrogant and dismissive ways, perhaps best described by both Tom Grubach’s and Jen Webb’s personal experiences with the whole process.
According to Grubach, “Their approach is just wearing you down,”… “And going over time, it kind of works, in a way.”[xvi] Webb’s description of the process was no less different than Grubach’s, providing the following assessment of the process: “I think it is important to point out that the district now uses the grievance process as another tool to manipulate any given situation to the outcome that they desire because there is no objective third party. The children and parents are effectively disenfranchised from the very issues that affect them not only on a daily basis, but in an imminent and often dangerous manner, as well (as getting to school safely). And it goes without saying that KISD relies on the continued investment of time required to participate in these grievance processes; they know most will give up because they have to get on with life (which now includes at least 10 more carpool trips a week) versus pursuing the matter come what may.”[xvii]
In light of the foregoing I once again ask, is this my opponent’s definition of championing our students’ cause? How is depriving students of much needed transportation and putting them in harm’s way deemed actions benefitting students? How is putting football stadiums first over much needed classrooms deemed championing the cause of our children? How is having voted for a measure that will allow Katy ISD to hire less than qualified teachers to teach our students deemed as championing the cause of our students?[xviii]
Has Voted Against the Best Interest of the Taxpayers
To avoid further belaboring what is already painfully obvious to all of us, I will just ask my opponent two simple questions. Is having voted for a $72 million high school stadium in the face of much needed classrooms protecting the interests of the taxpayers? Is having voted to hire the current superintendent at a whopping $375,000 per year salary while the market dictates a much lower salary championing the best interests of the taxpayers? Quite frankly, and I do admit this with all sincerity, I cannot begin to understand the reasoning behind such outrageous claims.
In light of the foregoing and what I find as factually unsupported claims by Ms. Vann, I ask the Katy ISD community to afford me the privilege to represent you on the Katy ISD School Board as your faithful voice and advocate on issues important to all of us as parents and as taxpayers. Quite honestly, can we really say that Ms. Vann has been our advocate and our voice the past three years? Is rubber-stamping the wishes of the superintendent serving our best interests? I believe that the examples I have listed here unequivocally convey that my opponent has done everything but serve the interests of our community. She has quite clearly served the interests of the school superintendent the whole time she has been on the Board. In closing, I would like to part by sharing the following quote from Ms. Vann, which I believe accurately describes her last three years on the Katy ISD School Board (spent saying yes to everything): “I don’t always speak up because if there’s something that’s been said and it’s been asked, there’s no reason that I should be redundant.”
Dr. David Velasquez