3 vie for LHISD Place 5 seat
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Incumbent Anthony Buck has drawn a pair of opponents in Jon Branigan and Russel Martin to fill the Place 5 seat on the Liberty Hill ISD Board of Trustees.
A life-long Liberty Hill resident, Branigan has two children in local schools now and one soon to be.
“I’ve lived in Liberty Hill my whole life and attended the Liberty Hill school system as a kid,” he said. “I’m very involved in the community and I’d like to be part of the growth of the school district moving forward.”
Branigan served one year on the Liberty Hill City Council, a position he resigned last month when he moved to a new home outside the city limits. As a developer, Branigan says he is in tune with the issues of growth the school district is facing.
“The school is about to experience tremendous growth with all the people moving into the district,” he said. “I have experience with all types of real estate, development, acquisitions, purchasing, which is going to help the school district when it comes to seeking and acquiring land for school campuses and budgeting new buildings.”
It is a long-term challenge he said the district must be ready for.
The growth is going to be a huge challenge because we’ve got to prepare for that growth, not the next two to five years, but the next 15-25 years,” Branigan said. “We have to acquire property, we’ve got to train staff as the staff is going to be growing annually at a pretty rapid rate, and we have to put people in leadership positions at the schools to handle the growth.”
The new Rancho Sienna Elementary School is a beautiful school with great architectural details, said Branigan, but he wants to see a balance between needs and extras.
“We need to be sensible in the construction of the buildings moving forward and build them to meet the needs of students who are going to be there for a foreseeable time so we’re not having to go back and remodel those campuses every few years,” he said. “We build them on a budget that makes sense to give our kids the best learning environment possible and not the best architectural details.”
Sensible construction and planning will help keep future projects he sees as coming fast as economical as possible.
“I don’t think right now Liberty Hill needs to worry about under-building anything,” Branigan said. “That’s something we need to focus on is building to prepare for the growth. The school district is going to have to request bonds from the taxpayers to fund these schools, but one thing that needs to be done on future school building endeavors is to manage the budget so that the buildings themselves don’t cost more than they need to.”
Near the top of Branigan’s list of priorities should he be elected is working to create a school resource officer (SRO) program.
“One of my biggest passions is getting the police departments – Williamson County (Sheriff) and Liberty Hill Police – involved in our school systems, and getting an SRO officer employed at our school,” he said. “That is something the city and school district need to work better toward. When I was on the city council this past year, I tried to get an SRO approved in the 2018 budget through the city, but I had some opposition on the city council. I want to mend those old relationships that are broken between the school and the city.”
At some point he said that program could be replaced with a school district police department, once the district grows and the issue is revisited.
“Today Liberty Hill is not large enough to operate and maintain its own police department,” Branigan said. “One of these days, when the district has 15,000 to 20,000 students I’d like to revisit the idea, but today I think it is best served having cooperative contracts with the police departments that surround our school district..”
He emphasized that a SRO program is not the solution to security issues on school campuses.
“We need to have a school safety audit performed by a professional school safety audit company and get recommendations from those professionals about what we can do to make our schools safer,” he said. “The biggest security measure is to make sure threats don’t get in the building to begin with.”
Part of the reason for his support of a SRO program is the additional need in his opinion, for a drug testing program.
“It starts in the junior high selling E-cigarettes and it moves into the high school with kids being able to use the school campus as a place to deal marijuana and other things like prescription drugs,” Branigan said. “It’s not widely talked about, but I’m for the drug testing. If our kids don’t have anything to hide and they’re in extracurricular activities then they shouldn’t have a problem with it.
“This is nothing new, I graduated from school here and I knew what went on in high school when I was here. I don’t want people to think my position is Liberty Hill schools are full of drugs and druggies and its going downhill. My position is one of keeping my kids safe, and my constituents’ kids safe.”
Branigan sees lots of work to be done in the district and hopes for the opportunity to get more involved.
“I’m very involved in the community and it would be an honor to help represent our schools as a school board member, as someone who has grown up here and makes his living in this community,” he said.
Service has been the focus for Buck dating back to when he first enlisted in the army.
Buck retired from the military after 24 years of service and is an emergency management coordinator at a state agency today. He has a senior still in school, in Liberty Hill, and one already graduated and in college.
As his first term on the school board comes to a close, he feels that support for his work from the community was most important in seeking reelection.
“I was asked by a number of educators and citizens, who apparently like the job I’ve done,” he said. “I seem to be a steady, level-headed person on the board and they like the way I do things. I took away from my military service a sense of duty that goes with serving. Both my military and other side have qualified me to lead on the board.”
The team focus he brings to the board is what Buck sees as one of his greatest qualifiers.
“Coming from my military background, I try to be a team builder and get consensus,” he said. “That’s important in our process because after all, it is a team. We have to work together to get things done and we’ve done a great job these past few years in my opinion.”
Being able to serve the community after his military days were behind him has been very rewarding.
“After I retired, there was kind of a hole there. When you’re not getting up and putting on a uniform every day, something is missing,” he said. “In my years of service, those three years on the Liberty Hill ISD School Board are some of the most rewarding.”
He sees the role of the school board as big-picture planning and looking ahead.
“Our role is strategic oversight of the school district,” he said. “We have one employee and that is the superintendent. It is our responsibility to give him direction on where we want to see the schools going. I believe we are going in the right direction.”
The last bond election and the things accomplished with those funds are what he points to as the greatest success of his past term.
“We put forward a bond issue that the voters passed,” he said. “On that bond we upgraded the agricultural facilities that was sorely needed, but we also provided upgrades to every campus.”
The new Rancho Sienna campus is something he is proud of, as well as the other upgrades across all campuses. He knows more growth is coming and feels like the board does a good job of staying prepared.
“We’re taxpayers too,” he said. “But the growth is coming, and we can’t put our heads in the sand. We are going to have to build more campuses and we have to plan for it smartly. I believe this administration does a very good job of that. We get consistent reports on the demographics, the populations that are moving in and what new subdivisions are coming in and what might be coming in. We’re trying to get ahead of the curve.”
He supports the current transfer student rules, pointing primarily to the state school finance system as the reason to keep it in place.
“A lot of folks have talked about allowing students from outside the district to come in, that’s a big topic right now,” he said. “The bottom line is we allow it to happen because of recapture, which is sending local funds back to Austin through the Robin Hood plan. For right now, allowing students in makes sense.”
Coming from a family focused on trades, Buck said more vocational opportunities are important for students today.
“I’d like to see increased vocational training and if I am reelected I’d like to bring this up,” he said. “I’ve heard folks say they wish we had a shop class, or basic carpentry, or even like home economics.
“One of the big deficits we have in the United States right now is trades. There are a number of trades that are begging for apprentices to come and learn, and they make really good money and get a good, satisfying hard day’s work. I come from a trade background. It is an honorable craft.”
The board is currently considering additional security measures, and Buck has been involved in bringing those discussions to the table and looks forward to more consideration, but he is also proud of what has already been done to increase security.
“One of the things we did that I am very pleased with is we made sure every campus had a secured entrance,” Buck said. “You can’t just go to a campus in Liberty Hill and walk in the front door and have access. I’m really pleased with that, especially in light of the tragedies that have been happening.
“We, on the board, have asked for some increased security measures, whether it is hiring school resource officers or other options. We’ve been talking about this for months and it came up before the Florida school shooting. I come from an emergency management, security background and it is near and dear to my heart.”
He supports a student drug testing program, one he said that might be best tied to student parking passes.
While he is knee deep in the current discussions of all these issues, Buck is proud of the direction of the district and hopes to continue down the same path as these decisions are made.
“The train is going forward, let’s keep it on the tracks headed in the right direction,” he said. “We’re great academically, we’re great athletically, it’s a great school district. People are moving here for the school district and when I travel across the state and people hear I’m from Liberty Hill they tell me all the great things they have heard. It is something to be proud of but something we need to strive to continue doing right.”
The chance to serve over the last three years is something Buck is grateful for, and he hopes to continue.
“This has been a very rewarding thing, and regardless of how people vote, I’d like to thank the voters and constituents for allowing me to serve the three years I have already,” he said. “It has been an excellent, humbling experience and I’ve worked with some of the best people you can imagine. I feel I have some more things to do and would like to continue the service.”
Martin is a veterinarian who has had his clinic in Liberty Hill for the last seven years, but his two children have been in the district since 2006.
While he admits he doesn’t have much experience specific to serving on the school board, he said his communication skills are most important.
“This is new territory for me, but I have the communications skills necessary, the ability to interact with people, always discussing options and money with people through my clinic,” he said. “This (campaign) is driven by the fact that I have two children in the Liberty Hill school district.”
The biggest issue he has heard from people he talks to is that many don’t feel like there is enough focus on opportunities for all students.
“As someone who has quite a bit of exposure to the public, I have heard a number of complaints from parents about the culture at the high school specifically as far as everything that is put on winning and only having the elite participate in a lot of the programs,” he said. “They want 120 percent from students and I would like to give a voice on the school board to people who feel their kids are not the cream of the crop and maybe they are only going to give it 90 percent, but at least they’re exposed to a lot of different things and don’t have to pick one thing.”
Working hard and giving your all is important, said Martin, but winning gets too much emphasis sometimes.
“The decisions we’re making here by the leaders – whether it is the teachers, coaches or the school district – with the emphasis put on being the best of the best and only wanting the cream of the crop may not be benefitting all the students in our community,” he said.
Expanded vocational opportunities that students can more easily explore and participate in are important.
“At some point we have to realize all of these students are not going to college, that we’re going to have some of the vocational things that were lost for a long time,” he said. “Trades are gone and we’ve tried to overeducate everyone and that’s when we get problems when that segment of the economy goes down then you have a struggling population.”
Martin also believes that transportation issues surrounding getting into and out of schools in Liberty Hill should have raised flags when campuses were being built.
“The planning of the schools have been a concern of mine, with putting the high school out where it is,” he said. “I have no knowledge of the decision process, but I do know there are thousands of people down County Road 200 lining up to get through that light and it is very hard to overlook that difficult situation to run all these people through that mess.”
Unsure of how much security is enough on district campuses, Martin believes access control is most important.
“I think if you are going to raise security to the highest level, it would be like when you go to a concert, you’d have metal detectors, a wand or something like that, on the premises and that’s going to give you a higher level of security than even a police force maybe,” he said. “It depends on how many officers you have, but if you have one or two, they might not be able to respond appropriately to stop something catastrophic from happening.”
What the district ultimately does, he said, will be dependent on what constituents will support financially.
“It comes back to the money situation,” he said. “If people are willing to move forward with a police department and are willing to pay for it, that’s the highest level of security other than truly securing the facility.”
Similarly, Martin is not opposed to student drug testing, but would want to know more about the goals of the program and how much of an issue the district believes exists.
“I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not sure how we figure out if it is needed, other than basing it on similar communities in similar places and assuming that if it’s a problem there, it’s a problem here,” he said. “Is running dogs through there a better option? That’s not going to take care of the drugs they’re doing outside of the school premises, but I don’t know if we’re in the business of policing that or not.”