LHISD candidates discuss important district issues during forum

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By Rachel Madison

Five candidates running for two spots on the Liberty Hill Independent School District’s Board of Trustees addressed everything from school safety to teacher compensation during The Liberty Hill Independent-sponsored candidate forum Tuesday evening.

In Place 4, incumbent Jeff Madison, a healthcare administrator, is being challenged by Kathy Major, who retired in 2017 after a 25-year career in the school district, most recently as principal at Liberty Hill Intermediate School.

In Place 5, incumbent Anthony Buck, an emergency management coordinator, is being challenged by Russel Martin, a veterinarian at Comanche Trail Veterinary Center; and Jon Branigan, a developer, real estate broker and former Liberty Hill City Council member.

The following are questions that were asked of each of the five candidates during the forum along with their answers. Answers have been edited for length. To hear the complete answers and view the candidate forum in its entirety, visit Facebook.com/LibertyHillIndependent.

Q: When considering school resource officers, an independent district police department or another alternative, which option is best for establishing a law enforcement presence on our school campuses? What other security measures outside of officers should the district employ?

Martin: I don’t have all the information about the differences between the different law enforcement options there. Without knowing the relative risk and crime situation in the school system, I don’t think we need to focus on a police department at this time. That’s probably a stretch for the taxpayers. Something less than that is appropriate, but I don’t want to commit to a police department at this time.
Madison: The debate is still open as to what is the most appropriate option. It needs to be taken into careful deliberation and consideration with school administration, the school board and consultation with teachers. The number one objective needs to be prevention. The efforts we’ve taken to deter and eliminate the ability for people to get into a facility and do harm and create havoc needs to be evaluated, but I think we’ve done a good job. If we’re not able to prevent, then we need to be able to stop it. We should be unapologetic. We need to have people who are capable of eliminating a deadly threat. The best approach to do that is open to debate at the moment but it is something we need to have on all our campuses.
Major: I’m very much for adding a defensive level that has highly trained law enforcement officers. Whether it’s a resource officer or our own police force, that needs to come from input from the district and community to the board so they can work as a team to determine what is the best option. Back when we did have a resource officer and I had the need to call him for a very aggressive parent with inappropriate threats, it taught me two things. Number one, law enforcement is a deterrent to violent attacks on our campus, and number two, the time it took him to get to my campus was a lifetime. I want to be building toward every campus having the same level of defense.
Branigan: We should explore all options. That’s very important and critical to making the right decision. With that said, I’m a very strong proponent of having a [school resource] officer from the Liberty Hill Police Department. When Ms. Major was talking about her incident, the police department was nonexistent. We don’t have that anymore. We have a very big police department in Liberty Hill. It could be a very easy cooperative agreement with our police department. In talking to Chief [Maverick] Campbell, I think that’s the best option for our schools. There’s other alternatives as well. We do need a security safety audit. We need an agreement with Williamson County with the Sheriff’s Department to have a drug dog on campus. We don’t have that right now and that’s a deterrent. We need [school resource] officers from Liberty Hill to help in our school district and we need to get that accomplished before school starts next year.
Buck: The district has had a recent safety security audit. In October, we got a brief from Mr. [Chad] Pirtle, which started all the conversations toward the school resource officer. The board asked for a presentation and research and that’s where the ball really got rolling. This was before the Parkland shooting. It’s very important that we plan this smartly, deliberately and work closely with the school district. If we choose to go with the SRO route or choose to form our own police department, it’s probably going to happen pretty quickly. There’s been a lot of deliberations about it and it’s a hot button topic that everybody is passionate about.

Q: Do you believe our students should be drug tested? If so, what parameters should be placed on a testing program in terms of who should be tested, responses to a positive test, etc.? If not, why not?

Madison: The foundation for drug testing needs to center around the extracurricular activities our students participate in. If you represent the school and have the honor to put on a uniform or participate in any type of competition, then you’re held to a higher standard to represent the community, school system, parents and teachers, and the rest of the students that are there. That’s the perfect place to start a detection program. Beyond that, we also need to talk about how to rehabilitate and help kids that do test positive and what we can do to create an environment where they’re not shunned but encouraged to take steps necessary to avoid a long-term problem. Just because that happens doesn’t mean we should give up on them.
Major: When you choose to represent Liberty Hill ISD in any extracurricular, you’re held to a higher standard. You’re representing yourself, your family and your community. It is a choice, not a requirement to be there. That’s where drug testing should be. The parameters of confidentiality have to be exact. It has to be random and has to be from that base of kids that are representing the Liberty Hill ISD. You have to rehabilitate. But those are the kids that for some reason have been disenfranchised. It’s pretty difficult when you are an athlete or fine arts person. If you’re taking an alternative drug, there’s a reason for that. It’s deeper than just trying to enhance your performance. We need to find the source of that problem.
Branigan: I do believe our students should be drug tested. Like Mr. Madison said, rehabilitation programs should be used as well. We should start that in junior high. It’s easy to point at the high school and say if you’re in sports or you drive a car on campus, then students are eligible for a program like that. But the teaching needs to start in junior high. A lot of students start in junior high and it escalates in high school. Then we say, ‘Goodness gracious, why are they doing it in high school?’ It’s important to address that in Liberty Hill schools. I don’t think it’s a bad problem here, but it is a problem that we need to address and need to stay straightforward with.
Buck: I do believe we need drug testing. It should be tied through extracurricular activities and also vehicle passes, so anyone who’s driving a vehicle onto school district property. I also agree that we need to have some type of rehabilitation program in place, whether it’s counseling or something of that nature. It’s very important.
Martin: I’m not clear on the drug testing situation. I don’t know if we’re talking about anabolic steroids. I’m not sure what kind of drugs we’re talking about. I’m not sure if we’re talking about prescription medications, which tend to be the most overused drug problem we have today, even worse than that opioid stuff that’s going on. I need to get a lot more information to give you an answer to that question. With drug testing in general, if you’re having kids testing positive, that’s going to go back to family situations. I’m not sure we’re going to solve the problem by counseling students if they have a family situation that’s causing it.

Q: Should the district continue to allow transfers? Why or why not? If so, how should that be evaluated to make sure it remains in the best interest of the district and resident students?

Major: I am for open transfers because it does something so essential for us to continue supporting rock solid programs and excellence in this district — that is maximizing the resources that are available to us. We are in the same condition of growth that we were when this was put into play. Our total value of our district is high and our numbers of students compared to that creates a gap. The transfers allow us to keep our funding from the state. With that said, I want to watch the cost-benefit assessment, because when it doesn’t benefit us financially it doesn’t fulfill what it was meant to do when it was implemented.
Branigan: Currently I do believe they should allow the open enrollment policy. It’s a hot topic right now. I think there’s been some critical questions from the school board amongst themselves on budgetary requirements on the students and if they do actually cost the district money or help the district make money. I don’t have the answer to that. I don’t think the [question] has been fully answered yet. That’s something that needs to be addressed. We need definite numbers to see how it benefits our schools. I’ve got a lot of friends who have children who go to school here who would be shut out if we closed our campuses. I think it’s a very hot topic and one we need to study very carefully to see how it impacts our students and faculty.
Buck: We should still honor open transfers. One of the reasons is because it still makes financial sense for us. It’s kind of a fine line where we get closer to recapture, which is sending money back to Austin. But there’s also the human side of it. As Mr. Branigan said, we have a lot of kids out there that are transferring in and they’ve been in our district for a long time. I’m antsy about if we just close enrollment. What do we do? Do we grandfather some of those kids in? They’ve been our kids’ teammates and classmates for a long time. We have about 360 transfer students out of almost 4,100 students overall and a third of those are staff. That is an employee perk for folks.
Martin: I don’t have all the facts of the board members here and people who are closer to this topic. I would assume that my position would be to allow transfer students. I would like to see the transfer students be based on merit. I don’t know if it’s legal or possible but it gets back to Mr. Buck’s comment about families who are contributing to this community. Whether they are business owners or employees in town or volunteer for YMCA or youth football, they’re part of this community. Those kids should be in this school district. The ones doing it for convenience, I think no, but I don’t know if that’s possible if you can base it on merit or not.
Madison: I am only for continuing to allow transfer students if it’s in the best interest of the school district. There are two circumstances you have to consider: financial and from an employment perspective. I am totally in favor of continuing to allow teachers, as an incentive for them to teach in this great school system, to have their kids come here without having to pay any additional fees to attend our school systems. Short of that, anyone else who comes should have to shoulder the same burden as the people who have chosen to live in this district do. With all due respect to the city leaders here, in my belief, the school system is what is spurring the greatest degree of economic development. For us to be able to continue to do that, I think we need to make sure we’re in best position we can be from a financial standpoint.

Q: Teachers are the key to a quality education. Do you believe our teachers are fairly compensated? What can Liberty Hill do to remain competitive in attracting and keeping teachers?

Buck: Liberty Hill teachers on average do not make as much as some of the other districts in the area, but a lot of that we make up for in quality of life and other perks. The board and the administration have been trying to catch that up. For the past three years we have voted to increase resources and salaries for not only the teachers but all of our personnel, right down to the bus drivers and janitorial staff to ensure we attract and keep the best folks possible.
Martin: I don’t know currently how our teachers compare to other districts. I would assume they are adequately compensated, but I don’t know that. According to the previous speaker, we probably need to make some changes and try to give them appropriate salaries to comparable communities.
Madison: I do not believe our teachers are paid enough. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a district issue. That’s a statewide issue. We do not have enough resources to adequately pay our teachers what they’re entitled to and what they should be paid. The question becomes, how do we compare to other school districts in the area if we’re going to foster this atmosphere and value system of excellence and hold ourselves to the highest possible standard? That also needs to be taken into consideration with how we pay our teachers according to the other competing districts in the area. Beyond that, what can we do to help encourage the development of our teachers for those who have a desire to receive additional continuing education or develop other professional capabilities or move into some other type of educator role within the district? How do we foster that development?
Major: No, we don’t. I’ve seen what my teachers did—12-hour days, weekends. I also know that I knew what I was going to make when I signed my contract. The reason I signed my contract is because of what Liberty Hill stands for. We have that value that everybody is attracted to. It’s doing what is right by our kids and staff. No, we don’t have the money and it’s a state issue. What can we do? We can advocate for our staff and our students at the state level. We can demand that they are valuable and they are recognized. We can support our staff in what is right. We can have their back when they take that stand for what is right. That’s worth $1 million.
Branigan: I agree with Mr. Madison and Ms. Major very much. Their answers were fantastic. I’ve talked to a lot of teachers. The number one thing I’ve heard that they have concerns with is morale, and that stems from their pay. Liberty hill is growing and most of them expressed concerns that it’s not the same fun school atmosphere they can teach in. That’s a concern. We need to compensate our teachers reasonably and make sure they are happy in their jobs and encouraged to stay here. The reality is they’re teaching the future of our society, not just Liberty Hill, not just Central Texas, not just Texas, not just the United States, but our world.

In Place 3, incumbent David Nix, an assistant claims manager, did not draw an opponent. Early voting for elections is April 23 to May 1. Election day is May 5 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Liberty Hill High School.

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