Smith challenges Stephenson in LHISD Place 1 race
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Liberty Hill ISD Trustee Clint Stephenson is seeking his second term and was elected Board President in May after then-President Clay Cole had decided not to seek reelection.
He is being challenged by Terry Smith, who is running for the second time after finishing third in 2019 in a race won by Trustee Megan Parsons.
When Stephenson looks back on his first term it is easy to see how eventful it was. His term included the proposal and voter approval of a $98.6 million bond package, the hiring of new Superintendent Steve Snell, and the district’s response to COVID-19. He is proud of all that has been done in those three-plus years.
“It’s been very rewarding and fulfilling,” Stephenson said of his first term. “It has taken up a lot more time than what I had anticipated in the beginning, but it’s one of those things that you get out of it what you put into it, and I’m happy to do it. It’s very eye-opening, and there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that the general public doesn’t really ever know about. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
When Stephenson talks about challenges for the district, it always begins with the ongoing growth he expects to explode even further in the coming years.
“It has started, but now we’re right on the cusp of tremendous growth and that was the reason why I signed up in the first place,” he said. “I just want to help and this is kind of in my wheelhouse and what I do for a living. I enjoy long-range planning and that sort of thing. It’s a type of chess that I enjoy playing.”
There is some stress in it, but he points to the teamwork in the process as something that makes the district successful in taking on the challenges.
“I’d be lying if I said what we’re about to go through doesn’t keep me up at night,” Stephenson said. “But we’ve got a great team and that makes it worthwhile. I’m excited about the strategic plan that we’ve got now in our district. It’s really going to help set the tone and help us with our growth.”
Coming up with facilities for the number of new students is the big focus, but behind the scenes there is the hurdle of still being a rural area in many ways.
“Because our district is still pretty rural as far as infrastructure, that makes it a tremendous challenge on where schools can go,” he said. “If it doesn’t have infrastructure in place we have to account for that and how far away from the infrastructure it is going to be, as far as water and sewer, and what impact that will have on the cost of the school.”
The latest demographic reports will be coming out soon, and Stephenson said that information will reinforce for the community the growth needs for the district. It also reminds him of a related concern, and that is keeping what is special about the school district as it booms.
“One of the biggest challenges is maintaining our culture,” Stephenson said. “People move to Liberty Hill for a reason, and it’s for the schools. Maintaining that culture is going to be difficult. When you go through the growth we’re going to it is difficult, but that is also part of our strategic plan. We want to keep what’s great about Liberty Hill, but at the same time understand we can always be better.”
The criticism Stephenson takes from his opponent, Terry Smith, is over a September 2018 incident where Smith’s son was unaccounted for by the district for nearly 40 minutes after he was mistakenly sent home on a school bus rather than being picked up by Smith as usual at Burden Elementary. Smith has long-criticized the district’s mistake, and still contends the incident wasn’t handled properly in the aftermath.
Stephenson said there were mistakes on both sides and the issue was dealt with through the implementation of the SMART Tags program that now helps track the whereabouts of students who get on and off of district school buses.
“We did mess up as a district and the SMART Tags being put in place was because of that incident,” Stephenson said. “What (Terry Smith) is not addressing is his actions when that happened, and that he was banned for a year from that campus. We actually banned him two years but then we decided to let him in a year early to try to bridge a gap there because we’re not here to fight with our people in the district. We messed up, but what he did up there was completely over the line. The police were involved, there was damage done to school property and it’s unfortunate that he did what he did up there because if he wouldn’t have reacted that way we would have been the only ones with egg on our face.”
Stephenson, who has lived in the district for 20 years and has one child who is a graduate of Liberty Hill High School and one who is a junior this year.
“I’m very passionate about this community. I care,” Stephenson said. “I’m going to care after my kids leave. When I commit to it, I commit to it. It’s the same thing with everyone else on the board. We’re all dedicated and committed to it. I just believe I am the right person.”
Terry Smith is retired from the U.S. Army and has been a resident within LHISD for just over two years, with two children in Liberty Hill schools.
This is his second run for school board, and as in 2019, he has made it clear his focus is on security issues, specifically pertaining to the incident involving his son in September 2018.
Smith’s involvement in the district has been a challenge due to a ban from campus following an outburst at Burden when the incident occurred with his son, but he is now a frequent visitor to the campus and more involved again.
He believes that involvement and his military background make him a good choice for the school board.
“I have been involved heavily with (Burden Principal Tanya) Lambert and I continue to be involved with my son’s education and my daughter’s at Liberty Hill Intermediate School,” Smith said. “The knowledge I have of being able to read, interpret and enforce policies the way they need to be enforced instead of just saying this policy we can look over at this grade level versus this policy we need to enforce at this grade level.”
While applauding the establishment of the district police department, Smith continued to take issue with safety and security on campuses, and his dissatisfaction with how the district responded to his complaint and concerns following that incident.
“The SMART Tag system was implemented because two years ago my son went missing from Bill Burden Elementary School, which the Board did nothing about,” Smith said. “My kids both walk or drive to school and we have a SMART Tag that’s just kind of there, so that’s kind of a waste of money. The police force has been doing a good job, and I didn’t know about the K-9 unit, but the more officers we have, the more police presence, we can probably keep some of the problems down.”
Smith went on to say that he believes if problems would have been reported with the SMART Tag system nothing would have been done to correct it, but he did not offer any examples of known problems with the program.
While he admits implementation of the SMART Tag program was a result of the incident with his son, Smith doesn’t believe it was enough to resolve the issue.
“It was too little too late,” he said. “The school board never addressed the issue of my son being missing for a period of 40 minutes. Security has improved since Ms. Lambert has taken over at Bill Burden, but you know it was reactionary rather than proactive and if they would have addressed the situation with me all the way through without trying to sidestep a bunch of issues with policies, procedures and rules that human resources manager Bobby Mabry sidestepped then it could have been done a lot quicker.
“With the SMART Tag they did a good job, and I applaud them for that. But with the response of Bill Burden Elementary and the school district was totally, totally, unsatisfactory.”
Regarding the constant growth in the district, Smith said the district has to grow, but mentioned concerns over current bond debt and issues with messaging over the tax burden of new debt.
“We’re growing exponentially by leaps and bounds,” Smith said. “You can see the influx now of what’s been going on with all the housing going up. You have to do it where this bond is paid off before you ask for another bond, and then when you campaign for a bond you don’t say your taxes aren’t going to be raised because if anybody has done their research they are already at the state maximum.”
Smith added that he believes the district should work more within the funds it already has access to rather than bond money.
“You have to take the money you already have available and build what you can with what you have instead of overextending yourself even more,” he said. “Obviously you’re going to have to go more into more planning with money that is available instead of maybe pay raises to senior officials in the school district.”
In many cases, though, salary money and capital improvement monies can’t be mixed in school districts.