In a rapid-fire forum, the LISD council of PTAs questioned the five school board candidates last Thursday night April 19.
The five school board candidates include Sandra Weinstein and incumbent Kronda Thimesch vying for Place 1 and David Hernandez, Allison Lassahn and Denise Riemenschneider competing for the Place 2 seat, which will be left vacant. Election day is May 5, and early voting started April 23.
The forum was brisk, with most candidates keeping their answers under a minute. Many questions were about district priorities and hypothetical situations, but others focused on immediate problems the district faces.
One question was about qualifications to oversee the school district’s $600 million and up budget. Thimesch said she’s already doing that as a board member, and Weinstein, who has worked with AT&T in various capacities for more than 20 years, said she’s been overseeing budgets for years as well.
“In my career, one of my responsibilities is managing a multi-million dollar budget, and it’s been in a range of ways,” she said “I have to do it now. I have a budget that that I have to manage that has to be results-oriented. When I spend money, I have to show what’s the revenue coming back from that money.”
Hernandez, the 18-year-old candidate not yet graduated from Lewisville High School, could only admit that he had never handled that kind of money before.
“For me, my skills may not be well-suited for this aspect of a trustee,” he said. “That’s why we have seven board members and a superintendent. They work together, as a group, as a team. This is where I would offer other experiences, such as student insight.”
Hernandez also noted that trustees are briefed on action items 10 days before each meeting, meaning that he would be able to ask any questions he had well in advance.
Riemenschneider said that she had nothing in her past to prepare her to handle a $600 million budget, but mentioned that she’d done some accounting work in the past and that she and her husband ran a debt-free household.
Candidates were asked about how they would prioritize district lobbying efforts in Austin and Washington D.C. The school district has published an annual list of legislative priorities online for years, and board members are personally involved in speaking with state representatives and arguing for favorable laws.
Both Lassahn and Weinstein called out State Senator Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), a former school teacher who is the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and currently the highest ranking Republican in the state senate, having served since 1993. Lassahn said she’s been disappointed that Nelson has not stood up for teachers and school districts.
“She’s the gal that can really make some changes, and honestly, I hope this doesn’t bite me later, but I’ve been a little disappointed in her lack of advocacy for us,” Lassahn said. “It might mean sitting outside her hallway, from what I hear, until she comes out, but … we need to bring her back to her roots and say, ‘hey, come on, help us out here.'”
Weinstein took it further, saying the board would need to actively work against Nelson.
“I guess I’m going to burn a bridge, but I don’t think Jane Nelson, I don’t think that she can represent us, because she’s part of the problem,” Weinstein said. “She’s the most powerful person down in Austin. We used to get funding out of the franchise tax, and she’s cut that. She’s even proposed to get rid of it altogether. It just feels to me like Texas in general wants to move toward privatization of education and away from funding public education, which is a real shame because we really depend on public education.”
Riemenschneider said said she didn’t have any legislative priorities, and would leave that to the rest of the board.
This led into a question about what the candidates would do to address competition from charter schools. LISD unexpectedly lost 782 students last year, which has thrown them into the state’s “Robin Hood” recapture earlier than expected. Many of these students could have been lost to charter schools in the area.
Hernandez said LISD’s offerings of AP, AVID, pre-AP and trade school classes could compete with any non-public school, but what the district needs to do is get that message across.
“Whatever you want, LISD probably has it, or it will have it. The thing that I think is missing is the communication to the public that we have these programs,” he said. “I didn’t even know we had a STEM program until I started running for school board and I became more aware of what is happening in the district.”
Thimesch focused on the public accountability system, which public school districts are made to adhere to where charter schools aren’t.
“We provide for transparency and oversight with our budgets and the decisions that we make that are open to the public. Charter schools do not have the same type of accountability. Charter schools receive facilities funding,” she said. “What’s happening when these charter schools open, get facilities funding from the state and in three years, they’re gone? Who owns that land? Where does that money trail go? I think these are discussions we need to have when the state wants to give more money to charter schools.”
Near the end of the forum, candidates were asked about school safety. The school district was recently asked to reconsider its stance on arming teachers in light of the February shooting in Parkland County, Florida. All candidates were staunchly opposed to asking teachers to carry guns. Thimesch noted that LISD regularly meets with all the police chiefs who cover the district, and were consulted by the FBI after the Parkland county shooting.
“They’re the experts. They’re the ones that understand the safety and security of our students and our communities and teachers, and their response to us is they do not think that arming our teachers is what’s best for LISD,” she said. Thimesch said the district is securing all school entrances as part of last year’s bond package.
While Thimesch said police didn’t want teachers to be armed, Lassahn said teachers generally don’t want to be armed themselves.
“Most teachers that I’ve talked to about this, they don’t want to do that. I mean, they’ve already got enough on their plates,” she said.
In her closing comments, Reimenschneider said she would rely on her faith to guide her.
“I wish I could stand up here and articulate wonderful solutions to what’s facing our school district, but this is all very new to me. The important thing you should know is my faith is a source of strength and wisdom, and I will draw upon my faith to work with leadership and make sound decisions,” she said. “So while I may not be as familiar with various programs, I believe my faith is what equips me to serve in a way that ensures the Board of Trustees provides an educational climate in which excellence can thrive.”
Weinstein talked about her respect for LISD that drove her to move to this district when she was transferred to Texas.
“When I moved to Texas, I did some research because I did not want to go through the things that I had to go through in other school districts,” she said. “I picked LISD because it was the best place for my family, and I’m so committed to it, I’m so committed to its success and not seeing it have to degrade.”
Thimesch referred back to her experience and having lived in multiple parts of LISD
“I’m running for reelection because I want to continue to see LISD be the best that it can be for all of our almost 53,000 students,” she said. “I’m involved in all 13 of our communities. Each is unique. Each has its own culture and its own bent and we need to understand that because we’re going to make decisions that impact all of those different communities.”
Full video of the forum is available below-