A consistent pattern has emerged from UCISD’s town hall forums held over the past two weeks.
Typically the meetings begin with Superintendent Richard Loesch presenting himself, some minimal background, then providing handouts showing the tax history of the district before answering submitted written questions.
In the process, Loesch has emphasized that the district’s tax rate has actually decreased over the past five years by 7.7%, whereas the county’s tax rate has increased 36.8% and the city’s tax rate has increased 29%. The 12¢ increase proposed through the Tax Ratification Election (TRE) would be the first time the district will be raising the tax rate since 2004.
Loesch points out that whereas taxes have increased, they have done so through a combination of increases by the city and county, as well as other taxing entities including the appraisal district, Southwest Texas Junior College, and the state.
The tax increase sought through the TRE intends to alleviate a shortfall in the general operating fund. During the Batesville town hall meeting held last Monday, Loesch stated the fund balance is currently $500,000, far below the recommended balance of approximately $7 million.
During the question and answer session of the Batesville town hall meeting, Loesch answered a question regarding the fund balance at the time that former UCISD Supt. Ramón Abarca left the district. Loesch stated that the fund balance at that time was $6.6 million. This means that from the time Abarca left to the present, the district’s fund balance decreased by over $6 million.
This decrease came about by a combination of a diminishing tax rate, and, from the perspective of La Voz, flawed decisions made by the previous board. The second factor is key in the public’s decision regarding the TRE. It should be made clear that the makeup of the board has changed and that the public pressure brought to bear has created an atmosphere more conducive to honest dialogue between the public and the school district’s board and administration.
Having said this, there are still deficiencies in the manner in which the town hall meetings have been held. In this respect, two concerns have been raised. First, the manner in which the question and answer sessions are being held are not conducive to a completely open dialogue between the public and school district administration.
Having the public provide questions with no ability to ask follow-up questions by individual participants (without having to write them) does not allow for the type of personal interaction that is favorable to developing trust. Further, the question and answer format is not representative of the type of open, democratic dialogue that is a right in this society. By not allowing for open discussion through follow-up questions, it makes the process appear to be a one-sided dialogue; it becomes a question and response, not a question and answer.
The second concern is the fact that Loesch, by virtue of the fact that he has been with the district for only seven weeks, is not fully cognizant of the multitude of issues that are of concern to the public. A manner to deal with this is to bring personnel to the meetings that have greater in-depth knowledge of the questions being asked.
In the case of finances the district’s financial officer, in the case of programs administrative staff. By having such individuals, participating at the meetings greater transparency may be possible.
A concern brought to the attention of La Voz by informed sources is the coercive pressure being placed on teachers regarding the TRE. In effect, teachers are being made to feel that they must vote for the TRE or lose their jobs. The fact is for the current year all contracts have been completed.
Any reduction in staff or possible closures of campuses would not take effect until next year, and this would only happen if the TRE does not pass.
However minimal this pressure is, it has no place in the current milieu. This is the exact reason why the TRE did not pass in 2009.
When administrative personnel became forceful with district personnel what occurred was a minor revolution in that district personnel became disgruntled. Adding salt to the wound was the former board’s decision to provide former Supt. Wendell Brown with a raise after failure of the TRE.
This was a virtual slap in the face after district personnel were told there would be no raises due to failure of passage of the tax increase.
At this point, regardless of whether or not the TRE passes, teachers are slated to receive a salary raise through the step increase mandated by the state. Along with this, during last Tuesday’s school board meeting, board members voted on providing teachers and other professionals a salary increase.
This, of course, is based on passage of the TRE. The increases did not include administrative personnel or hourly employees. Hourly employees had been provided an increase approximately two years ago.
The action by the board satisfies some of the concerns that have been articulated by citizens of the district. However, to say that all concerns have been addressed is incorrect.
As previously stated, the question and answer format has not allowed for open questions that can provide greater clarification. Additionally, there have been various times in which Loesch has been unable to answer questions because he is not familiar with the facts surrounding the particular issue. This is why there needs to be district personnel available that can answer the questions should Loesch be unable.
At this juncture, there are still individuals who feel that the district has hot been as forthcoming as it could be. Others have had some of their concerns addressed, and there are still some who are adamantly against the TRE. Additionally, there are some persons who will reluctantly vote for the TRE realizing that the ultimate beneficiaries of the tax increase are the students. La Voz agrees with the latter category.