Katy ISD has two board positions on the ballot with positions six and seven seeing incumbents facing challengers. Position six incumbent Susan Gesoff is facing challengers Bonnie Anderson, Garima …
Katy ISD has two board positions on the ballot with positions six and seven seeing incumbents facing challengers. Position six incumbent Susan Gesoff is facing challengers Bonnie Anderson, Garima DasGupta and former trustee Rebecca Fox.
The questions answered by the candidates in this election question-and-answer article have been brought up by community members or have impacted recent headlines and quality of life for students in the district.
Early voting begins Monday, April 19 and runs through Tuesday, April 27. To find your polling location, click the name of the county you reside in, listed below, to be directed to your counties polling information.
Candidates were all provided the same questions at the same time and were given the same word count limits to follow. All candidates with responses listed below returned their answers on time and met word count limits.
Editor’s note: Joe Wojcik withdrew from the Position Six race on April 15. William Branch did not respond to the questions posed.
Why are you running for a trustee’s position with the KISD Board of Trustees?
Anderson: I am running for KISD School Board to put the "Independent" back in "ISD." As a parent of young children in the school district, I have stepped up to demand accountability and action from our current school board and administrators in putting the education and well-being of the children first, before politics, personal ideology or outside influence. I have been actively involved with other parents in the district and we are insisting upon parents' choice in both curriculum and health. For any medical, sensitive or personal decisions, parents must have complete freedom to make their own choices for their children without restrictions or mandates from the district or the state or federal government. Regardless of these choices, all children in the district must have equal access to public education. We MUST do what is best for Katy ISD and its children, not just what is in current political favor.
DasGupta: The Katy ISD board lacks diversified representation. A diverse, well-represented board will bring forth perspectives from various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, leading to effective implementation of quality governance and strategic oversight. A blended board would better anticipate and be more cognizant of the concerns of our diverse district. Being a current educator and a former policy analyst in the Veteran Affairs department, I also understand many curricular and infrastructural challenges that exist in our current school system.
Gesoff: I want to bring my experience as a Trustee for the past 3 years, my insight from 25 years working, implementing strategic projects and driving continuous improvements for fortune 500 companies, and my first-hand experience as a Katy ISD teacher, together to provide productive governance and oversight and enable the continued success of the district. On behalf of the citizens, I want to ensure the effective management of financial resources both operating expenses and capital projects. I want to ensure our administration fosters a culture of continuous improvement by encouraging and creating opportunities for frequent, open, and courageous feedback from frontline staff, that is welcomed and incorporated to improve the product we deliver. Finally, I would like to see the district’s workforce more closely align, through a continued meritocracy, with the demographics of our students, so that every child can see himself or herself reflected in our teachers and leaders.
Fox: I am running for our students first and always. With my broad and deep experience in service to the students, coupled with connections I have fostered with local and state officials, I bring an expertise that will elevate the Katy ISD board. I have served at all levels of the district and continue to volunteer in schools which gives me a firsthand look at successes AND needs. I recognize the importance of the board working in partnership with community. Trustees should be expected to see students and teachers in their educational environment, be active in the community and open to outside communication, to be effective. In order to address challenges, the board cannot continue to isolate itself from the community.
What do you feel is the most significant challenge KISD is currently facing and what do you feel the district should do to address that issue?
Anderson: Broadly speaking, the most significant challenge is the district’s inability to put aside political issues which come in and out of favor, leading to a lack of prioritizing students. While staff, especially teachers, have had arguably the toughest year of their careers and our community as a whole has faced significant challenges, our students have not been the priority when accepting policies and protocols for facing these challenges. Beyond the challenges of the past year, there have been governance and policy decisions made which do not consider, and even in many cases directly conflict with the well-being of the students and the will of parents. For example, rather than entrusting our highly qualified and amazing teachers to teach curriculum designed by themselves and approved by the district, the district has hired expensive curriculum and instruction administrators who seemingly push curriculum which is more political and less educational. For many years, this district has been following a path of prioritizing public perception and the whims of politicians at the expense of our children. Students’ well-being and education must be prioritized, and we must empower our teachers rather than restrict them.
DasGupta: Katy ISD lacks connection, coordination and communication. I strongly believe in continued responsiveness of the board to the preferences of its citizens, and I will be a strong voice for our community. If elected, I will work hard to bridge the gap that exists between the school board and the district. I believe in more communication and mutual support that includes, dialogue and mutual learning between the board and district. Katy ISD lacks transparency and accountability. I believe taxpayers have every right to know where and how the money is spent.
Gesoff: House Bill 3 was passed in the 86th legislative session in 2019 and required significant changes to education in Texas including changes to the standard allotment (dollars per student), a mandated increase in teacher compensation, mandatory decreases in local property tax rates and increased the percentage of state funding for districts. The increase in state funding was a welcome change to Texas school districts two years ago when the Texas economy was strong. However, given the effect of the pandemic on the state and local economies, the future funding from both local property values and the State are uncertain. Demographers continue to project significant enrollment growth for KatyISD over the next 10 – 15 years and we must manage the operating budget and bond funds such that all current and future students have equal resources and access to appropriate facilities. We must be conservative and carefully manage our fund balances while identifying priorities and leveraging opportunities to shift funds in order to adjust to the uncertainties we are facing.
Fox: Students are the priority, and due to the pandemic, the immediate issue is making sure all students are on track with their education. Teachers have made herculean efforts to redesign curriculum delivery and they deserve our respect. Still, there will likely be a gap in learning, and a plan is needed to make sure every student is caught up. The district should consider teacher/student ratios where needs are greatest. Before or after-school tutoring can help students with learning gaps. Expanded transportation might be needed for tutorials. Reopening campuses and restoring all programs as soon as possible is important because students have missed out on rich opportunities and experiences with the restrictions. As a ‘boots-on-the-ground’ leader, I am constantly involved in campuses and the community to better understand issues to make informed decisions and implement needed changes.
Over the past year, students have faced a variety of challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic, racial tension, an unprecedented winter storm and watching their parents and friends face economic hardships. How do you think the district should support its students in order to support them as learners as the Katy area recovers from the pandemic?
Anderson: The district must return to the basic principles of educating, nurturing and empowering the children of this district. While the community attempts to pull themselves out of an exceptionally challenging year, we need to remind the adults in this district to behave like adults and lead by example. Our community has placed trust in our Board to educate our children to be critical thinkers and well-rounded productive members of society. The best way we can support our staff and our students is to get back to these priorities. We must not push the biases, fears, and the politics of adults down on our children. The behavior of some of the leadership in this district has demonstrated over the past year that education is not the priority. The absolute best thing our district can do to support this district’s students and teachers as the Katy area recovers from the pandemic is to allow our students to BE children and to learn.
DasGupta: Students have encountered a variety of challenges ever since the onset of the pandemic. District should make an extra effort to recognize and understand the struggles, and provide the much needed support system for the student community. Especially during the current challenging times (COVID-19, winter storm, racial tension, economic crisis, etc.) The district needs to make much greater efforts to create comfortable learning spaces for the students. For example, creating support groups which can offer the emotional support an young adult may need, providing resources for mental health, more checking in with students and individualized counselling, celebrating wellness week, antiracism workshops, workshops on diversity and inclusion, offer flexibility in terms of curricular and extracurricular deadlines so students can cope better during difficult times and many more. I would also reach out to families of our students and work with them collaboratively. It's the union of efforts that will lead to the desired goals of “happy childhood.”
Gesoff: While I am tremendously proud of the incredible efforts of the staff to provide as much as possible in the way of educational and extracurricular experiences in the past year, there will be much work to be done to support students as we return to ‘normal’. Kindergarten will be a particular challenge, given that many children did not attend this year. So next year’s kindergartener cohort will be large and span two years of development. A significant number of students have left the educational system, and, despite the heroic efforts of our staff, many remain unenrolled. Some students have fallen behind in work and grades, and even those who are achieving high grades. Next year will require staff to identify gaps and work with campus interventions and support staff to help students mitigate deficiencies. All staff will have to be vigilant in recognizing trauma and social issues in students returning to the classrooms, and bring social workers, counselors, and LSSPs, together to support them. Principals will continue to work with local truancy and law enforcement to bring Katy students back to school. Finally, per TEA, we will need to consider how we continue to provide online learning beyond the pandemic.
Fox: Mental and emotional health is an ongoing concern for our students and staff, but it is even more pronounced after the difficult year we experienced. School counselors are overworked with educational requirements, (which needs its own discussion), so more help is needed for mental and emotional health. The district recently went from 2 to 6 social workers to help with emotional needs but, a population of 87,000 students is a big bucket with a small staff to assist. We can begin returning to a more normal school year in the fall and this will offer stability showing students that problems arise, but we survive, and life continues. Katy ISD has done a good service this year providing as many athletic and fine arts opportunities as possible, albeit differently during a pandemic. Co-curricular activities are where students don’t just survive but thrive and connect with others who share their interests and become more than classmates. The school district’s goal is to have well-rounded students who have every educational and co-curricular opportunity to discover the best of themselves, develop their strengths and be ready to take on their futures.
Representation is important in government bodies. Currently, KISD is not divided into wards or similar geographic sections, and representation skews to the district’s western half which leaves students on the eastern side less represented. Are you in favor of establishing wards for the district? Why or why not?
Anderson: I would be open to discussing this, however I do not think it’s necessary at this time. Election code allows for any person 18 years+, not convicted of a felony and having resided in the district for a minimum of the prior 6 months to meet candidate eligibility requirements. Considering the role of the school board is having fiduciary responsibility for the district, residing in a particular section of the district would not necessarily qualify one candidate over another. Having said that, the role of a trustee is exceptionally demanding and time consuming and requires consistent community involvement; this is a tough ask of anyone. I do think we should ensure we are doing all we can to encourage active participation from all areas of the community. I would support term limits for board members. I do not think the students benefits from the same people serving on the board, year after year.
DasGupta: KISD is elected at large. I understand that a large part of the district is not well represented. Having said that, I also believe that divisions can never be a solution for anything – pitting neighborhood against each other. If elected, I would create more connections, bridge the gap, and work together.
Gesoff: I recognize that historically, trustees who run and are elected, are predominantly from one area of the district and from one demographic. However, if each trustee were to represent just one ‘slice’ of the district it can also breed non-productive animosity and a fractured view of how resources should be distributed with disastrous consequences as witnessed in Houston ISD. In contrast, when the Board is comprised of at-large members, they are agnostic to a specific area and focus on the success of all learners. All that being said, as we continue to build out the northwest quadrant of the district over the next 10 years, I would consider a balanced plan that would provide for some trustee seats to be ‘single member districts’ aligned with the 4 quadrants; subdivided by Highway 99 and I10, while maintaining the opportunity for the 3 remaining seats to be at-large.
Fox: All Trustees should focus on decisions that benefit all children regardless of where they live. When trustees are limited by a geographic area, they are tempted to advocate for needs only in that area as is seen in districts with single member representation and their collaboration can be tenuous. A strong understanding of the whole district is necessary for Trustees to draw on when making decisions. Currently, the board president has assigned each Trustee to one high school and the junior highs and elementary schools in that feeder pattern. The Trustee is allowed to visit ONLY those schools. This decision by the board president prevents 6 members of the board from seeing schools, students and staff in all the other parts of the district. This is non-inclusive and prevents Trustees from understanding what works and what needs attention. A divided board by geographic region would hinder equity for our students.
Bullying is a serious problem in schools across the United Stated, including KISD campuses, with bullying causing at least one KISD student this year to take her own life this school year. What measures do you think KISD should undertake to continue its fight against bullying and how will you advocate for bullying victims?
Anderson: This is arguably one of the biggest issues in our district at this time and has, unfortunately gone largely unaddressed for many years. Well-intentioned but flawed policies have led us to disregard and ignore warning signs of violence or bullying as they are brought to our attention. In the current political climate, we have many adults who are permitted to bully other adults and kids see this. Openly participating in things like cancel-culture or publicly ostracizing people for having a different point of view has become the norm. In the past year, we have trained children to tell on other children when they see a child out of compliance with protocols. We can no longer stand idly by and ignore signs of trouble in our kids. The policy of preventing discriminatory discipline has led us to a blatant lack of discipline. Children must be held accountable for their behavior which means properly disciplining them at an early age, for low level offenses so they grow in the understanding that we don’t tolerate this behavior in our district. The district must encourage open and honest dialogue on the topics of bullying, cyberbullying, mental health and discipline which are all intertwined.
DasGupta: Bullying is a human rights abuse. It is an assault on a student’s mental and physical health --- a serious public health problem leading to childhood depression and other mental health conditions, even loss of life. It will take a combined effort from peers, parents, teachers, staff, counsellors, and the community as a whole to fight against this societal danger. I strongly recommend running ‘anti-bullying’ programs and creating task forces, committees with diverse representatives (students, teachers, staff, parents) at school level and district level to prevent bullying (on-campus and cyber). I would also like to see more training on implicit bias, stereotyping, prejudices, assumptions to create awareness.
Gesoff: I’m sympathetic to the victims and parents of those experiencing bullying. When my daughter was bullied in junior high, the only way to report bullying then was through a paper ‘safety-net’ form and the feedback to students was poor. I support the district’s significant progress in bullying prevention. In 2019, we hired a full-time Coordinator of Bullying Prevention and Student Support to align and improve the anti-bullying efforts across the district. District-wide prevention programs like “Character Strong”, now allow staff to teach positive behavior strategies. We are expanding this program and including a specialized program for those who have used racially charged or discriminatory language toward others. When bullying occurs, students are now able to make reports immediately, and anonymously, through the Speak Up app. The instructions to access the app are readily available on every student’s ID badge. Administrators and counselors are able to communicate with victims confidentially through this app as well. Staff and community members can use the app to report bullying, security issues, and unsafe behavior. Finally, last year we further expanded the range of social and mental health services for students in the district by increasing the number of social workers from 1 to 5.
Fox: Bullying is a systemic problem in our society. There isn’t one perfect solution and we must be on the forefront of protecting victims and act to acknowledge bullying and address it. The district should expand support to existing programs and educate about its devastation and impact. This is an ongoing effort; when there are complaints, the district should follow through with that complaint or concern, make modifications or changes, and communicate with all parties involved throughout the process. Some efforts to assist with awareness and resolutions could include things like, signs on school buildings about what bullying is and what to do when you see it or experience it, a link for help included on the student ID, a well-marked link on the district’s website to give people resources and constant communication sent out to students, parents, staff and community. With the evolving technologies that give rise to new opportunities for bullying there needs to be constant training and communication to make adults and children aware of how their actions affect others.
KISD students that excel at sports or participate in Future Farmers of America get a great deal of recognition in the community while those in the arts don’t get as much fanfare. What will you do to support the arts programs at KISD and ensure students are recognized for their talents and contributions?
Anderson: Recognition for students in all arts starts with parents. As a parent with a child in band, I am extremely involved in garnering support for their programs, concerts and other activities. As a community, the best way we can encourage participation and recognition for the various fine arts programs in the district is to continue to push for programs that encourage both students and parents to be involved. A parent with students actively in art and music programs in the district will have a more vested interest in encouraging families and community get out to see the musical performances, art shows and even the dog shows. In my experience the local arts teachers and directors do a fabulous job of encouraging participation in the various fine arts programs in the district, even facilitating outside private lessons for students who wish to learn something new or improve skills.
DasGupta: Art encourages cognitive development and promotes creativity. Participation in art helps students understand and seek patterns in the world around us. Art is a conduit to boundless imagination and young minds need the space and opportunity where they can let their creative minds go boundless, making wonders. Art programs at KISD definitely need more funding and support by the district. Young artists must be recognized, art scholarships need to be created, art classes at all levels must be encouraged. I would also encourage initiatives like new art clubs on campus and collaborative art programs with universities/community colleges.
Gesoff: As the mother of three KISD graduates who were all music students, I am a tremendous fan of the Arts. I am proud of the scope and breadth offered to our students in KISD under the umbrella of fine arts. While I think the district recognizes the accomplishments of fine arts student on par with athletics and FFA, we could improve the marketing of fine arts performances as ‘community’ events to promote better attendance (i.e. “Why drive all the way downtown, when there is top quality entertainment right here in Katy!”). In addition, I would like to see the District build more of a fine arts community between the schools. Some campuses have wildly successful booster club programs while many other programs do not. We share district resources freely between campuses and it would be wonderful to build a stronger sense of community among the booster clubs to drive equity.
Fox: I am a HUGE advocate for the arts program of KISD. I don’t like calling them extra-curricular classes; I call them co-curricular because of their importance. Fine arts have a direct correlation to academic success and an impact on increased confidence, self-respect and are vital to a student’s life. Art students earn thousands for scholarships, are featured in publications, in fact, a Bryant Elementary student had her painting chosen recently to hang in the state capitol. Musicians, marching bands, choirs, Tommy Tunes awards, musicals so tremendous they could be on Broadway, the list goes on. We should highlight the fine arts more. The Board of Trustees moved from two meetings a month to one which eliminated most of the student achievement recognitions that are broadcast online to the entire community. Reinstating these public recognitions and encouraging other ways to recognize their talents would show them how valued they are.
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