A former educator and an attorney are battling for the Place 2 seat on the board of Longview’s largest school district.
Incumbent Ava Welge said, as far as she knows, she is the only educator to ever serve on the LISD school board. Because of her background, she believes she brings a unique understanding and set of skills to the table, which is why she is running to keep the seat she won in 2017.
Brett Miller, an attorney at Ward, Smith & Hill, said he believes he can bring a fresh perspective to Longview ISD.
Welge believes the most important issue in the district is ensuring all students achieve “based on their abilities and their focuses, not based on their backgrounds or ethnicities or anything else.”
“I think we’re best judged by what our students are achieving,” she said. “We’re here for the students and for student progress, and that is our most important thing.”
She said she also wants to work with parents on communication and support. Her goal is to work with parents, students and teachers as a team to make sure students achieve.
Miller said he has multiple issues he wants the board to address.
One is teacher retention, he said. Records show the district lost a quarter of its teachers after the 2018-19 school year.
“We’ve got to improve teacher retention,” Miller said. “I’ve talked to some current and former teachers, and I plan to talk to more. The message from teachers is pretty consistent, and a lot of them don’t feel supported from the top.”
Welge wants to continue her work on the board because she said the district is seeing success in its programs.
She said the number of students graduating with an associate’s degree has increased, the graduation rate is more than 98% and acceptances at Ivy League and major colleges are up. Welge also said career technology programs have been started, more Montessori students are qualifying for Hudson PEP Elementary School and more students are transferring into the district.
“I would really like to serve on the board one more term,” she said. “But what I would really like to do, I would like to see some kind of learning lab in math, reading and basic skills.”
Welge said she would want the lab to serve special education and dyslexic students to keep them on track.
Miller is focused on bringing better transparency and communication to the school board. The district posts meeting agendas 72 hours prior, as required by law. He said he wants the entire board book — the documents presented to the school board with information, reports and other data to trustees them make a decision — posted online before the public meetings.
Miller said, as a third-generation Lobo, he has a vested interest in seeing Longview ISD succeed.
He said he respect’s Welge’s education background, but he believes he can navigate issues such as the conversion to charter schools and the concerns constituents have with it.
Welge said her education background is what makes her so qualified to stay on the board. She said she has always been a problem solver and wants to continue solving problems in the district.
The nonprofit East Texas Advanced Academies has operated six Longview ISD campuses as SB 1882 charters since the Texas Education Agency granted approval in May 2019.
ETAA manages East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, Bramlette STEAM Academy, J.L. Everhart Elementary School, Johnston-McQueen Elementary School, Ware East Texas Montessori Academy, and Forest Park Middle School.
The Texas Council of International Studies operates Hudson PEP Elementary School, Ned E. Williams Elementary School, South Ward Elementary School, Judson STEAM Academy, Foster Middle School and Longview High School.
The final partner, Longview Educates and Prospers, runs the East Texas Advanced Manufacturing Academy and the Longview Early Graduation High School.
Welge said the district chose to go the charter school route because it gave students a way to learn how they learn best. Students can go to an International Baccalaureate school, a Career Technology Education school or choose the ETAA Culture Conscious Campus model.
“When I came on the board, we were able to lift the desegregation order. Now it’s not up to the government to decide where our students go, but up to our students and parents,” Welge said. “We have been fighting for years to have more minority and low socio-economic students in advanced programs. When you change a child like that, or change a student like that, it’s just night and day.”
However, Welge did not vote earlier this year to approve the TCIS and LEAP partnerships.
She said she was not necessarily against the charters, but she wanted to postpone the process until the district had a better hand on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Miller also said he believes the district acted prematurely on the charter conversion.
“I’m concerned about how much control we’re giving up,” he said. “As far as I know, we’ve always managed our schools with our own in-house administration, and overall they’ve done a great job.”
He said he has read the partnership agreements with the charters, and the agreements say the charter has sole authority for district-level curriculum.
“As far as control over managing our schools, that’s largely being transferred to the charters, and that is a big deal — that’s concerning.” he said. “If I’m elected, there’s a couple of things I have in mind I would do. Before turning management over to the charter partners, we paid in-house managers to manage our schools. I want to make sure we are not paying twice to manage our schools. Two, I would monitor the performance of those charter programs very closely.”
The district is considering partnering with the company U.S. MedTest to bring weekly, districtwide, free COVID-19 testing to campuses for students with parental consent and staff who consent.
Miller said, conceptually, the screenings are a good idea, but there could be challenges with the implementation.
Longview High School is hold a two-week trial run of the testing for 200 to 250.
Miller wants the district to consult with medical experts on the decision.
”Last time I checked, I don’t believe the CDC recommended campus-wide testing,” he said. “I think any decision in trying to move forward with that should be made with the input of local medical experts.”
Welge believes as long as it helps manage COVID-19 and parents consent, she supports testing.
”The main thing is keeping all of our kids safe as best as we humanly can to get over COVID-19,” she said.
The Texas State Board of Education has the opportunity to change sex education curriculum for the first time in more than 20 years.
The board has given preliminary approval to some changes, with a final vote set in November.
According to the Texas Tribune, the board voted to teach seventh-and eighth-grade students to “analyze the effectiveness and the risks and failure rates … of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods in the prevention of STDs, STIs and pregnancy,” in addition to the importance of abstinence.
Currently, learning about birth control methods beyond abstinence is only a requirement in high school, where health education is an optional course.
Local districts can adopt some changes in policy, such as adding LGBTQ issues.
Welge said she supports sex education programs that allow for parental consent.
She said she does not believes some changes to the program are a bad idea, especially if they can decrease teen pregnancy rates.
Miller said he is concerned because he believes some decisions about the curriculum are out of the local board’s hands.
”For me personally, I think that sex education is better handled by parents in the child’s home,” he said “I think if the LISD board was going to consider adding LGBTQ, gender identity or other sex education concepts to the district curriculum, I strongly believe that parents and teachers should be part of that discussion. There’s so many different views on that topic, and it should be supported by a majority vote.”