The Star-Telegram sat down to talk issues with Rick Westfall on Aug. 1, his first day as superintendent of Keller schools. Westfall was acting superintendent for the month of July until his predecessor Randy Reid’s retirement the end of last month.
Q: You went from Deputy Superintendent in Grapevine-Colleyville to Superintendent in Keller. What are you seeking to learn quickly as a new superintendent?
A: My main goal is to get a feel for what the community is ready for, what the community is wanting out of the school district and lots of conversations with district leadership and campus leadership about what the next five to 10 years look like in Keller ISD. I think that’s where we start engaging the community — parents, students, teachers, business leaders — in what they want for the future of Keller ISD.
Q: What advantages do you bring from having been a principal in Keller?
A: Knowledge of the community. Knowledge of not only the Keller High community but the district. The district’s 54 square miles. It’s bigger than Keller High School. The knowledge of working with campus leadership in all areas of the district, there’s still a lot of familiar faces who want what’s best for students here. They’ve committed to Keller, and they’re ready to go which ever direction the community asks them to go.
Q: What challenges and opportunities do you see for Keller schools in the near future?
A: The softball pitch is always challenges, and it’s always going to be finances. Right now, we’re trying to figure out how to manage through the financial constraints of what every other district is going through. That’s not unique to Keller, but everybody has their own version. When you’re no longer a fast-growth district, the way the funding works changes so you’ve got to adjust to that as you operate. Also, I think anytime you talk about long-term visioning, that comes with its own challenges, with how do you get there and how do you accomplish it.
I think the opportunities in this district is that we aren’t having to focus on how many buildings we need to build any more. That can consume a fast-growth district. Now we have the opportunity to re-frame what Keller is going to be and how we’re going to define ourselves moving forward.
Q: Several trustees said they chose you, in part, for your innovative ideas. What innovations would you like to see the district implement?
A: I would prefer to think of it more as innovative thinking and not necessarily innovative ideas. The same idea doesn’t necessarily translate from one district to another. Again, going back to that concept of allowing the community to help us create the vision, and the vision should be so challenging that it requires innovation to accomplish it. If someone says, ‘I really like your innovative ideas,’ that’s more the thing, the product. But it’s the thinking behind the ideas that get you to that product, and it could look different from one district to the next based on what the community wants.
Q: What would you say to district residents who want a school voucher program?
A: I would engage them in the conversation of why they want that. Do they want it because they’ve lost faith in the public education system? Do they want it because they inherently want choice? I think people are running toward an idea, and I’m not entirely sure everyone understands the idea behind why they’re wanting that. I would want to engage them in trying to figure out, No. 1, why do they want it; and No. 2, is there something we can do to solve it within the system of Keller ISD that accomplishes what they’re trying to do.
Q: What would you say to residents who say their school taxes are too high?
A: As valuations continue to soar, so are taxes. Are we talking school taxes or are we talking tax rates? Are we talking about what happens as a result of your valuations going up by 15 percent? And is there truly an understanding of how that shifts into school financing. As an example, their school taxes might go up because of their valuations. That doesn’t necessarily mean that school districts get more of the money. It just means the state has the ability to off set it. I hear them. I mean, I write checks, too. It’s frustrating to see that the money is going up, but until you peel back the layers of where that money is actually going, you may not have a full understanding of where to look for relief.
Public education in this state is a constitutional requirement of the state, yet they’re footing 38 percent of that bill. And it’s just continuing to shift because they’re bringing in more money. They have the ability to off-set that with local funds, even though it’s a state requirement to provide public ed. All they’re doing is playing a balancing act of, “Well, we received more money, so now we don’t have to provide as much money.” Then it’s a wash for school districts. But I get it. I understand the frustration of a taxpayer, but that’s not normally what would happen. You would think if I just wrote you a check for more money, then that money now goes into your bank account. And it just doesn’t work that way, at least on the M&O (daily operations) side.
Q: Is there anything else you want students, parents, staff and community members to know?
A: I want to encourage people to stay tuned to what we’re trying to do on the finance side. I think we’re going to have some innovative ways of thinking about how to do finance. I would just say, stay tuned.