School leaders across Texas honored the Arlington school board last year for its ability to work together and score the public’s trust. On May 9, however, voters called for a couple of substitutions to the team, replacing a pair of former board presidents with newcomers in an election that also saw a third incumbent squeak by.
Polly Walton, a recently retired Arlington teacher, and Kristen Hudson, the mother of a kindergartner, will be sworn in on the seven-member board June 4. Walton edged out 10-year board member Gloria Peña by capturing nearly 56 percent of the vote. Hudson narrowly defeated seven-year board member Peter Baron, earning 50.50 percent of the vote.
Though sitting school board members often have a strong advantage during an election, Walton said she believes that the issues challengers brought to light resonated with school employees, parents and others. She said that educators in the district are overwhelmed with testing, data collection and classroom discipline issues and that they don’t feel as supported as they should by those at the top.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, ‘I can’t take this anymore. I’m leaving,’” she said.
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Walton, who has been a fixture at board meetings for years and was a longtime representative of the United Educators Association, a teachers association, said vote totals demonstrate that she isn’t the only one disappointed by the district’s direction. For her, the last straw came with the sudden retirement of popular Hill Elementary Principal Lloyd Day, whom supporters felt was forced out in a punitive response over a parent complaint. The district said he retired voluntarily.
“Good people who might want to be an administrator can go to 23 other school districts and apply and not have to drive that far. We’re in a highly competitive market. People can move around pretty easily. So, I felt like I had to run to restore our reputation as a place where people are treated with respect and we all work together and try to solve problems together,” Walton said.
Baron, however, said he and Peña were pulled down in part by an undercurrent of anti-incumbency that also resulted in the ouster of longtime Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck. Even school board member Aaron Reich, the only one of three incumbents running to win his race, beat his opponent, retired teacher Maryhelen Bronson, by than 1 percent of the vote.
Baron believes his defeat had a lot to do with how quickly misconceptions can travel in the world of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.
“There’s a lack of understanding on the part of the populace on the function of the school board — of the role of governance and not of management. Frequently, we’re blamed for things way, way down on the chain of the command and we have nothing to do with that,” Baron said.
Proud of accomplishments
Both Peña and Baron say they’re leaving their posts proud of what the board has accomplished for Arlington’s more than 64,000 students. That list is filled with triumphs as well as some tough decisions. It includes the hiring of three superintendents since Peña arrived in 2005 and a difficult reduction in force that affected nonteaching positions in 2011.
In 2009, district leaders won voter approval for a bond package for capital improvements for the first time in 10 years. They followed that up in 2014 with a $663.1 million bond package, the largest ever for a school district in Tarrant County.
“That one passed virtually 70 percent to 30 percent, and that was a significant vote of confidence in the board and the district,” Baron said.
The 2014 bond projects, to be implemented over five years, include the construction of a districtwide career and technical center, a districtwide agricultural arts facility, a district fine arts center and a multipurpose activities center for fine arts and athletics at each high school.
Many of the board’s actions have been guided by their strategic plan for 2012-15, called Achieve Today, Excel Tomorrow. Its objectives include having 100 percent of students graduate on time and pursue the higher education or career path of their choice. The document also calls for carefully gathering and examining metrics to measure progress toward the ideals.
Baron points to partnerships with University of North Texas and UT Arlington and the opening of a new Arlington Collegiate High School at Tarrant County College Southeast Campus as some of the strides the district made. He also said that the board has taken a more proactive role in making their wishes known to members of the Legislature.
Through the years, the board’s careful consideration of students’ needs has been its strength, said Peña, who served as the body’s first Hispanic president. She added that the current board has been especially strong and there’s good reason they’ve won acclaim, including being named the 2014 Outstanding School Board, a top honor at the Texas Association of School Administrators/Texas Association of School Board’s yearly convention.
“This board functions very well together. It’s not a perfect union, but what union is perfect? We don’t necessarily agree on everything. But once a decision is made, we put the disagreement aside and we all jump in and work to make whatever decision was made a successful endeavor,” Peña said.
Peña said some conflicts highlighted during the election were magnified by groups such as the United Educators Association to suit their own purposes. She agrees with Baron about misconceptions of the board’s role, which they said is to set policy, supervise the superintendent and approve a budget.
It’s true some aspects of the district are changing, Peña said. But, she believes the progress has been positive and issues that need attention are being addressed.
“This board has been really, really great about making sure we were student-focused always,” she said.
Lack of policy discussion?
Hudson articulates the three responsibilities of the board as well as current members Peña and Baron. But, a big part of her motivation for running was a feeling that all three objectives weren’t being given equal time.
“There just didn’t seem to be quite as much discussion of the policy as there was of other subjects,” said Hudson. She hopes that her background, which includes time in internal audit at Ernst & Young and as a Bank of America assistant vice president, will make her a valuable contributor. Like Walton, she would also like to see more attention to the challenges facing elementary school educators, students and parents.
Both incoming members said they want to collaborate with the five remaining board members.
Hudson said she knows that working relationships on the board are important and that “it’s just going to be incumbent upon me try to build those relationships with them in my own right.”
Board President Bowie Hogg said the board has been aggressive with its focus on progress and acknowledged that the fast pace of implementing improvements may have hurt some employees’ perceptions. With the election over, he said it’s essential that the board continue to work as a team, even if some of the players are changing.
Hogg endorsed Baron and Peña but said he’s also looking forward to hearing Walton’s and Hudson’s perspectives as they join the group.
“The seven of us and our superintendent have all worked so well together and we expect to do the same thing” with the new board makeup, he said.