Nine of the 13 candidates in the race for Board of Education appeared at a public forum last week to discuss challenges facing the school system.
The forum, held at Concordia University, covered several issues under the board’s purview, but highlighted budgetary priorities, school safety and curriculum. Don Christian, President of Concordia University, moderated the forum.
All of the candidates were invited to attend, but Melissa Glaze and Sharyn LaCombe did not. Leander ISD board members serve three-year terms without pay and oversee the rapidly-growing district, expected to add around 1,100 new students each year, which encompasses about 200 square miles in Cedar Park and Leander as well as portions of Austin and Round Rock.
The candidates are vying for four seats on the board, where those elected will help approve the annual budget, set the tax rate, establish board policies and evaluate the superintendent, among other responsibilities.
For Place 1, Incumbent Trish Bode, a communications director for state lobby giant Hillco Partners who was first elected in 2015, is running against lawyer Melissa Glaze and Bryan Patton, who works in the information technology division at the Texas Education Agency.
Bode, 44, who in her career has watched legislative and policy issues unfold, also has served as vice president of the Central Texas School Board Association, on the district’s policy advisory committee and as a member of the Texas Association of School Boards legislative advisory council.
Glaze, 39, is an attorney for the state and works in the area of safety and prevention of pollution in the oil and gas industry.
Patton, 39, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, has served on multiple higher education committees, including for strategic planning and campus disaster planning.
For Place 2, Trustee Don Hisle, a 23-year veteran of the board, is leaving his position to three hopeful candidates.
Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia, 45, is the executive director of the Hanger Foundation, which provides support to those with physical disabilities. She is the former executive director for the Leander ISD Educational Excellence Foundation, which provides assistance to the district, and has a long list of volunteer work in and out of the district.
Gary Hampton, 32, is an associate in the University of Texas’ historically underutilized business/small business program office. Hampton, a former U.S. Army service member, has a master’s degree in education leadership. He also serves on the city of Leander’s board of adjustment and appeal.
Sharyn LaCombe, 48, is a policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Transportation. She also has served as an elementary school room mom and volunteered with a middle school athletic booster.
For Place 6, Incumbent Aaron Johnson, the vice president of sales and marketing at Relationship One, a small consulting firm, is being challenged by Mike Fischer. Fischer plans the technical direction and technologies that Netspend, a provider of prepaid debit cards, will use in automating its operations.
Johnson, 47, has served on the board since 2011 and is the sitting board president. He has served in the district’s Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program and on school boosters.
Fischer, 48, is a former teacher. He volunteers with the Seedling Foundation, which provides mentors to children who have incarcerated parents. He also volunteers with Austin Pets Alive and the Central Texas Food Bank.
For Place 7, two candidates are up against one another after Trustee Will Streit’s term, who has served on the board for a decade.
Elexis Grimes, 38, is the operations and managing director for the Texas division of WEXCO International, a construction management firm. Grimes was a part of the district’s financial leadership program and has served on the district’s bond advisory and bond oversight committees.
Donnie Mahan, 43, is a director of business operations at Visa, leading project managers in supporting technology for the company’s employees. Mahan, a former officer in the U.S. Army, has served on Leander’s districtwide educational improvement council and in the Watch D.O.G.S. program.
Incumbent Trish Bode largely pointed to past board successes and ongoing efforts to tackle some of the issues being discussed including managing growth, academic programming, funding and giving the community a legislative voice.
“As we deal with growth in the district… I would want to start focusing on academic programs, supporting our teachers, working on community engagement and, of course, keeping up our fiscal responsibility.”
Bryan L. Patton, Gary Hampton and Incumbent Aaron Johnson agreed upon making improvements to the district through utilizing research, resources and becoming more involved at the community level.
“My top priority is going to be to listen and understand what the needs are that we’re facing,” said Patton. “I think Leander’s in a pretty good position right now but there were some shortcomings on some of the test scores and, specifically, one of my biggest concerns is that this is a high growth district so the funding, the finances, the building… those are going to be my top priority.”
“My first priority would be to do research and be involved in all the schools,” added Hampton. “I would want to see all the teachers, faculty members, staff and principals and communicate with them on how we can best serve them. I’m with Bryan, I think Leander ISD is great but I think we can always do better.”
“My top priority is our students: their safety, they health and their academic growth and development,” said Johnson. “My efforts will focus on things that contribute to our students. The district has been on the path to developing a number of services for our students’ health and security and I think it’s important that we continue with those.”
Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia and Elexis Grimes took a stance on building communication and teamwork within the district.
“I want to focus on communication,” said Gonzales-Dholakia. “The areas we can improve upon center on communication. That’s communication by giving our students more choices and voice in their learning and progress, giving teachers more voice in issues that affect teaching and learning in their classrooms and giving parents a voice at the state level.”
“I would like to implement a community collaboration piece,” added Grimes. “I think our students’ safety and security is so important that we should be working with the nine municipalities that we cover… We don’t have a representative who’s meeting quarterly or annually with these cities that’s working as a team together to make sure our students can get in and out of the schools or have proper safety drop-offs.”
Mike Fischer and Donnie Mahan separately highlighted policies that would support teachers.
“Quality of life of the students and staff in our district is paramount,” said Fischer. “A teacher can’t go into a classroom when the classroom is underfunded...our students need a quality of life and investment in not just their schools but each other.”
“My priority is supporting our teachers,” said Mahan. “When I was in the Army, I asked my general officer, I said, sir, what can you tell me about leadership? He said, always support the troops and the mission will take care of itself...if you give them all the resources, training and they know that you’re looking out for them, not the mission, then they’re going to exceed your expectations every time.”
The Leander ISD PTA Council collaborated with Concordia University to put on the forum.
The general election is Nov. 6. Early voting begins Oct. 22.