Arlington ISD school board candidates discuss budget, vouchers, engagement at community forum

dfwnewsa | April 3, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Arlington ISD school board candidates discuss budget, vouchers, engagement at community forum

As the May election draws nearer, Arlington ISD school board candidates are pitching their visions for the district’s future. 

Five candidates for three separate at-large school board seats participated in an open forum April 2 at the First United Methodist Church in Arlington. 

The event, hosted by the Arlington Council of PTAs, saw candidates discuss various topics, from districtwide issues like engaging with parents to national subjects such as budget and school choice. 

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Each candidate was given two minutes to respond to questions from a previewed list.

Kathi Arocha, Larry Mike and April Williams Moore are vying for the Place 3 seat following incumbent Aaron Reich’s announcement of his retirement from the school board. Board secretary Sarah McMurrough is running unopposed for Place 1. Place 2 candidate Kendall Orr, who’s challenging board President Melody Fowler’s seat, was absent. 

The election is May 4. Early voting begins April 22 and ends April 30. Polling places will be announced as the election approaches. April 4 is the last day to register to vote.

From left to right: Larry Mike, Kathi Arocha and April Williams Moore are all vying for the Place 3 seat on the Arlington ISD school board. (Dang Le | Fort Worth Report)

Budget

Moore wants each department to justify its budget, she said. She also wants to make sure the district allocates money for teachers instead of administrative positions. 

“We don’t want the responsibility of balancing this budget to solely be on the taxpayers,” she said. 

The district currently operates on a $1.3 million budget surplus for the 2023-24 academic year as of March. While initially adopting a budget with a $5.5 million deficit last summer, Arlington ISD has amended it throughout the academic year. 

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“The budget is tight, but we’re not poor. We’re doing OK,” board President Fowler said.

As trustees, McMurrough said, the goal of adopting a budget should be around student achievement and providing access to high-quality education for all students. 

“As a board member, as a team, it’s so important that we are constantly overseeing that our budget priorities have everything to do with students,” she said.

School choice

School districts did not receive any extra money from the Texas Legislature in 2023. During two special sessions of the Legislature, Gov. Greg Abbott tied additional public education funding to the passage of a voucher program. A bill that proposed both failed to pass.

Williams supports fully funding public education and respecting school choice, she said. She believes that people will return to public schools once they explore school voucher options. 

Fowler said Arlington ISD offers strong programs and buildings, such as universal free pre-K, fine arts and language academies and the Dan Dipert Career and Technical Center.

“In my opinion, charter and private schools cannot compete with Arlington ISD,” she said.

Arocha believes the number of offered programs or buildings does not matter until Arlington ISD fixes the root causes of why people are leaving, she said. She mentioned students being bullied as one of the biggest issues within the district.

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“It is parental rights whatever education they choose for their kid. It’s their kid. That is up to them,” Arocha said. 

Board President Melody Fowler prepares her notes during the candidate forum April 2, 2024, at the First United Methodist Church of Arlington. Fowler is running against Kendall Orr, who was absent from the forum. (Dang Le | Fort Worth Report)

Mike used his personal experience to discuss school choice. Education is the only system that can transform a person’s low socioeconomic status to something better, and vouchers may limit many students’ options to attend school, he said. 

“We’re gonna give ourselves permission to compete, but we need to ensure that it’s a level playing ground,” he said. “Private schools and charter schools need to have the same standards that we have as far as who they accept. Private schools just can’t say, ‘Oh, we’re going to accept this amount of students, but not students that have disabilities.’”

McMurrough didn’t mince words when expressing her position against vouchers. 

All are entitled to their beliefs, she said. But if people run to serve on school boards, they should decide what’s best for students attending public schools. She listed Arizona as an example. 

In 2022, state leaders in Arizona promised families about $7,000 a year to spend on private schools and other nonpublic education options. Then, private schools increased tuition.  

“(A voucher system) is unsustainable. It is not fiscally responsible. And that’s not my opinion. That’s facts,” she said. 

Board Secretary Sarah McMurrough speaks to attendees April 2, 2024, at the First United Methodist Church of Arlington. McMurrough is running unopposed. (Dang Le | Fort Worth Report)

Connecting with parents

Mike appreciates programs like Trustee Talks, where the board presents and discusses what’s happening in the district. However, he suggests holding more listening sessions at community centers, such as the East Library and Recreational Center. 

In his experience, parents want to engage, and they want to feel heard, he said. 

He also suggests providing food so people don’t have to worry about evening meetings. The board can also collaborate with organizations to look after children for those wanting to attend these sessions. 

The board of trustees can become more accessible by partnering with PTA and City Council members, Moore said. Taxpayers and voters should know that trustees are working for them and have their best interests at heart. 

“It’s really, really important to make sure that we hold ourselves accountable and accessible to taxpayers and our voters,” she said. 

Trustees should visit and listen more about what’s happening in the district, Arocha said. Being a single mother for 13 years, she understands the difficulty of attending meetings to voice opinions. Trustees, instead, should reach out to them. 

“At the end of the day, we have to have the parents and the teachers in lockstep in order to have success,” she said. 

Dang Le is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at dang.le@fortworthreport.org or @DangHLe. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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