Superintendent discusses first six month changes, challenges and opportunities

In February I completed my sixth month at EPISD and I’m encouraged by the progress we’ve made in a short time. As we move forward in a new direction, it’s both an exciting and challenging time at EPISD.

I was afforded the opportunity to write an editorial in Sunday’s El Paso Times and because the column was aimed at the general public, I wanted to share more details about the district’s progress and our challenges with our teachers, staff and administrators.  As we work towards shared leadership, we plan to consistently share information to assure we are on the same page and allow for your input and feedback.

Feedback and communication are important and we are building the systems to assure we are connected and working together for our students.  This does not happen overnight, so if you feel your voice has not been heard, we ask for your patience as we build out our communication plans.

To date, we’ve visited more than 60 schools and we’ve spent countless hours meeting with district and community stakeholders to hear about what is working and where we can change and/or improve.  In response to parent and community comments, we have made many minor changes, which have provided “quick-wins” in our systems and processes. We will continue to seek opportunities to identify service improvements for our customers—students and parents.  Often times, without communication, we do not know how our actions affect our community.  We believe that feedback from our stakeholders is crucial to our goal of meeting the needs of those we serve.  We will not always please everyone, but we will seek to meet this elusive objective.

In addition to making sure we do not repeat the actions of the past, our leadership teams have been tirelessly working on evaluating the systems and structures we inherited from previous administrations to identify cost savings and areas of improvement.  I deeply appreciate everyone’s willingness to tackle these difficult issues.  I do not think anyone (including myself) understood the depth of the challenges our district faced in rebuilding EPISD.

While many may think we are primarily focused on recovering from the cheating scandal, we are also facing many administrative challenges and solving other identified issues as we simultaneously work on a systems-approach to unite, modernize and revolutionize our district.  To put it bluntly, the EPISD we inherited was not a healthy organization. Chaos from the top led to EPISD working as a collection of schools not a “system of schools.”  We are working to put the past behind and create a system of schools working cohesively to systemically and efficiently deliver a quality service to our community.

Creating a new EPISD will not be easy as there will be changes, but it is important for everyone to understand that many of our pending and proposed changes are in response to identified challenges, not simply based on a change in leadership.  We have to create consistent systems and processes before we can create a cohesive school district and subsequently move forward together to achieve greater goals.

I appreciate everyone’s work over the last few months as we “clean up our house” and prepare for our 2014-2015 budget. While we face many financial challenges, we are currently planning to balance our budget without layoffs through providing the early notification of resignation/retirement income incentive, normal attrition and a current teachers hiring freeze. We may need to make additional changes or eliminate a few goals, but we will present a balanced budget to the Board of Managers by the June 30 deadline.

I want to reiterate and provide more details behind a few of the financial hurdles mentioned in the Times column.  First and foremost we are dealing with declining enrollment.  The state will increase our funding per student, which will offset some of the enrollment losses, but over the past three years enrollment has declined by 2,200 students, with 1,677 occurring in our current school year. During this time we increased the number of teachers and staff and we also provided a district-wide salary increase.  We made budget adjustments at the December 2013 board meeting, but we need to continue to closely manage the budget to account for the loss in enrollment.

  • Additionally, next year, we will need at least $3 million for new textbooks and/or we need to invest in a digital conversion plan in lieu of textbooks,
  • We are creating a fleet replacement plan and we will need at least $3.1 million for district vehicle replacements plus $7.5 million to replace older school buses,
  • Once the facilities audit and technology systems audits are complete we will have a clearer picture, but we are certain we will need millions of dollars for deferred maintenance at our aging schools and for building out the infrastructure to allow for our digital conversion,
  • We will have at least a $4 million loss in state revenue based on a one-time payment for a tax refund made by the district,
  • We have not received final word from TRS, but we will likely face increased health insurance costs, and if possible, we want to protect employees from this cost increase,
  • Finally, we are creating a capital asset management replacement plan for musical instruments, technology, library books and uniforms. This will also require additional funding.

To further guide our planning for the future, we have contracted for a comprehensive curriculum review, full audits of our purchasing department and district policies, and we will soon begin a comprehensive facilities and technology systems assessment.  Additionally, we do not currently have a plan to move away from textbooks to digital content (“digital conversion”).  Building a digital transition plan is critical as the new Instructional Materials Allotment provided by the state is not intended to allow for a textbook for every student.  Not having a plan has put us behind, but we will work to catch-up and put us quickly on track to create a 21st Century learning institution.

These are not new issues, but previous administrations did not plan for these changes and did not make appropriate adjustments.  Despite these financial hurdles, we are committed to building a great district and beginning a five-year plan for a comprehensive digital conversion. Critical initiatives to revolutionize our district include electronic student profiles, online registration, state-of-the-art data tools, digital content (moving away from textbooks), online learning and technology integration training for teachers.

Other great opportunities we are creating for our students in the upcoming school year and beyond include:

  • Expanding dual language,
  • Increasing enrollment at Transmountain Early College High School and supporting Irvin and Burges high schools as they transition to STEM and Early College campuses respectively,
  • Creating a comprehensive summer school program, which will be open to more students and help with the critical transition years (6th and 9th grades),

We also will move our focus away from “teaching to the test” and thus will seek opportunities for teacher professional development focused on blended learning, project based learning, social and emotional learning and other student-centered strategies. We will increase our focus on the “whole student” and will seek to invest in character education and increase the budgets for fine arts, extra-curricular activities and athletics.

Finally, we also want our teachers and administrators to be well-trained and among the highest paid in the region. We are working on a number of initiatives to meet these goals to include:

  • Restructuring and reducing central office departments;
  • Centralizing all curriculum and technology purchases to eliminate waste and redundancy;
  • Enforcing teacher/student ratios,
  • Eliminating the additional planning period for non-core teachers,
  • Core teachers will support intervention and acceleration by working with students in other classrooms three days a week during their second planning period,
  • Asking all secondary math and English Language Arts instructional coaches to act as teachers of record for two periods a day; and
  • Moving middle schools from block to traditional schedules.

We recently established leadership teams for Principals, Assistant Principals and Teachers to receive feedback on our plans.  There have been some unexpected, time sensitive challenges that have required us to make some quick decisions, however, we are already working with these leadership teams to discuss, gather input, and vet upcoming initiatives that will affect our students and employees.

Notwithstanding our challenges, we are optimistic about the future of our district and the opportunities we are creating for our students. We are putting the past behind and creating the foundation for a great school district.  We must continue to work as a team to seek opportunities to create unity in our thoughts and actions. Together, we will seek continuous improvement and we will succeed in supporting our students with hard work, innovation and compassionate hearts.

Compassion must exist throughout the district and I can assure you that leadership is working hard to assure that from the top-down we identify leaders who are both intelligent and compassionate so that we can work with empathy to make tough decisions.

Please understand that driving change is challenging work because we understand that many folks at EPISD (based on the recent past) may not immediately embrace change.  Consequently, proposed changes may be met with fear and hesitation and often folks will be critical and voice concerns.  In the abstract, it is not difficult to look at decisions and changes in silos and criticize these actions, but it is imperative that everyone understand that each decision must be reviewed holistically to assure we take into account the “big-picture” for the district.  Building a unified district through continuous improvement and efficient operations requires changes and while we cannot assure you will like each individual decision we make, we can assure everyone that we will approach each decision critically with compassionate hearts and with the best in mind for students, staff and the community.

Thank you for your continued support and service to our students and the community.  I am looking forward to working with each of you as we build out the new EPISD teams and we create the new EPISD Standard for Excellence!

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