The Challenge is On

By Marcus Walker,2014-06-18 00:13
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The Challenge is On

    The Challenge is On

    I realized it soon after I moved to McAllen in the early 80’s. I was

    one of the lucky ones. I taught in McAllen ISD.

     Most teachers I know in McAllen felt blessed to be working in a district that had high expectations for its students and that appreciated its teachers. McAllen ISD was the place we all wanted to be.

     Recently our district has fallen upon difficult times. Many of us saw it coming, recognizing the signs along the way….students leaving the district to enroll in independent districts that have magnet-type schools where students can focus their studies on medicine, science, technology and other career fields. Then charter schools began to open, some offering students a chance to complete high school through individualized programs and others promising (and delivering) high expectations and rigorous instruction. In recent years, we have seen a recognizable increase in the number of truancy cases. Every time a student is absent from school, it translates into another potential drop-out and lost money for the district, since funding is based on our Average Daily Attendance (ADA). As if this were not enough, add to it a decrease in education funding, and you have a fault line waiting to wreak havoc.

     Many have heard by now that McAllen ISD is in the process of cutting roughly 100 to 120 employees from its payroll effective at the end of the school year. There are a lot of rumors about how, why and when, so I thought I’d do my best to explain so we can separate fact from fiction.

     Recently, Supt. Dr. James Ponce sent a few emails to district employees and held meetings after school, providing a brief overview of why cuts are needed and allowing employees to ask questions. I appreciated this because panic had set in and we needed to understand the plan and have an opportunity to seek answers to our burning questions.

    Dr. Ponce began by saying the first question most people ask is,

    “Who is to blame?” (That question is certainly prevalent, not only within the district but throughout the community.) He said no one is to blame, that many factors played a role in what has happened. Many of us believe there are some individuals, too, who played a role in allowing the district to get to this point, but certainly naming them will do nothing to move the district in the right direction.

    Here are a few key points from Dr. Ponce’s meetings and emails:

    ? Standard operating procedure is for a district to spend 80

    percent of its budget on staffing. According to a TEA report

    for 2008-2009, local districts used the following percentage of

    their budgets on staffing: MISD 84.2; Harlingen 80.8;

    Edinburg 76.2; Brownsville 76.6; PSJA 79.4; Mission 80.0.

    ? MISD has already taken measures to reduce costs, including

    renegotiating its energy contract, leaving some vacated

    positions unfilled, and cutting department budgets by 10


    ? Currently, MISD spends 83.53 percent of its budget on staffing. Last week, principals began the process of calling teachers in to let them

    know their employment would likely end due to the staffing plan. The

    big question for Dr. Ponce was, “Who?” He responded that it would be

    based on the following:

    ? Teachers leaving through attrition (moving, accepting jobs

    elsewhere, etc.)

    ? Retirement

    ? Non-renewals (teachers who principals determine should not

    have their contracts renewed based on performance or other


    ? Finally, teachers under probationary status (New teachers and

    teachers new to the district are normally placed on

    probationary status, which can last from one to four years) This does not mean all probationary teachers will lose their positions, by

    any means. Principals have had lengthy meetings with the Human

    Resources Department to determine needs on campuses and to

    determine who will be called in. Depending on pre-enrollment figures,

    others may be called in later or some positions could possibly be saved.

     Cuts will happen across the district. Dr. Ponce has already moved

    some central office personnel into the schools, some vacant positions in

    central office will remain unfilled, and several positions are being


     Dr. Ponce also outlined needs within the district that must be

    addressed, including:

    ? new roofs

    ? new AC units

    ? building upgrades

    ? science labs

    ? computers

    ? buses

    ? salary increase

    Many were left puzzled at the idea of salary increases at a time like this,

    but the district acknowledges that excellent teachers have taken jobs in

    neighboring districts in recent years because McAllen ISD has lost its

    status as the top-paying (or much-closer-to-the-top-paying) district in

    the area. Salary is one factor that draws the best teachers.

     The board has now approved the Five Year Strategic Plan and

    has already set the wheels in motion to start making some new things

    happen in the district. Here are a few:

    ? Increasing the dual enrollment opportunities for MISD

    students, thus allowing them to earn more college credits while

    still in high school

    ? Creating a Medical, Engineering and Technology Academy

    (this should be very exciting)

    ? Establishing some online courses (more exciting news) Dr. Ponce issued a challenge to teachers who attended the meetings. He

    reminded the high school teachers that we work in a comprehensive

    high school and we must come up with ideas that will make us stand out

    in the crowd.

     These are difficult times. It’s hard to see your colleagues being

    told they will not have a position next year. It’s scary wondering who

    will be next and how long it will take for us to build our reserves up

    again without disrupting the education of our students.

     It is also a welcome challenge. We are hearing serious talk about

    raising standards and finding ways to get students who have left our

    district to come home. Though “it takes a village” has been overused, it

    is perfect for our current situation. We need to hear from students who

    have left our district and their parents. What would it take to get you


    ? We need creative ideas on how we can cut costs without cutting

    more people.

    ? We need parents to get their children to school.

    ? And we need everyone in the district working together to truly

    prepare our students for life after high school. There’s a reason so many of us have stayed in MISD over the years…we

    truly love this district and its students. We have a lot to be proud of,

    but there’s work to be done. Put on your hard hats.

Chris Ardis is a teacher with the McAllen school district, where she has worked for 25 of

    her 26 years of teaching. For over 10 years, Chris was the weekly education columnist

    for The Monitor, but the door opened, and she decided to take the leap.

    To reach her, send e-mail to

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