Fort Bend ISD is faced with the looming challenge of replacing outgoing Superintendent Charles Dupre, and voters served by the district are tasked with electing two new members to the FBISD Board of Trustees who will be expected to provide their input in hiring a new leader.
Nine candidates vying for two seats on the board, Positions 2 and 6, addressed the public and the issues facing the school district — including how the board is organized and whether or not it should employ taxpayer-funded lobbyists — last Wednesday during a virtual forum hosted by the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce. Early voting is scheduled for April 19-27, and Election Day is May 1.
One of the most contentious topics of the forum came in the form of a question about single-member districts.
Addie Heylinger, the Position 6 incumbent who also serves as board president, said she supports single-member districts for electing trustees, noting that the district has grown in terms of ethnic diversity and population.
“Every 10 years, every other local entity actually changes how their lines are drawn,” Heylinger said. “In Fort Bend ISD, we have not had the opportunity to even have the conversation around what (the district) should look like in this upcoming year.”
According to the Texas education code, a proposition to add single-member trustee districts, which would divide the school district into proportional districts to select an individual board member — similar to the model used by Houston ISD — can be added to the ballot if 15 percent or 15,000 of the district’s registered voters petition for the measure.
One of Heylinger’s five challengers, Kristin Davison Malone, said she is opposed to single-member districts because they would cause division during a time when the district needs to be united.
“If the board is doing their job and they’re representing all children, or all stakeholders, that’s what we’re interested in,” Malone said. “Make sure when you’re voting that you choose someone that genuinely cares about the entire district. Because when it comes to our kids we shouldn’t be playing politics.”
The other candidates for Position 6 are Stephanie Brown, Allison Drew, Rafat Ulain Jilani and Edtrina Moss.
The candidates for Position 2 are Ashish Agrawal, Rehan Ahmed, Judy Dae and Nadeem Naik. Incumbent Grayle James announced her intent to retire and not to run for reelection on Jan. 4.
Dae said her opposition to single-member districts was also based on a desire for unity.
Other candidates said it was important to define what a single-member district would look like, and others declined to take a stance on the issue and said they needed to get feedback from the public and research it further, which disappointed some residents.
“That was a big red flag for me,” resident Geralynn Prince-Semien wrote on Facebook. “After you ask, are you just going to do what people tell you to do? Which people? What public do you listen to? Tell people what your position is. If you can’t come up with, at minimum a position/opinion on your own, why would I vote for you?”
Kyle Stanley, a 2005 Dulles High School graduate, said he would support single-member districts to prevent having the majority of the board composed of people from the same neighborhoods.
“I am not in favor of the district seemingly revolving around whichever neighborhood is ‘the hot market,’” Stanley said.
Drew, the Position 6 candidate who is a former trustee, said the issue need to be considered from multiple perspectives.
“As a trustee, I would like to engage in the discussion (about single member districts),” Drew said. “As a parent, I want to be able to hold my trustees accountable.”
Selecting Dupre’s successor
What three qualities are most important for the district’s new superintendent to possess when Dupre departs in December?
Position 6 candidates Jilani, Malone and Moss said they would seek an approachable leader with an open-door policy who is an effective communicator.
Malone said compassion and business acumen were key criteria for her checklist.
“We’re in the business of children,” Malone said. “We can’t just be metrics and business. At the same time, we have to have compassion for our children so we can continue to nurture them and grow them to exhibit the profile of the graduate.”
Drew said retention of teachers and staff and being able to mitigate change were her priorities in the search.
Moss said she was looking for “a visionary” who is able to innovate and “take the district into 21st century pedagogy.” Position 2 candidate Naik said he wants someone who would “inspire'' the community.
Brown, a Position 6 challenger, said she prioritizes honesty, educational background and out-of-the-box thinking for the next superintendent.
“We cannot base those choices on who’s friends with who,” Brown said.
Heylinger said it’s important for a superintendent to create “an atmosphere of trust” and build off of the district’s strengths. She also asked that residents fill out the survey created by the search firm it is using to help provide feedback into the search.
Transparency, response to COVID-19
Several candidates commended the board’s efforts to navigate the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, but felt the board lacked transparency and could improve its communication and engagement with parents.
“There are communications that come out to us as parents, as taxpayers, as residents, as parents, that leaves a lot to be desired,” Agrawal said. “It’s almost like, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen.’ Tell me a little more why.”
Jilani said the district did well at providing electronic devices, internet hotspots and meals from the beginning of the pandemic to today.
“Some of the things that (COVID-19) taught us is to give the teachers and parents training to deal with the frustration (of the pandemic and technology issues),” Jilani said.
Malone also said the district deserved credit for its rapid response to the pandemic, but added contact tracing and transparency (including whether or not an infected student was on campus) and support for teachers and staff could have been improved.
On the subject of Texas House Bill 749, which restricts political subdivisions, including school districts, from hiring lobbyists using public funding, Position 2 candidate Ahmed said the district needs an advocate in Austin to persuade the legislature to support public schools.
“If by lobbying, that makes our education great, then I’m for it,” Ahmed said.
Dae and Malone said they have reservations about the idea of using taxpayer-funded lobbying because it would bring politics into education, but Dae said she would likely support the bill because it was important to ensure the district receives the support it needs from the state.
Drew said lobbyists form long-term relationships with state legislators and that they are “absolutely necessary.”
“How we are funded is strongly tied to our lobbying for our demographic, and FBISD has a very unique demographic,” Drew said. “We often do not fall into the structure for state funding. Not only do we need lobbyists, but we need trustees that also lobby.”
Dae said she is opposed to STAAR testing and supports the district developing its own model.
“I understand the state requires STAAR testing because they wanted to have some kind of evaluation,” Dae said. “I always tell my students to learn for the knowledge and not for the grades. I understand why we’re having it but I do not support it and I wish we would have a better model.”
Naik said he is in favor of the STAAR test, saying it merely needs tweaks instead of major reforms.
“We have to bring a practical aspect into the test,” Naik said. “We know the adult voters are listening to this discussion, but we need to bring the kids into it, too.”
Moss said standardized testing should be reevaluated on the basis of college preparation and core competencies.
“Are we asking students to provide us responses based on the competencies that we’re teaching, and have students been able to really master those competencies?” Moss asked. “How has the data been used to help our students and does it truly prepare them for college-level learning?”
Get to know the candidates:
Occupation/Education: MD Anderson Cancer Center Nuclear Medicine Faculty
Key issues: Early literacy, sign language, transparency
In their own words: “I have been collaborating with FBISD schools to bring some wonderful programs into our community and I’d like to take that same passion and give it back to all Fort Bend ISD students.”
Occupation/Education: Enterprise Data Architect, Nordic Consulting; Rutgers Law School
Key issues: Innovation, equality, student advocacy
In their own words: “I can have really difficult conversations in a respectable manner, and I can also have those conversations in five languages. Really, there's not a conversation I don’t want to be a part of.”
Addie Heyliger (incumbent)
Occupation/Education: IT Project Manager, CenterPoint Energy; MBA from Texas Woman’s University
Key issues: Single-member districts, staff retention, community engagement
In their own words: “I ran six years ago in order to make a difference in the community and I’m here to make sure that we continue to do the work that we started in 2015.”
Rafat Ulain Jilani
Occupation/Education: Diagnostician, certified school psychologist; Master of Education, Houston Baptist University
Key issues: Improving virtual/COVID-19 era learning, reducing academic gaps and educator burnout
In their own words: “Being on all four sides of the table, I know and understand the frustration from a teacher’s perspective, a parent’s perspective, a student’s perspective, and the community’s perspectives.”
Kristen Davison Malone
Occupation/Education: Partner at CME Printing, Inc.; MBA, Texas A&M
Key issues: Transparency, safety, special education
In their own words: “I am completely invested in this community. I know Fort Bend. I have a heart for the kids, teachers, and the staff. I am the one who will represent all.”
Occupation/Education: Registered nurse, CEO of Ambulatory Care Specialty Group
Key issues: Equity in education, representation, accountability
In their own words: "My experiences as a nurse have allowed me to work collaboratively with interdisciplinary teams… and diverse populations as a whole to promote and improve the health and well- being for all. Those collaborations have often led to policy changes that have improved the access to care, similar to those policies for evaluating and implementing changes that improve access to equitable education, and I am ready to bring that unique perspective and experience to Fort Bend ISD.”
Occupation/Education: IBM strategy and operations executive; MBA in Corporate Strategy, Texas A&M
Key issues: Modernizing educational technology, equity, fiscal responsibility
In their own words: “I have the financial acumen and the management wherewithal for this position. Community service-wise, I have worked with FBISD schools as well as the broader FBISD community and all of that collective experience is what I am bringing to the table.”
Occupation/Education: IT Instructor at MyComputerCareer
Key issues: Improving education, accountability, safety and security
In their own words: “As an educator, I have helped U.S. veterans turn their careers into the IT (field).”
Occupation/Education: Real estate agent
Key issues: Balancing the district’s budget, securing state funding, standardized testing
In their own words: “I’ve been going to school board meetings and volunteering on campus, even bringing students to the meetings to speak up. The reason I do that is because that’s where my heart is.”
Occupation/Education: Realtor, talk show host
Key issues: Equality of education, community outreach, improving gifted and talented programs
In their own words: “Nobody listens to the children. We have to listen to the children and when we bring the teachers and the students together, something comes out, and then we bring in the parents and the teachers together.”