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State's education commissioner weighs-in on the state of BISD
By Brooke Crum
Sunday marked the five-month milestone for the Beaumont ISD board of managers, who were installed by Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams on July 21 to rectify the financial and governance problems plaguing the district.
A lot has changed in that time.
In its first few months of service, the board swept out the old by ousting superintendent Timothy Chargois, spokeswoman Jessie Haynes and police chief Clydell Duncan. The board also replaced the district's long-time law firm, Wells, Peyton, Greenberg & Hunt and severed ties with auditor Gayle Botley. Last week, the boared hired an accounting firm to conduct a forensic audit in search of potential fraud in the $388.6 million bond issue approved by voters in 2007.
The district continues to hemorrhage funds because of past missteps, including attendance accounting fraud unearthed by a Texas Education Agency investigative report released last month.
Williams, the man who made the call to remove BISD's board of trustees in April, said he thought the board of managers had made significant inroads into the challenges it faces - particularly balancing a budget with less revenue than previous years. The commissioner remains in contact with Fred Shafer, the state conservator assigned to the district.
Williams discussed the board of managers' tenure and the future of the Beaumont school district over the phone last week.
Q How do you think the board of managers is handling the challenges left behind by the ousted board of trustees?
A There's no doubt from what I hear in speaking with various people (in the community) that they are progressing quite well with the significant challenges in front of them. Restoring the confidence of the taxpayers, they have come a long way in doing that. No doubt that the financial position of the district was woeful when the board took over, and it had to make certain decisions on how to balance the revenue and maintain the fund balance.
It's one step at a time...I don't think anyone should expect there to be dramatic changes in six months. Their job is to put the district on better footing, and they're doing that.
Q Does it surprise you that the board is already looking for a new superintendent to replace Vern Butler, the person you appointed to lead the district?
A I'm not surprised the board is looking for a new superintendent. In terms of putting the district on a firm foundation, one of the steps I outlined for the board of managers was hiring a superintendent.
As soon as they get a permanent superintendent in place, the longer he or she will have to provide leadership to the district before the elected trustees come in.
Q What did you think of the board hiring the Texas Association of School Boards' Executive Search Services to conduct its superintendent search?
A That's a local decision. TASB has done more superintendent searches than most of the private search firms. They're a group of former superintendents. They're part of that world.
Q How open do you think the superintendent search process should be?
A Beaumont ISD is in the same circumstance as any other school district when looking for a superintendent. You want to put the district in the best position to get the best candidate.
I realize folks want to know the names of all candidates, but that's not how most superintendent searches function.
Q Most school boards name a "lone finalist" 21 days before hiring the person as superintendent so they don't have to name any other applicants. Would you advise the board name more than one finalist for superintendent?
A That's not a Michael decision. That is a decision for the board. I've learned to stay in my lane.
Q In April, before you made your decision to install the board of managers, you held a teleconference with community members to hear their thoughts and questions about a state takeover of BISD. Many called for transparency while complaining about the tight-lipped nature of the former administration. How do you reconcile those cries for transparency with the confidentiality that some say is necessary for finding the district's next superintendent?
A We have to focus on what's the most important thing. The most important thing is getting the best candidate or candidates for the position and relying on the board of managers to select the best person for the position. There will be ways for the board to provide a (transparent process).
It's not my job to design that system.
Q How can the public expect the selected superintendent to be transparent and forthcoming with information if that person is hired through a closed process?
A That's different. That's a process to get to that person. There's a way to show (the candidate) is transparent without knowing everything about that person.
This process is not over. I will imagine the board of managers and superintendent are hearing the calls for increased transparency. They may identify ways to do that. It may be different than what some members of the public are calling for.
Q What is your current role in BISD? Does the board still seek your advice?
A Fred (Shafer) is there. He's my eyes and ears.
They (the managers) are not asking for our permission or direction or counsel. I'm prepared to let them continue to do their work without commenting on it.
Our role is primarily to provide assistance if asked and keep our eyes and ears open. They're running this district.
Q Do you worry about voters re-electing the deposed trustees? How can the community prevent that?
A I would hope that voters would be conscious of things that happened in the past, that they would be concerned about making what would be the best choices for the district and its students. But that's a decision for Beaumont.
This is a lesson in local civics. This is an opportunity for strong members in the community to wage a campaign to educate the voters.
Q What was your reaction to the West Orange-Cove school district considering former BISD superintendent Timothy Chargois as its new chief?
A Curiosity. Other than that, nothing. I wish Dr. Chargois the best and hope, quite frankly, that he finds a way to serve the public.
It's for a board of trustees to decide if it hires him as superintendent.
Q Texas elected a new governor, Greg Abbott, in November. Do you expect to remain education commissioner after he takes office in January? If not, how will the appointment of a new commissioner affect BISD?
A My term expires at noon on Jan. 20, and I will continue to serve until the governor so desires.
If there is someone who sits in this chair come January, I think we laid the foundation for him or her to provide and maintain what we're doing. I don't think anything would change in relation to Beaumont.