After years of non-elections, in which candidates ran mostly unopposed, competition for seats on the Galveston Independent School District board of trustees has gotten hot this year.
For the first time in six years, for example, Matthew Hay, who serves as board president, is being challenged for the District 5-E position. Laura Addison, an accountant and political newcomer, has used a strategy primarily relying on social media and sometimes pointed criticism.
The school board race, one of two that will be on some voters’ ballots this year, has sparked the most discussion in recent memory about the direction of the island’s school district, and whether voters are ready for a major change in leadership.
Hay, a pediatrician at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said this week that people who believe the district is moving in the right direction should vote for him. He pointed to the number of schools that have been removed from state watch lists — from 6 schools in 2012 down to 1 in 2017 — and the establishment of high-performing magnet and STEM programs at Ball High School and other campuses.
“If you think that we are a worse district now than we were six years ago, then you probably shouldn’t vote for me,” Hay said. “Are we perfect? Probably not. But I would say we’ve done pretty good work in six years.”
Addison has pledged to change the board of trustee’s culture, which she argues is resistant to input from parents and community members, and has pushed for greater public scrutiny of the district’s spending.
In a Facebook post this week, Addison said the board should stop the practice of passing deficit budgets, which has happened several times over the last 10 years, including in August, when the board approved an $86.2 million expense budget, while only projecting to collect $83.8 in revenue.
The district’s teachers also deserve raises, Addison said
“They’re not bringing home any extra money,” Addison said in a phone interview this week.
Addison offered few concrete proposals about how to balance the budget and increase salaries. She accused district administrators of spending too much money on travel and said that travel should be reduced — although she couldn’t say how much travel was costing the district.
She also suggested the district might be able to consolidate some its maintenance and janitorial expenses with the city of Galveston.
“When you reduce enough of these small expenses, it adds up to big amounts,” she said.
The district should also consider raising private money from alumni, she said.
Hay said he, too, supported raises, and said that increasing teacher wages was among reasons the board passed deficit budgets. The district had approved raises for teachers every year since 2013, he said.
“We didn’t deficit spend because we bought a new football stadium or 60 new school buses,” Hay said. “Given no raises we probably would have had a balanced budget.”
To address the deficit, Hay said he also supports a bond election, which would correct facility problems and reduce maintenance costs that contribute to the budget deficits.
The two are also at the sharpest odds over at Central Middle School and the school’s new administrative staff, which was hired in February at an expense of an additional $670,000.
The spending was necessary and will lead to improvements at the campus — which until this year had failed to meet state testing standards and was prompting threats of state intervention, Hay said. The district did not know Central had passed the state testing standards at the time it made the hiring decision, Hay said.
“You should say ‘kudos’ in spending $670,000 and biting the bullet and really going after those kids that need the most help,” Hay said. “You make a decision based on where you think you are. The feeling was that it was going to be really close and they weren’t going to meet standard.”
Addison called the spending at a single campus excessive and said there is an unequal distribution of wealth among the all of the district’s campuses.
“I don’t believe that I would have been able to support hiring the Central administrative team,” Addison said. “I run into teachers and I find out they don’t have the basic needs in their classrooms. They’re lacking resources.”
Her criticism of unevenness includes the district’s “schools of choice” program that allows families to choose which school to attend. When there are more applications for a school than spots available, students are distributed by a lottery. The exception is the Austin STEM Middle School where students are chosen based on their grades, attendance and conduct records.
Addison said the system funnels the best students to certain schools — particularly Austin — and is harmful to new Galveston families who move to the district and are forced to put their children in lower-performing schools because of a lack of open spots. She would not say whether she supported changing the current system to a lottery or to geography-based zoning, typically called neighborhood schools.
“I’m not saying that has to go away,” she said. “I think it’s important to understand how our schools work and are functioning. I would love to be able to research it further and hash it out.”
Hay defended the choice program, which was implemented after Hurricane Ike in 2008 reduced the number of students in the school district and forced the closure of some campuses. Hay said he believed moving to a neighborhood school system now would increase segregation in the district.
“The poor socioeconomic kids would be segregated and it would be worse for them,” Hay said. Under the current system, “You don’t need to have parents that can afford $1 million houses to be at Oppe,” he said, referring to an elementary school on the city’s West End.
The race hasn’t drawn big political spending. Addison raised about $2,500, according to finance reports filed with the district earlier this month. Hay reported receiving just $350 in contributions.
Hay and Addison haven’t debated in public. Addison, along with District 6-F candidates Beau Rawlins and Sandra Tetley, has declined to attend a candidate forum to be hosted Monday by The Daily News, arguing the event was biased against their campaigns.
Addison said she believes the school district’s administration, including Superintendent Kelli Moulton, is supporting Hay. She points to letters from Moulton informing school board candidates they couldn’t march in a homecoming parade with campaign signs, and reminding school district employees about state rules on involvement in political campaigns.
“I think they’re taking extreme measures to insert themselves in our campaign,” she said. “I believe it’s an attempt to encourage or ensure her preferred candidate is re-elected.”
Hay denied that there was any agreements between him and Moulton regarding the campaign and noted the rules applied to all the candidates.
“Those policies are across-the-board policies,” Hay said.
The drama has been accentuated on local social media pages, where the candidates or their supporters have sometimes resorted to name calling, Facebook bans and accusations of collusion.
Hay said he had abandoned Facebook since the campaign started, and was block-walking to gather support.
Early voting starts on Monday. Election Day is Nov. 7.