Schools Superintendent Tom Burris said this year’s election was unusual, with nine candidates vying for four seats. Burris said the school board is a reflection of the community and it’s a good thing there is so much interest in the board.
“You know, it was interesting to have four members of the school board up at the same time, but that was caused by resignations of other members and so having four brand new members, or having four members in the elections is kind of unusual, and to have each one of those opposed is even more unusual and having nine (candidates), for four positions, that shows a lot of interest in the school board and in the school and that’s good,” he said.
One of the biggest concerns Roswell has with the Roswell Independent School District is teacher recruitment and retention. With nearly 30 teacher positions currently not filled, each candidate expressed the need to rethink the districts current recruitment and retention practices, and fill each position with a highly qualified teacher.
Burris said when he took over the superintendent position, there were over 60 positions open. He said under his leadership things have improved but there are always roadblocks, with teachers coming and going.
“When I came to the district we had around 65 openings, so … it’s two steps forward, one step back. We hire two people, but one person retires, then we go out and hire three people, and two retire, or sometimes we lose one of those slots,” Burris said.
Some of the positions currently not filled include special education and gifted positions, which are always open. Burris said if you take those out of the loop, there’s really only a handful of positions not filled, and RISD is in no different shape than most districts across the nation.
“We are not in any different position than a lot of the school districts in the state, and a lot of school districts in the nation. There’s generally a lack of qualified teachers who are coming out of college. They’re choosing other careers for whatever reason, that is,” Burris said.
The district has current plans to recruit this year from Greely, Colorado; Lubbock and El Paso, Texas; and Albuquerque.
On Friday, Burris explained that there are a couple of reasons why the current school district grade is so low.
“Just two years ago we shifted over to the PAARC test from the SBA test. We’ve also shifted from a standards-based curriculum to common core. Both of those things have caused us to take a little bit of a dip. We had been a ‘C’ district for quite a few years, except for last year which was a ‘D,’ but we brought it up to a ‘C’ again this year,” Burris said.
Involvement in turnaround leadership programs with the state, as well as with the University of Virginia, are improving the overall school district grade.
“What we noticed is our schools that were involved with the University of Virginia and our schools that our leaders have been involved with the turnaround leadership programs with the state, those schools actually did better this year than last year. So we put a lot of thought in, the training just has to get there. We’re on the climb,” Burris said.
With testing this year in March and April, Burris said the district is confident they will see a significant improvement in the schools. Burris said he keeps hearing that New Mexico is 49th in the nation for education, but he doesn’t believe that’s the case. Especially in Roswell.
“We keep hearing we’re No. 49 in the nation. I don’t believe that, especially here in Roswell, I think we’re a lot better school district than that study indicates, and I’m just looking forward to working with the new school board,” Burris said.
Another issue that came up during the campaign was open communication or transparency in all the district’s departments. Burris said one of his methodologies has been through the superintendents advisory council that meets once a month, with minutes from the meeting posted on the RISD website.
“I think I can do a better job with informing people that that’s there. It’s not one of those things that a lot of people are aware thats out there. Those minutes contain any concern, any celebrations any conversations. A lot of times one school personnel will talk to another school personnel and they’ll solve problems between them,” Burris said.
The advisory council, Burris said, gets valuable feedback and is a chance for members to collaborate on an issue.
The issue of employee morale was also strongly voiced by candidates during the election. Burris said the lack of pay increases plays a huge part in the morale of employees.
“A lot of discussion out there on morale being tied to pay increases or the lack of pay increases, and I agree with that. It’s good when we can give a pay increase every year,” Burris said. “So the board is going to have to take a hard look at that, especially in light of the position we’re in with the state, and state finances.”
Burris said using “one-time money” to fund raises for everyone is a huge risk because those funds won’t be available to fund raises the next year. He said he’s been advocating for teacher raises in Santa Fe, but with current budget issues, it doesn’t look like the district will be able to give them.
“I have been in Santa Fe advocating for our teachers, we need a raise, we need a raise, we need more money, and of course the Legislature is going the other way, we don’t have money for, even fake money,” Burris said.
As superintendent, Burris said that makes him feel like he is caught between a rock and a hard spot.
“A lot of people see the superintendent as the one that holds the purse strings that holds the authority, who can do yes and no, which we do, but you have to be mindful too either, if you get to a position if you’re laying off people, or doing furlough days, that’s not good for anybody,” Burris said.
Burris said he is looking forward to working with the new board.
“I know they’re all student centered, they’re all concerned about the welfare of students, about how our students get out and compete with the rest of the state as far as education when they go to college, or when they go to the job market after that, or even the vo-tech job markets. School boards are always a reflection of the community, and a reflection of community values and they will work very hard I’m sure to ensure that all students have equal opportunity, equal chance and great teachers,” Burris said.
Staff writer Bethany Freudenthal can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or firstname.lastname@example.org