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LISD superintendent talks teacher retention, politics and justice for Audrii

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By Emily Banks Wooten
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Brent HawkinsBrent HawkinsLivingston ISD Superintendent Dr. Brent E. Hawkins presented a program to the Rotary Club of Livingston Thursday, focusing on three topics – teacher retention and turnover rates; the state of the legislature and politics regarding education; and justice for Audrii Cunningham, the local fifth-grader who was abducted and murdered in February. In his 10th year as LISD superintendent, Hawkins is the longest-serving superintendent in the history of the district.

“President Reagan said, ‘The person that agrees with me 80% of the time is not 20% my enemy.’ We’ve lost that in society today. We’ve got two political parties. One of them has defunded the police and the other one has defunded public education and both of them are wrong. We need both of those entities for a robust society.

“You continue to hear that it’s hard to get teachers. It’s hard to get anybody in education. There is a shortage of educators. It doesn’t matter if it’s bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodial, secretaries, teachers, assistant principals, principals or even the poor old superintendent that gets kicked around a lot. Each one of those steps in our education system is crucial to the success of communities across our state. And each one of those are facing dire shortages. In 2022, the first-year teacher, 57% of those had an intern certification, 30% were on emergency certification and the rest had no certification at all.

“In 2022, the H.E. Butts Foundation did a survey that showed that 41% of our teaching staff had to have a second job to make ends meet. Three hundred seventy thousand teachers are employed in the State of Texas in public schools, educating the 5.5 million students that are 90% of the children in the state of Texas.

“Eighty-six thousand educators are projected to retire this year. That’s up 1,000 from the year before. Last year there were 26,000 new teachers in the state of Texas and the State of Texas student population grew 70,000 students. So, you can see real quick that our growth is outrunning our ability to intake new teachers. U.S. News & World Report concluded that 86% of school districts across our nation are struggling to hire teachers and 45% were understaffed, meaning that there were openings. And I can assure you, this year that number will climb. In the United States, there are 55,000 unfilled teacher spots. In New Mexico, in 2022, the governor of New Mexico sent the National Guard in to staff classrooms.

“You can see that we have problems of paramount importance. We need 50,000 new teachers in the state of Texas to start off fully staffed for the 5.5 million classes in the State of Texas. And we don’t have them. So, those of you, like I did, that voted in the Republican Primary, there was a proposition on the ballot that asked you do you believe in school choice basically. And I think 80-something % in this county said yes and now that’s being touted as 80% of this county supports vouchers. Well, that’s really not what the proposition said. The proposition asked did you believe in school choice. Well, who would say no to that? Who thinks that a parent shouldn’t have the right to choose where their child goes to school? So, there was some wordsmithing on that because in the State of Texas, you can home school your child, you can enroll your child in a charter school, a private school, a public school that you’re in their attendance zone, or in a lot of cases, an additional public school. You have choice. So, when you hear the word choice, most people believe in choice but most people probably don’t want to pay for your choice.

“I’m not in totality against vouchers and I’ll tell you why I’m not. I don’t mind competition. But at the same time, I’m pretty fiscally conservative and I don’t like wasting money. So, when we look at this voucher deal, the problem that I’ve got with it is number one, it’s not on the ballot for everybody in the State of Texas to get informed about and vote straight up or straight down for it, or straight up and straight down against it. Because what could that $500 million do in the State of Texas? It could lower people’s property taxes. It could fund public schools. Or it could pay for teachers’ insurance increase that hasn’t really been increased since the early 2000s. The state contribution has been stagnant.

“But make no mistake about it, the greatest fundraiser politically in the history of this state has been choice, school choice. There was a $6 million donation to Gov. Abbott to basically get 16 people in the State of Texas unelected. These representatives took well over 80% of the governor’s agenda and were champions for it. They ran hundreds of thousands of dollars of TV commercials and sent you mailers if you live in San Jacinto County that said that your representative could not be trusted, that your representative was lax on border security, said a lot of things but didn’t really say anything on vouchers because we can’t call a voucher a voucher. We’ve got to call it choice or education savings account (ESA) when at the end of the day, it’s really none of those things.

“What it is, is a government-bloated entitlement program. There’s $500 million sitting in Austin this evening that was not appropriated, that was meant for 50,000 voucher students to be allocated so that they could go to private schools – schools with no accountability and no say of the people who are paying the tax dollars.

“The full cost of vouchers under the home school students and private school student act that was proposed in the last legislative session would have been around $21 billion. If all eligible students – public and private and home-schooled – received the $10,500 ESA, that’s $63 billion. Keep in mind that the foundation school program that funds public schools is $26 billion so the money does not add up.

“Livingston has been fully staffed and we’ve been blessed tremendously. We’ve been blessed by a Board of Trustees that supports our recruitment and retention plan. We’ve been blessed by administrative stability. Our professional turnover rate last year was 10%. That’s one of the lowest in the state for any school anywhere near our demographic.

“The only way you fix education is by making sure that the profession is held in esteem and respect that it used to be in. We’ve got great teachers in our classrooms and that’s why I’m not opposed to any type of competition. Livingston is going to continue to have great teachers in the classroom. The behavior of adults is what determines the outcomes of students and as long as we can keep the best teachers in front of our kids, we’re going to always prevail.

“There’s no one around us that does the things that we do and I’m very proud of that. It’s been a long hard road to get to where we have 17 career pathways and 52 programs of study at Livingston High School. Our kids are doing everything from welding to cosmetology to becoming the next generation of engineers.

“I want to address some things about Audrii. Audrii Cunningham, as you know, was a wonderful young lady that was in our school system and her life was cut short all too soon. My heart is broken for what happened to Audrii and I’d be remiss if I didn’t continue to talk about what it is that needs to be for justice for Audrii. I’ve been asked that question a whole lot. The system did not fail Audrii Cunningham. People failed Audrii Cunningham. We’ve got a pretty great system in our state and in the United States but we’re not perfect. We’re not perfect because we’re human beings. And along the road, there were choices made that weren’t good and it led to where we are today.

“As you look at justice for that young lady … some of you may not agree with this, but I’m very blunt about it, there needs to be a message sent to all of the other serial criminals in our society and there is no other option other than capital punishment. The death penalty is the only punishment that sends a just message to whoever is convicted for this heinous crime of this precious child period. There is no other path forward.

“Secondly, going back to those political parties, we’ve got to fund things. My teachers and my school district have been operating since 2019 on the same dollar. You know what’s happened to your money. Groceries, insurance, I could go on and on about the cost of living that has gone up. We haven’t gotten any new money. We’re still operating pre-COVID on money and our school teachers are the only people that the legislature acts on in the State of Texas that did not get any raise. There were no additional monies, but the Board of Trustees gave a raise. That’s local funds, but we were the only ones I guess that weren’t worthy of a raise in the State of Texas. We’ve got to fund public schools, fully fund public schools. If you want things right, you have to fund them.

“We’ve to figure out a way to staff law enforcement and staff Child Protective Services. We’ve got to open up our pockets and put our money where our treasure is. And that’s on children. And then we’ve got to have accountability for that. I am totally for, if I fail to report something damaging to a child, take my certificate, hold me in whatever criminal aspect that you can hold me in, shame on me. But that system needs to do the same thing if we’re really trying to do what’s right for children. So there has to be accountability with that staffing.

“There needs to be a change in public education. We have Audrii as the face of abuse and neglect. It’s become personal because we can see her face, but she’s not by herself. There are a lot of children in our society today that are being abused and neglected. I think there’s something like 40,000 kids in the State of Texas that are in foster care. But in our community alone, there are children that are being neglected and children that are being abused. You just don’t see their face. And I continue to get asked, ‘Why don’t y’all go to a four-day week?’ Well, let me ask you this. Was Audrii Cunningham better at Creekside Elementary five days a week of would you rather send her home where she could see stuff that she probably shouldn’t have seen on that day? Good God Almighty, if I could keep kids seven days a week, I’d keep them, because our teachers love our children. We might not be perfect, but they have a passion for those kids.

“That’s why I feel strongly about keeping those doors open five days a week as long as I can possibly staff the school district and convince the Board of Trustees to make that decision. Audrii Cunningham was a lot better in five-day-a-week school than she was four, because over the course of 12 years of public schooling, that’s 423 days of school that she would have missed – K through 12 – 423 days that she would have been out there in maybe an unsafe place. So, to me, opening that door for an extra day is worth it.”

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