McALLEN, January 16 - McAllen ISD Superintendent James Ponce says the school’s award-winning board of trustees deserves praise for its vision and for focusing on helping students achieve their dreams.
“Yes, the board looks at today and who is going to be our paper vendor. But they are also setting up a framework, a stage for our students to flourish beyond today,” Ponce told the Guardian. “I tell the public as often as I can that the biggest value our board of trustees has is thinking about tomorrow. That is where their real value lies.”
Ponce made his remarks at the conclusion of McAllen ISD's annual Partners in Excellence Breakfast, which was held on Monday morning at the McAllen Convention Center. The event is held each year to thank local community groups and businesses who "partner up" with McAllen ISD schools.
At the event, Suzanne Marchmen, director of communications and media relations for the Texas Association of School Administrators, presented plaques to each member of the McAllen ISD board of trustee. In 2012, the trustees won the “Outstanding Board of the Year” award from TASA. In brief remarks, McAllen ISD board president Hilda Garza-DeShazo said the award was won thanks to the hard work of McAllen ISD staff and students.
In his interview with the Guardian, Ponce said McAllen ISD has to be “nimble” in its teaching so that students are ready for the rapid technological changes occurring in the world today. Over the past year, McAllen ISD has garnered national and international attention for providing mobile devices such as iPads and iPods to each student. The project is known as TLC3.
“Expectations have changed. It used to be, ‘you are leaving and you are going to be doing this. We will get you ready.’ Now, we are preparing nimble minds because as the kids leave they have to be ready for anything,” Ponce said.
“The jobs that are available now are not necessarily the jobs that will be here two years from now. It may be in the industry but the jobs are going to be different. I speak to business leaders here and across the country. They need an employee who can be that nimble themselves because the job will not be the same.”
As a result, Ponce said, McAllen ISD has to consider carefully what learning system it is supporting. “Are we continuing to bolster the past, or are we adaptable enough to say, what do our current kindergarten students need from us?”
Ponce also talked about TLC3 in his presentation.
“In the past, the highest standard for technology for a classroom looked like this: a desktop computer, electronic document reader, and overhead for a teacher and four desktop computers for all the students in that classroom to take turns sharing. Today, every one of our students has his or her own device and the learning continues even after the school day ends,” Ponce said.
Ponce also explained how, in response to state budget cuts, McAllen ISD has implemented cost saving measures without asking staff to quit. “One and a half years ago, some districts were forced to lay off employees. We steered clear of that by taking some pretty bold measures. A number of new strategies were put into place. We have a balanced budget, a healthy fund balance, and we can provide competitive compensation packages to recruit and retain the best staff,” he said.
Ponce said that in May, 2009, McAllen ISD’s unassigned fund balance stood at $9.2 million. In just three fiscal years, however, the District has built a $31.1 million increase. The result is McAllen ISD now has an unassigned fund balance of nearly $40.3 million.
To address the state funding cuts that threatened staffing cuts last year, McAllen ISD established district-wide staffing ratios, Ponce said. He said it provided an Early Incentive Program and worked with employees whose positions had been cut to place them into positions as they became available. “We used federal stimulus funding to pay some salaries. We changed the District’s fiscal year ending date from August 31 to June 30. This created a one-time infusion of cash and increase to fund balance,” Ponce explained.
McAllen ISD also completed and approved a Five Year Strategic Plan in February, 2010, Ponce told the audience. “Every purchase is closely scrutinized and we have been diligent in increasing transparency and efficiency. The Business Operations Department conducts training—budget workshops for staff for the board to ensure that all accounting procedures as well as state and federal guidelines are followed. The number of budget workshops were increased from about two to six per year.”
Ponce said the budget development process has been expanded each year to provide the Board with all relevant information for their approval of the budget. He said the District received a FIRST (Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas) rating of Superior Achievement – its ninth in the past ten years.
In order to pay for increased infrastructure, including the TLC3 project, McAllen ISD has been maximizing the use of federal dollars.
“We applied for QSCAB dollars. That’s the Qualified School Construction Bonds. Because of our Superior financial rating, we got the best possible interest rate—zero. We took that $17 million and put it into conservation measures. Those energy savings measures have led to an average savings of $40,000 per month on the District’s electricity bill alone,” Ponce said.
“This reduced electricity consumption also comes back to us in incentive checks—totaling $90,000 this year. This green conservation investment goes across the board. Besides electrical, water, and energy savings, it also includes using an environmentally-friendly green approach, like using sustainable sites, targeting indoor air quality, and improved ventilation. The result is a better learning environment, while at the same time producing more savings.”
In total, Ponce said, a $30 million investment has been made by McAllen ISD. Based on a 1.66 multiplying factor, this investment creates a nearly $50 million financial impact to the local economy, he said.
In praising the McAllen ISD board of trustees, Ponce said its members are focused, informed, dedicated, passionate and courageous.
“They have a laser like focus on student achievement and an expectation that all students be prepared for a career or college. They are informed about the issues that impact academics, finances, assessment and the operations of our district. They are dedicated, spending countless hours spent - many at their family’s expense - of preparing; listening; analyzing and acting,” Ponce said.
“They have been passionate about children, their families and resources that foster a safe and welcoming 21st century learning environment. And they have had the courage to make the right decision versus the popular decision; to take a stand for local control; to be a leading voice in school finance litigation and to champion an initiative that, in spite of the critics, has become recognized at the local, state and national level as a bold move that levels the playing field for all students in a highly technical competitive world.”
Ponce concluded his remarks by saying that when he was young he used to say I was lucky. “As I got older I would say I was fortunate. Now, I know that I am truly blessed; blessed to serve the students of McAllen ISD alongside these dedicated, caring, and courageous individuals (the school board); individuals who collectively make up a team; a team that is taking bold steps to meet the challenges that confront public education at the local, state and national level.”