The upcoming school board election for Midland Independent School District is arguably one of the most critical in recent history. And among the two contested races on the ballot, one is certain to present a new voice to the district’s seven-member governing board: District 5.
Midland taxpayers just recently gained a new superintendent, are soon to face a $545 million debt proposal, and are undergoing a big shift in Midland ISD’s governance structure. The district has also fallen under the scrutiny of the Texas Education Agency for failing campuses.
The seat—which represents central-northeast Midland—was vacated earlier in 2018 by Karen Nicholson. She retired after a 12-year tenure on the board. The district includes Early College High School, San Jacinto and Goddard Junior High Schools, and Emerson and Santa Rita Elementary Schools. It’s also one of the fastest growing areas of Midland.
The three candidates vying for the open seat include Heidi Kirk, Thomas Wolfmueller, and John Trischitti III. Aside from Trischitti’s current role as Director of Libraries for Midland County, all are new to the political scene.
Texans for Fiscal Responsibility offered an endorsement in the race for District 5 and interviewed the candidates who responded: Kirk and Wolfmueller. Trischitti did not seek an endorsement.
Both Kirk and Wolfmueller offer a fresh perspective to the district’s governing board. While different in their own rights, they mirrored each other in terms of governing philosophies. They also made it clear that one issue is motivating both of their campaigns: addressing glaring culture concerns.
Both expressed that the present culture of the district has lent to its steady decline over the past decade and should be made a top priority if MISD is to recover. They both recognized that a culture change begins at the board level and could be addressed with improved communication, accountability for senior staff, and by providing more support to teachers and soliciting their feedback.
In addition, while the race is technically “nonpartisan,” both articulated values that align with the state’s Republican platform, such as zero-based budgeting, the need for statewide property tax reform, the expansion of education choice through charter schools, spending limitations tied to population plus inflation, and opposition to tax-funded lobbying.
Their similarities also include support for merit-based pay for teachers and other staff, which has been implemented with great success in Dallas ISD.
While considering their similarities, it’s important to note their vastly different backgrounds and professional experience.
As a former Lee High School teacher and mother of six, Kirk has a unique perspective of knowing firsthand what it’s like to work for MISD. She talked about the lack of support from central administration during her time as a teacher, feeling as though she wasn’t valued in her position or given the necessary tools to succeed, and how the stress of her job was so severe she gained nearly 80 pounds. As a teacher, Kirk also has insight into what policy changes are likely to yield increased student achievement.
To address the district’s issues, Kirk is campaigning on more accountability and transparency within the district through several means, including a community-driven ethics committee, anonymous reporting by staff, and performance metrics beyond what the TEA requires. She’s also a strong advocate for the concept of anonymous teacher surveys to help better understand problems, and to identify what’s driving employee attrition.
As a drilling engineer and father of three students in MISD, Wolfmueller has private sector experience and firsthand knowledge of the industry that drives Midland’s economy. While not having experience in the education sector, he seems eager to learn as seen in his consistent attendance at school board meetings. He also stated the importance of the board’s crucial oversight role on behalf of taxpayers and parents.
Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, who both served as school board members in their respective towns, Wolfmueller said he is tired of the existing board “rubber stamping” agenda items—namely the budget—and is not afraid to go against the status quo.
This rubber stamping is evident in a sample taken from the board’s voting record from April 2014 to April 2015, where trustees voted unanimously on 98.4 percent of its votes. Every vote recorded by the board passed, according to Ballotpedia. This is a common problem in many school boards in Texas.
The other contested board seat is in District 6, for which computer engineer Austin Beam, incumbent Board President Rick Davis, and former MISD teacher Lauren Party are running.
Early voting begins October 22 and Election Day is November 6.