Teacher merit pay, enrollment among topics at McAllen school candidate forum

McAllen school board candidates vying for office in the May election talked about budget issues, enrollment and merit pay among other topics during an open forum Tuesday night.

Six of the eight candidates answered questions and shared their platforms during the event at the Rowe High School Auditorium. The district will hold early voting from April 22 to 30 and Election Day is May 4 for the races for Places 1, 2, 4 and 5. An audience of about 50 people scattered across the room listened and voiced their concerns through questions written on notes handed to organizers.

Each candidate had about two minutes for each round of questions, with an extension for the final question.

Merit pay and its link to teachers in the classroom was the first question of the forum.

Place 1 Trustee Marco Suarez defended his position against candidate Juan “Johnny” Cano.

Suarez does not support merit pay but ideally the concept could be applied to the district as a whole, he said.

“It’s not just about the teachers and the principals, it’s about what makes it all work, the climate inside of our rooms, how our kids get to school, the food they eat, so it’s not just about an individual basis, it’s about everything,” Suarez said.

If the district is looked at holistically in its performance, it would reap benefits as it has met standards and boasts many accomplishments, he said.

His challenger, Cano, said merit pay would breed competition with other employees and that cooperation is necessary for success.

“We’re supposed to be a family, we work together because we share students,” he said.

The measure would be detrimental to helping students and the community, Cano said.

Enrollment and the loss of students to other districts were a major concern.

Place 2 Trustee Conrado “Ito” Alvarado relayed his experience and what needs to go forward in his campaign for re-election against candidate Lynse Guerra.

The trend of losing students has lasted 10 years but the district has made strides in academic accomplishments, he said. The district has not relayed its success the way many charter schools have, but has improved in telling the community its achievements.

“We’re on the right track, we just need to tell our story,” Alvarado said.

“We are reversing the trend, it’s just a matter of time before we start getting our students,” he added.

Strong sports, fine arts and programs like chess are offered to students where other districts don’t have same opportunities, Alvarado said.

Guerra said that the district losing students affects everyone, and the decline in enrollment impacts the funds available to operate. Implementing new programs, changing classroom operations and expanding existing features could bring students back into the district, she said.

“That’s what we need to be doing, we need to be implementing those in the very near future, because we cannot continue on this trend of student loss,” Guerra said.

Place 4 Trustee Tony Forina said it’s necessary to find a way to raise salaries across the board. However, administrators are the ones to make decisions on where funds are cut and board members do not have that responsibility. Budget cuts affect every part of operations, he pointed out.

“We need to make sure that the cuts we make are precision cuts and are going to do the least amount of damage to the district in morale, in effectiveness, and (efficiency). We need to make sure that is complete,” Forina said.

However other districts are scoping McAllen ISD’s standard for pay and gauge their plans around that, he said.

His challenger, candidate Gina Karam Millin, said the House Bill is more comprehensive in addressing school finance and is more beneficial to serving the population in McAllen.

If the district faces budget cuts, Millin proposes looking at what programs should have priority in success and lining it up with teacher input, she said.

Both board president Daniel Vela and challenger Don Delaney for Place 5 were not present for the forum.