New group wants to hold FWISD board accountable for failing students. It’s about time

Cynthia M. Allen
·3 min read

Every election season, someone or some group asserts that “this is the election of our lifetimes,” or that “your vote matters now more than ever” — usually part of an effort (often futile) to get more people to the polls.

But there are times when it seems true.

For a growing number of parents and community leaders, the upcoming vote in five of the nine Fort Worth ISD districts, feels like a moment that will determine schools’ directions for years to come.

“I was completely stunned to find out that among the 20 largest districts in Texas, we are dead last” in state ratings, said Wes Turner, former publisher of the Star-Telegram and a FWISD grandparent.

It compelled Turner to join parents, business owners and other leaders to form the Focus on Students PAC, or FOS, a local organization whose mission is to get children who are foundering in the public school system on the right track.

The group’s goals are simple and clear: to establish a culture of high expectations, accountability, transparency, and professional ethics in FWISD and to keep district leaders focused on improving academic outcomes.

There’s a reason that the state of our schools has been a topic of discussion even among Fort Worth mayoral and city council candidates who have no authority over ISDs. Schools affect everything from crime and the workforce to city leaders’ efforts to attract economic investment.

Their success or failure is tantamount to the broader outcome for the city. And right now, success is no certainty.

It’s no secret that the pandemic has caused significant learning losses, particularly for kids lacking resources and extra support at home.

But, as Turner points out, FWISD’s poor student performance was in decline long before the pandemic hit.

In 2015, FWISD was ahead of big city districts such as Dallas and Houston. But in 2019, 27 percent of district schools received a “D” or “F” grade from the Texas Education Agency; the district received a 79 percent rating overall.

Meanwhile, Dallas and Houston, cities with similar student demographics and equally complex hurdles to achievement, were rated 86 and 88.

“COVID has been a revealing factor of many of our systems that have broken down,” said John Pritchett, director of FOS.

Change, the members of FOS believe, will come only when board trustees focus on students achievement in reading, math and other crucial subjects and set aside the kinds of politics and distractions that J.T. Aughinbaugh, a FWISD parent and steering committee member for the PAC, says have become a “smokescreen for academic performance.”

Another pillar of FOS’s agenda is holding Superintendent Kent Scribner accountable.

“When you sit on a board, you don’t tell the CEO how to run the company; you provide good government for good performance, said Turner, who’s now on the board for the Fort Worth Report, a new nonprofit news website. “You set the expectations and provide support so they can fulfill their plan.”

As for Scribner’s performance — it “speaks for itself,” Turner said, declining to say whether the group thinks Scribner should be replaced.

Aughinbaugh noted that the board extended Scribner’s contract and raised his pay despite continued lags in achievement, arguing that “speaks for the board leadership’s judgment.”

While the members of FOS are clear about where they believe the board leadership has failed, they aren’t reflexively opposed to the current board. Two of the three candidates they endorsed this year are incumbents: District 4 trustee Daphne Brookins and District 8 trustee Anael Luebanos. The group backs Michael Shedd for the open District 9 seat.

Pritchett said FOS will lend enthusiastic support to candidates who have demonstrated a willingness to be independent of political distractions. That isn’t easy in these political times, but it’s encouraging to know there are candidates who believe it will lead to better outcomes for kids.

Ultimately, “voters are the ones who hold the board accountable,” Pritchett said.

Even if you don’t believe this is the “election of your lifetime,” it matters — a lot.

So, vote. And maybe check out Focus on Students’ endorsements before you do.