Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 11 to correct the number of years the candidate has lived in HPISD.
Legal consulting sales
HPISD resident for 31 years
Why are you running?
My wife, Liza (Graham) Ellis, and I both graduated from HPHS in 1990, and before our children were born, we both worked as classroom teachers in the Highland Park schools. Today, we are the proud parents of an amazing daughter who will graduate from HPHS in May and an amazing son who will advance from HPMS to the high school this fall. From my days as an HPISD student, as a classroom teacher, and now as a parent and volunteer, I understand the culture, structure, processes, history, and goals of our school district in a unique way. At HPHS, we learned the importance of service and giving back to our community.
I am running for HPISD School Board Trustee because I want to ensure that HPISD’s tradition of excellence that I experienced as a student, and that my children experience today, continues for the next generation. I am the candidate who has spent the last 25 years serving HPISD in numerous leadership and volunteer capacities including, most recently, as a Director on the Boards of Directors of the Highland Park Education Foundation (HPEF) and the Highland Park Alumni Association (HPAA) for a combined 17 years of board service; as a volunteer on the Principal’s Sounding Board for the past three years; as a member of the Teacher/Administrator/Parent/Student Committee for Review of the HPISD Extra Curricular Code of Conduct; as a member of the HPHS Inclusion and Respect Committee; as a Co-Chair of the Centennial Celebration Event Planning Committee; and as the sideline analyst and post-game interviewer for the Highland Park football radio broadcast team.
Additionally, my educational and professional experience positions me to be an effective Trustee who will be ready to take on substantial roles for the district on my first day as a Trustee. After graduating from Harvard University, I returned to HPHS to work as a classroom teacher and coach before attending law school at the University of Texas. I went on to practice law at Gardere & Wynne before becoming a businessman in the field of litigation consulting and support. As a lawyer, I learned to see issues from all perspectives and develop creative solutions. As a businessman, I have the practical skills and judgment needed to communicate with community members, strategically analyze issues, build consensus, and implement solutions. And as a former classroom teacher, I know what our school district employees need to fulfill the District’s fundamental responsibility of providing the best possible education for our children.
How would you grade the past board member? What would you do different?
The success or failure of public education within HPISD is the responsibility of the Trustees. While the Superintendent is responsible for HPISD’s daily operations, the School Board Trustees must, clearly and wisely, establish the direction for HPISD. To give the district a clear sense of direction, Trustees not only must set comprehensive district goals and policies designed to maximize educational excellence for HPISD’s students, but also must regularly monitor HPISD’s progress toward accomplishing those goals and implementing those policies. The School Board Trustees must also work with and evaluate the Superintendent’s performance against these goals. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trustees must exercise responsible stewardship of public funds by adopting an annual budget for HPISD to ensure that the district avoids and eliminates all unnecessary spending while maximizing the overall revenue available for the maintenance and operation of the school district. In carrying out these duties, Trustees must be accessible and open-minded resources for community members whose voices are heard, whose questions are answered, and whose concerns are addressed.
In my personal experience dealing with HPISD Trustees, they have generally been accessible, open-minded, earnest, and willing to help. However, there can always be room for improvement.
As a School Board Trustee, I would seek to improve communication and transparency within the HPISD community. With a personal track record of listening first, respecting all points of view, diligently researching critical and relevant information, and building consensus, as an HPISD School Board Trustee, I vow to be an accessible resource for all school district residents who have questions, comments, concerns, ideas, or complaints related to the district’s goals for accomplishing educational excellence.
What is the district’s biggest challenge? How would you address it?
The most difficult challenge for HPISD to overcome is its competitive disadvantage for recruiting, supporting, and retaining excellent teachers caused by insufficient state funding.
As a former Highland Park High School classroom teacher, I know that educational excellence depends heavily on the school district’s ability to compete with other districts for the best teachers in North Texas. With limited dollars available for teacher compensation, and with a large percentage of our district’s teachers driving through good school districts on their way to and from Highland Park during their daily commutes, it is critical that our district’s leadership advocate for better compensation for our teachers, not only to better compete with other school districts and private educational companies who want to take our district’s best teachers, but also to demonstrate HPISD’s commitment to educational excellence and appreciation for the teachers who invest so heavily in the lives of our students. As a Trustee, my highest priority will be to improve the school district’s competitive position for recruiting, supporting, and retaining the best teachers by constantly reviewing expenditures to ensure that wasteful spending is minimized or eliminated and by helping to lead the district in efforts to maximize private giving and identify new sources of private funds to support the district’s teachers.
What would you do to see that education in the district is adequately funded?
As a result of the state’s school finance system recapturing local school property taxes for redistribution throughout the state, HPISD is forced to rely on community members to raise millions of dollars, annually, to simply balance its budget and pay its teachers. Although HPISD is fortunate to have the support of a generous community and selfless volunteers who organize and execute private fund-raising efforts to provide the necessary funds to balance the district’s budget, there are only two ways for the district to address the difficult challenges of school funding: decreasing expenditures and increasing available revenues.
On the expenditures side, with the district facing dire school funding challenges, it is critical that School Board Trustees exercise fiscal conservatism to maximize the educational benefits of each dollar spent by the school district. Therefore, I will work with the other HPISD Trustees to scrutinize, in detail, the annual budgets proposed by the Superintendent. I will oppose any proposed expenditures that do not further the district’s primary goal of providing excellent education for our students.
On the revenue side, the sources of revenue fall within two broad categories: state funding and private funding.
In the current climate of our state’s rapidly evolving school finance laws, it is imperative that a Trustee have a good understanding of our state’s rapidly evolving school finance laws. I have spent many years studying the school district’s annual budgets and the state’s school finance laws. As a Trustee, I will continue to meet with our community’s State Representative, Morgan Meyer, not only to learn updates on legislative activities out of Austin, but also to share with him updates on the challenges that HPISD faces, while continuing to support his efforts to provide local “property rich” school districts like HPISD with greater discretionary funding to help HPISD balance its annual budgets and provide competitive compensation for its teachers.
Regardless of what school finance changes our legislature may enact this session, HPISD will continue to rely heavily on private fund raising to balance its annual budgets. As a member of the HPEF Strategic Planning Committee, I am already working with district leadership, including the Superintendent, towards strategically assessing how to maximize private fund raising. As a Trustee, I would like to take on an even greater role in working with members of the various groups who so generously give of their time and their money to identify new and better ways to raise funds to support the district’s annual operation and maintenance expenses while also strategically growing the value of the Tartan Endowment Fund to provide a long-term solution to the district’s financial challenges. Ultimately, if the Trustees can work more closely with the various fundraising groups within the school district to determine, and more clearly identify and communicate, the school district’s critical needs, then we can achieve more successful private fundraising with a more successful long-term strategy.
What is one thing you would change, or aim to improve, within the district?
Given HPISD’s financial situation that hinders the district’s ability to attract, hire, support, and retain excellent teachers, it is critical that the district do an even better job of engaging and communicating with its larger community (including all parents, residents, alumni, and local businesses) to foster even stronger partnerships and support. As a Trustee, I would work toward even greater transparency around, and proactive communication about, the district’s finances so that our community clearly understands that the district’s critical financial needs are basic and essential. To provide excellent education for our students, HPISD relies on the generous support of the community to pay its teachers, and HPISD needs the continuing support of the community if it is going to do a better job of hiring and retaining excellent teachers.
How should the district approach the redistricting of the elementary schools?
The district recognized that each of our elementary schools is deeply loved and part of a unique smaller community within the district. Changing attendance boundaries will be an emotional and sensitive endeavor. To ensure transparency and fairness, a subcommittee of three School Board Trustees worked with district administrators to create the process by which a recommendation for boundary rezoning will be created. Recognizing that fairness and transparency in the process require substantial community participation, the subcommittee proposed the creation of a Boundary Rezoning Committee, composed of eight parent volunteers (two from each elementary school), three current Trustees, two former Trustees, and two community members, with the Superintendent and two other school district employees serving as ex-officio members. The Committee will be charged with the task of developing, and recommending to the Board of Trustees, a comprehensive district-wide boundary plan for all five elementary schools. Fairness and transparency in the process require substantial community participation, and the subcommittee did a good job by reserving eight of the 15 places on the Boundary Rezoning Committee for elementary school parent volunteers.
As a trustee, I would support the process already in place and would encourage members of the committee to consider not just current enrollment numbers but also a variety of issues and concerns, including but not limited to potential growth, traffic patterns, travel distance, and safety, in an objective, data-driven, and transparent manner.
The Committee will recommend a new boundary proposal to the Board of Trustees, who will then make the final determination and have the ultimate responsibility of ensuring that the final solution is the best one for the community.
Grade the district on implementation of the bond program. What would you do different?
In 2015, HPISD voters approved a $361.4 million construction bond. The district was then tasked with carrying-out the wishes of the voters with fiscal stewardship. Among the largest construction projects funded by the bond were the building of a fifth elementary school; the demolition and rebuilding of three elementary schools; and substantial addition to and renovation of a fourth elementary school, the middle school, and the high school.
With the financial challenges HPISD faces, it is important to note that the construction projects have not taken any funds away from the dollars HPISD has available to pay salaries and other operational and maintenance costs. Nonetheless, the district must be a good steward of public dollars, and the district was able to save the tax payers some money by issuing the debt at a lower cost than estimated at the time of the bond election.
So far, the district has been able to remain on budget, and largely on schedule, having timely completed the construction of a new fifth elementary school and a new University Park Elementary School and the renovations at Armstrong, with a third elementary school rebuild on schedule to open this fall.
Having incurred some unanticipated drainage challenges with the underground parking garage beneath the athletic field, construction at the intermediate/middle school campus has been slower than planned. Although outdoor sport athletes have had to relocate practices to other athletic facilities within the school district, the district has largely been able to prevent the construction delays from causing any substantial classroom distractions or other inconvenience for the middle school students.
Construction at the high school continues in phases and has not displaced any students from daily instruction on campus.
In summary, although some projects are taking longer than anticipated, and some unforeseeable challenges have arisen, given the magnitude of the construction projects, to-date, HPISD has done a good job of remaining on-task and meeting the most critical deadlines to avoid any disruptive displacement of students from on-site classrooms, and the district has done a good job of providing regular construction updates to the community.