Candidates for the Denton ISD school board answer questions during the local NAACP forum hosted remotely Tuesday evening. Clockwise from top left: candidates Kathy Tillman and Amy Bundgus, Denton County NAACP President Willie Hudspeth, event organizer Meredith Smith and candidate and current board member Barbara Burns.

Denton ISD school board candidates answered questions centered around diversity, board responsibilities and district policy during Tuesday evening’s forum organized by the Denton County NAACP.

All four candidates were invited, and three participated in the virtual meeting. They took turns answering questions from local NAACP President Willie Hudspeth.

Issues of race

Two questions dealt directly with racial diversity among Denton ISD officials.

Hudspeth kicked off the forum by asking: “Do you think we have enough minorities in leadership positions?”

Barbara Burns, the only incumbent running for reelection in Denton ISD, said the district is working to have enough role models for all students, and she pointed to a resolution passed in December in which members agreed to put an emphasis on hiring more diverse district leaders.

“Experts in the field will say that it is important for children to see role models in their school that look like them,” Burns said.

Kathy Tillman, her opponent, was clear she didn’t think the district had enough people belonging to racial minorities in leadership positions.

“No, it is not diverse enough to take care of the community in my judgment, and we have to do better,” she said.

Candidate Amy Bundgus declined to comment directly without seeing what the current racial demographics are in leadership positions, but she agreed diversity at all levels of district employees is important.

Bundgus is running against Sheryl English, who declined to attend the virtual meeting. Both are running to fill the seat vacated by longtime trustee Jeanetta Smith.

The three candidates at the forum stuck to similar talking points later on when Hudspeth asked why the district hasn’t ever hired a head football coach who was Black or Hispanic since segregation ended.

The question has been a particular sticking point for Hudspeth in years past. He would periodically attend school board meetings to raise the same criticism during open forum segments.

“We hear that question quite a lot, don’t we, Mr. Hudspeth?” Burns asked.

“Yes we do,” he responded.

She said the district is making strides in that area.

Tillman said the lack of racial diversity among district employees is, in part, what “motivated me to even go through this process to be” a board member.

Bundgus said she couldn’t comment on previous district decision-making.

“I don’t care what your background is,” she said. “If you’re eligible to fill that role, you should absolutely be filling that role.”

First order of business

Asked about her first order of business if elected, Bundgus said she would focus on the roughly 32% of students who are classified as at-risk.

Burns said the pandemic caused her to look more closely at students’ social and emotional learning.

Tillman said she would place a greater emphasis on higher education, look to increase the number of counselors and get teachers more assistants to help out in the classroom.

Term limits

Tillman supported the idea of term limits for school board members “because I feel that when you are there too long, I don’t know if the person is really in touch with what is really going on in the school system and the community.”

Term limits would be one way to keep fresh voices on the board, she said.

Burns said the election process acts as a sort of term limit, and nobody ran to contest board seats in the past two election cycles.

She said her nearly 50 years in the district and her years as a board member have qualified her to look to the past and the future.

Burns was first elected in 2012 and has been reelected each cycle since.

Four of the seven current board members have been on the board longer than Burns.

Bundgus said she sees the value of term limits but also recognizes there is a learning curve to being an effective board member.

Unanimous votes

Hudspeth pointed out the Denton school board hasn’t had dissenting votes during public meetings for many years, and he asked if that is a good or bad thing.

Burns said it is a good thing, and that board members workshop and adjust items before putting them to a vote.

“The ultimate goal is that you reach consensus on the board,” she said.

Tillman disagreed and said too many decisions were being made behind closed doors.

Bundgus said she’d heard from many constituents who felt the district was rubber-stamping issues. She said she would vote against the majority if it was what voters wanted.

Moving kids along

Hudspeth said second, third and fourth graders who weren’t performing on grade level were being moved along, and he asked if the candidates support that policy.

Tillman said she didn’t, and it creates an environment where students must play catch-up. She said teachers’ assistants might be able to help alleviate learning gaps.

Bundgus said the question was a hard one, and the district should do whatever it takes to bring students up to snuff.

Burns said consideration of students’ social and emotional well-being is at issue, and she pointed to several district programs meant to help students catch up.

The missing candidate

English said she declined to attend the meeting because she didn’t agree with the way the forum was organized, according to an emailed statement sent to the Denton Record-Chronicle ahead of the meeting.

She wrote that Denton City Council candidates who participated in Monday’s NAACP forum gave her the impression the forum was a private event organized by Hudspeth, who was the only person to ask questions both days.

“It was under the guise of NAACP, but it was a Willie Hudspeth forum and that is unacceptable,” English wrote.

Additionally, she wrote, local NAACP members weren’t informed of the forums ahead of time.

When asked for comment after Tuesday’s forum, Hudspeth said he sent notice of the forum to everybody included in his regular “email blast.”

“It is a small number now,” he said. “Because of COVID, we’re just trying to figure it all out.”

Hudspeth said the group is small, but it’s the same group of people who always participate in such events, anyway.

He said that aside from being online-only, the format of the forum was the same as it had been in past years, and he hadn’t heard any complaints from English or other candidates after he sent four emails updating them about the forums before they kicked off.

MARSHALL REID can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @MarshallKReid.

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