DRC_StephensTasteTest2

Stephens Elementary fifth-grader Jaida Klimpel gives feedback on some of the new food products Denton ISD planned to work into lunch menus. Klimpel sent an email to school board President Mia Price about the food back in January.

Whether it was a complaint over cafeteria food or a school scandal that divided an entire town, 2018 was the year of bringing campus issues to light. Some of those concerns were resolved within a few weeks while others had impacts that will flow into the new year. A few came out the other side with no concrete solution.

Looking ahead, public school officials will continue to advocate for more state funding while charter schools continue to grow in Denton County. Meanwhile, the threat of school violence will still hang over the heads of students and staffers while parents say they plan to continue holding their districts accountable.

Kids step up

Two Stephens Elementary School students had some concerns about their campus and made sure the grown-ups knew about them.

In February, then-fifth-grader Jaida Klimpel sent an email to Mia Price, the Denton ISD school board president. Jaida called the Stephens cafeteria food “unnecessarily horrid” and proposed a student feedback group to help plan future meals.

Price forwarded the email to the district’s child nutrition department. A month later, Jaida and six other students headed up a taste-test session for new food items that would go on the fall semester’s menu — with their approval, of course.

Stephens second-grader Jack Hodge got the attention of the adults in the room when he saw the need for fencing to block off the school’s playground from nearby houses and construction sites.

Jack wrote a letter to the mayor of Corinth and met with the city manager.

His letter was forwarded to the district superintendent and when he returned from Thanksgiving break, the fences were up. Principal Chris Rangel said fencing was already on the school’s radar, but she was excited to see Jack speaking up.

“I think it’s awesome that we were on the same page and Jack used his voice in a positive way to help keep our kids a little bit safer,” she said.

Local campuses also took part in demonstrations this April as students across the nation staged “walkouts” to protest gun violence after a Florida school shooting in February left 17 people dead. Less than a month after the walkouts, another campus shooting near Houston resulted in 10 deaths.

About 100 students at McMath Middle School walked out of the building and held a moment of silence to honor victims of gun violence. One Denton High School student in a “resist” T-shirt walked out of class and up to the downtown Square with a sign that read, “Student Lives Matter.”

At Guyer High School, five students organized a school-wide assembly to encourage students to call their representatives in Congress and register to vote. Some wore price tags with three cents stamped on them — the value national leaders place on student lives, they said.

“It’s not just a school problem. It’s a national problem,” then-junior Caleb Brock said. “The youth aren’t going to sit back and let [Congress] watch us die.”

Growth keeps coming

Construction seems to be an ever-present topic in Denton ISD, but other area districts like Argyle and Aubrey are in the process of building more campuses to accommodate an influx of students. But the growth isn’t just confined to traditional public schools.

ResponsiveEd Solutions, a charter school network, recently opened a new campus in Frisco and is adding students to other North Texas campuses. Numbers from the Texas Education Agency show that several of those students have transferred from Denton and Lake Dallas ISDs, a trend that worries local superintendents.

School officials warn about a possible drop in district funding if enrollment dips, but state lawmakers are poised to make major changes to school funding formulas when the legislative session starts in January.

A finance committee made up of legislators and education experts recently approved recommendations that would pump more money into the system, something school board members and administrators have spent decades pushing for.

“[Lawmakers] made a lot of campaign promises,” Denton ISD board President Mia Price said. “We’re going to hold them to it.”

Parents push back

Several area parents took administrators to task this year when they felt their concerns were being brushed aside.

Two Pilot Point mothers filed formal complaints against Pilot Point Intermediate School employees after they say their children were bullied. Rebekah Norris-Ramirez said the school’s vice principal, Margie Nisbett, violated privacy laws when she reportedly talked about Ramirez’s daughter with another parent.

Jackie Scott said her son’s bully wasn’t punished for his behavior because Principal Dustin Toth hired the bully’s father as his Realtor.

Both women were shocked to see that the administrators named in their complaints were the ones investigating the complaints. The mothers took their complaints to the school board, but officials sided with school officials and said they didn’t see any wrongdoing. Toth left the district for a job in Prosper, while Nisbett left Pilot Point for unknown reasons.

A Denton family called for an independent investigation after police body camera footage showed a school resource officer pinning down their 10-year-old son, who has autism, on his stomach and putting him in handcuffs, which resulted in bruises and scratches.

Police and school officials cited allowances in state law, saying the boy posed a threat to the other students in his Alexander Elementary School special education class because he was poking them and swinging a computer mouse. But the boy’s parents, Emily and Thomas Brown, say the officer crossed the line and veered into abuse.

The boy withdrew from Denton ISD and now attends a nearby charter school, his parents said. The resource officer still is working at a district middle school. Disability rights attorneys say physical restraint in Texas is a common practice that needs more oversight from the state.

“It’s an ironic statute,” said Disability Rights Texas attorney Colleen Elbe of restraint laws. “When you put your hands on a kid, it doesn’t work well and certainly doesn’t de-escalate a situation.”

Finally, a grading scandal split the town of Krum into factions as allegations surfaced that class ranks had been bumped up for Krum High School students who were related to school administrators and board members. In the same time frame, beloved high school Assistant Principal Bernard Lightfoot was let go for reasons that remain unclear.

The district investigated the claims, but parents demanded more. The school board authorized an independent grade software audit and a third-party investigation through the Dallas-based Stromberg Stock law firm. Neither inquiry found any major inconsistencies or wrongdoing.

Citing the law firm’s report, board members blamed the bulk of the issue on social media rumors that swirled out of control. Board President Eric Borchardt said after a December meeting that they were “done chasing rabbits.”

Still, several families believe nepotism and cronyism exist in the district and carry seeds of distrust.

It’s unclear how the district and its leadership will regain that trust in 2019.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached via Twitter at @CjonesDRC.

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