The slow-motion trainwreck called Beaumont ISD continued this week in Austin, as lawyers representing a faction of the school board fought to prevent the state from taking control of the troubled district. On Monday, they failed in a last-ditch appeal to the Texas Education Agency. Today, the district’s lawyers took on the state in a Travis County district court.
And as the lawyers kept the board members’ increasingly desperate-looking power struggle alive, a group of middle and high school students, seated in the courtroom, looked on with more immediate concerns on their minds: saving their teachers, and their schools’ fine arts programs, from the chopping block.
“Fraud, waste and abuse” has become something of a mantra for state and federal investigators looking into Beaumont ISD over the last few years, but the most recent trouble came with an email from Superintendent Timothy Chargois to his staff, announcing that the district had overspent its budget from last school year, and would have to cut about $25 million from next year’s budget. (The district will have to return $1.5 million to the state because it over-reported its attendance.) That news was followed shortly by a proposed list of 231 jobs to cut, including 162 teachers—among them, all four orchestra teachers in the district, three choir teachers, three art teachers, three drama teachers and plenty of others, including in math and science.
Hope Flores, who’ll be a junior at Ozen High School this fall, learned about the planned layoffs from her school’s drama teacher, Gina Martin, whose job is on the list.
“It really hit home for me because theater is a passion for me,” says Flores. Laying off Martin would effectively end the entire theater program at the school, Flores says, because she’s the only drama teacher they’ve got.
Flores says students were generally aware of the district’s troubles—the embezzlement trial in federal court, the FBI raids, the brutal audits and moves toward state takeover—but felt compelled to help once they saw their teachers’ livelihoods were at risk.
Meeting in a library, the students have combed the district’s finances for alternatives to staff layoffs. Options they’ve come up with so far include selling off some of the district’s property, or selling the naming rights to the district’s $47 million football stadium. The latter might be an especially popular move: at present the stadium, which opened in 2010, is named for Carrol Thomas, the longtime superintendent who stepped down in 2012 and is often blamed for landing the district in its present mire.
Other students have gradually rallied around Flores—”I guess you could kind of say I’ve been appointed leader,” she says—while other students have helped by running Twitter or Facebook accounts for their cause. One student has been helping the social media efforts and calling legislators while he’s away at summer camp.
The students have lined up not just from Ozen, but all around the district, even from rival high schools. Flores says their unity has surprised a lot of people, at a time when so many adults have made the district the center of pitched battles—between the state and the school board, between rival factions on the school board, or between the city’s white and black communities.
“They’ve really united the city, which has historically been really divided,” says Sarah Sanders, a 2010 Beaumont ISD graduate who’s chaperoned the students’ Austin trip. “The entire city is just flooding us with money to help these kids.” When Sanders posted a notice that the students were eating ramen noodles Monday night to keep their budget low, she says, she got a call from a woman who follows their cause on Facebook, promising to send money for their expenses.
Of course, the students’ cause also aligns them with one of the many competing factions around the district: teachers hoping to keep their jobs, who’d probably rather see administrators laid off instead.
Travis County District Judge Stephen Yelenosky hasn’t ruled yet on the BISD board members’ case. Back in Beaumont, the school board has delayed its vote on the proposed job cuts. Fred Shafer, the state-appointed conservator over Beaumont ISD, has urged the school board not to delay its voting on the cuts, but students like Flores are holding onto faith that a quick state takeover could save at least some of the teachers’ jobs.
Saving any of those jobs may still be a long shot, but in a school district plagued by adults’ greed, distrust and ambition, a few students going to such lengths to defend their teachers is an uplifting turn.
Correction at 10:20 p.m.: This post has been corrected to reflect that Beaumont ISD’s looming $25 million budget cut is due only in part to its over-estimated attendance last year.