District concludes successful fall semester, looking towards busy spring (12/17/2020)

*This columm was submitted for publication in the December 17, 2020 edition of the Lake Travis View; column may differ from final, edited version.

It is difficult to fathom that we are about to complete the first half of the 2020-2021 school year. As I pause to reflect on the events of the past few months, I am pleased how well our students, teachers and staff have progressed through so much change and challenge. Approximately, 60% of our total enrollment will conclude the fall semester onsite while 40% of our students will pause remote learning from home during the upcoming winter break. With the start of the spring semester on January 6 and the resumption of some normalcy in our operations and programs, we expect more students to return to in-person learning at school. No matter the location, we will continue to do everything possible to support learning for all students throughout the spring. 

Since opening our schools on September 8, we have had 16 employees and 72 students across our district test positive for COVID-19. Considering our total enrollment of approximately 11,000 students and workforce of roughly 1,200 employees, the positivity rate continues to be quite low. However, I will continue to stress that we cannot let our guard down. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released options to reduce the quarantine period for contacts of persons infected with COVID-19. Upon further review and discussion with representatives from these entities, and taking into consideration our local conditions, Lake Travis ISD will continue to follow our current practice of a 14-day quarantine period. This practice is supported by the CDC as the most evidence-based and safest option. Without a doubt, the health and safety of our school community is of utmost importance. As such, our plans will remain flexible to accommodate potential changes, and guidelines may be further modified as needed. In the interim, I urge everyone to continue practicing personal hygiene and social distancing so that we can keep our schools safe and operational.

COVID aside, it has been a busy year and we have much to celebrate. In November, 33 seniors at Lake Travis High School received recognition by the 2021 National Merit Scholarship Program for their exceptional academic ability and potential for success in rigorous college success of their own. Our Lake Travis High School team tennis, volleyball and football programs saw postseason action. Although falling short in the playoffs. I am proud of these student-athletes, our coaches and our parents. And as of presstime, 165 members of the Lake Travis Cavalier Band were preparing for their performance at the University Interscholastic League Marching Band State Championships scheduled for December 15 at the Alamodome in San Antonio. No matter the outcomes, our student-musicians, band directors, parents and the entire Cavalier Band program is to be commended for its remarkable success during the fall competition season. 

The second half of the school year is fast approaching, and I am excited about the opportunities awaiting our staff, students and families. The New Year will begin with a very appropriate and timely observance, especially for me as Superintendent. With the theme “Navigating to Success,” LTISD will join other districts across the state to recognize and thank school trustees for their service throughout January 2021 as part of School Board Recognition Month. Now more than ever, our community benefits every day from the tireless work and countless hours contributed by the seven men and women who represent more than 11,100 students and their families. Led by board president Kim Flasch, these local volunteers are elected by their constituents and receive no compensation for their work as public servants. In a climate of unprecedented change and challenge, they develop policies and make tough decisions on complex educational and social issues that affect our community. I am thankful to work alongside these amazing servant leaders whose decisions and actions are made in the best interest of all students.

Speaking of our school board, trustees will consider the creation of our own police department during its regular meeting in December. For many years, the District has contracted with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office for the use of deputies to serve as School Resources Officers, better known as SROs. The current agreement between Travis County and the District provides for three SROs who serve our schools. As we look at the future of our District’s security personnel for 2021 and beyond, we have determined—given our size and continued growth—that the establishment of a school district police department is in our best interest. We believe that a comprehensive Lake Travis ISD-based police department, whose jurisdiction would encompass all territory within our school boundaries, will serve to enhance the safety and security of the entire District. We will begin the transition from our current SRO program to a District-run department in 2021 should the school board adopt a resolution granting me that authority. 

Another big initiative our District will undertake in 2021 is the development of a comprehensive strategic plan. This plan will articulate our mission and vision, as well as the goals and objectives needed to achieve that vision. As you may already know, we recently completed the process of soliciting feedback from our staff, parents and community using the Thoughtexchange online tool. In all, there were a total of 1,642 participants, 1,371 thoughts and 82,854 ratings. This feedback will be used as a starting point for our strategic planning process. There will be much more to come on this exciting and multi-faceted project.

The 87th Texas Legislative Session will convene on January 12. Also as of presstime, our school board will review our draft legislative priorities at its regular meeting in December. These priorities will be shared with our area legislators and will focus primarily on funding. Specifically, we will also ask our legislators to provide an avenue for remote learning as a continuous viable option while providing funding at the same level as in-person students; hold schools harmless for funding losses during the entire 2020-2021 school year caused by enrollment and attendance decline due to COVID-19; amend the required ballot language for school district bond elections that misleads Texas voters; and focus on mental health issues and related funding. Senior staff and I will keep our community updated throughout the session on matters which may potentially impact our District.   

Lastly, I want to reassure our staff, parents and the greater Lake Travis community that the pandemic has not shifted my concern and focus on diversity in our schools. In fact, our District’s leadership team and I will create a committee whose charge and work will be to begin a discussion and ultimately a call for action on diversity and inclusion across our District. I am excited to begin this process in the spring. 

In the meantime, as we head into the upcoming holiday season, I cannot think of a more appropriate time to pause and be appreciative of our teachers and support staff for what they do each day for our students. I am both thankful and proud to serve this great district of ours.  Without a doubt, 2021 promises to be an exciting and rewarding year for our staff, students, families and the greater Lake Travis community. There is no place I would rather be than LTISD. It is an honor to serve as your superintendent. On behalf of the entire LTISD family, I wish you the safest and happiest of holidays this season!