Gainesville school board candidates make their cases ahead of Saturday vote – Gainesville Daily Register

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A clear sky. Low around 60F. Winds light and variable.
Updated: May 6, 2022 @ 4:13 pm
Gainesville, Texas

Editor’s Note: Pablo De Santiago Jr. responded after the deadline for Friday’s print edition of the Register. We have added his responses here — Eads
Saturday is Election Day for Era and Calliburg’s school bond proposals, as well as the folks seeking seats on the Gainesville ISD board. Early voting has been going on for county constitutional amendments, school board members and school district bonds.
The Register sent questionnaires to all seven GISD candidates, but only five responded. Laura Otts and Elsa Young are running against Jesse Victorio and Pablo De Santiago Jr. for an incomplete term in Place Five, previously held by Brad Cox. Karen Denise Manuel and Vice President incumbent Phil Neelley are running for Place Six, and incumbent and board president Corey Hardin is running unopposed for Place Seven.
Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. Be sure to check the polling location list.
First, please tell us about yourself.
PABLO DE SANTIAGO JR: I am the Financial Center Manger here at First United Bank in Gainesville. I am a member of the Lions Club and due to my job I am involved a lot in the community. My father, Mr. De, is the principal of Edison Elementary and I have spent my whole life surrounded by teachers, board members, and school administrators. I have a great understanding of what they all must go through in order to have a successful school district. It is no easy task.
I did not graduate from Gainesville High School but my wife, Karly De Santiago, who is also a teacher for Gainesville ISD did. My wife and I have a two-month-old baby that we are looking forward to growing up in the Gainesville School District.
KAREN D. MANUEL: I was born and raised in Gainesville, TX, and I’m a proud Gainesville High School alumna. Currently, I work in Protective Services as an Office Manager, and I also own a mobile notary service.  As an active member of this community, I have volunteered for DASH and the Girl Scouts for the last 16 years. I have also served on St. Mary’s School Advisory Board for four years, and I am a trustee and former youth director at the St. James CME church. My husband and I have three daughters, and our youngest is a sixth grader at Gainesville Intermediate School. We are the proud grandparents of two current GISD students, with 6 more attending in the future.
PHIL NEELLEY: President at Trident Process Systems, LLC, we are a locally based fabrication company that provides engineering, design, and fabrication of process equipment throughout the United States.
I am involved in Gainesville and Cooke County through GISD (currently serve on the board of trustees since 2016), Gainesville Economic Development Corporation, City of Gainesville Planning & Zoning, NCTC Foundation Board, and various other activities.
I have three kids in GISD, all at the high school.
LAURA OTTS: My name is Laura Otts. I am a proud graduate of Gainesville High School and Texas A&M University. My husband Barry & I operate two retail stores in downtown Gainesville, and my son Jackson is in eighth grade at Gainesville Junior High. Our family attends Hillcrest Church of Christ in Gainesville. My mother, Sarah Beck, was an educator in GISD for 26 years, and I learned a lot about the highs and lows of teaching from her. I also worked in education for a few years before moving to retail. I have always placed a high priority on the importance of volunteering and serving others throughout our community and in our schools.
ELSA YOUNG: Hello, my name is Elsa Young. My husband and I have been together for 21 years and have eight children. We have kids at NCTC, Gainesville High School, Gainesville Junior High, Gainesville Intermediate, Chalmers and Edison. My kids have had an opportunity to take part in several of the programs offered through the different schools such as the Special Needs Program at Chalmers, Athletics, FFA, Dual Credit and Parent Advisory Committee. This has allowed me to have a first hand look at the different campuses and various programs. I currently work for Gainesville State School. I am a HR Recruiter which means I recruit and help to hire employees for the facility. My family and I are very happy to be a part of the Gainesville community.
Why do you want to run for Gainesville ISD school board? Or, if you are running for reelection, why do you want to continue serving on the Gainesville ISD school board?
DE SANTIAGO: Growing up with parents working in the education system you spend a lot of time in school after hours and talking to teachers. You learn all the things that can make your school district better and all the problems it has. I want the best education for my child and your children as their education plays a huge factor in their future. Our children are this nations future and the only way to improve our nation is by giving our children the tools and resources that they need in order to achieve greatness.
MANUEL: I want the opportunity to serve my community as a school board member to ensure our public school system is providing quality education for current and future students of GISD. I have a personal interest in preserving and improving Gainesville ISD.  
NEELLEY: I want to continue serving on the Gainesville ISD school board because I highly value education and the public education experience for our residents. I believe education can resolve most of the issues we deal with as a society.  The more educated our population is the less issues we will have. I also believe that a quality school system is a key component to growing and developing our community.
OTTS: I have lived in Gainesville for the majority of my life, and you will have a hard time finding someone who loves this community, our schools and our kids more than I do. I am running for school board with the hope that I will be able to work with the other board members to make decisions that will positively impact this school district and will help prepare our students for success once they leave GISD.
YOUNG: With eight kids in the ISD, I will have children at multiple levels within the school district for the next 18 years. This allows me insight into all the campuses and various programs. I have first hand knowledge that can be useful to the school board and all the children of GISD when addressing issues across campuses.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for students in schools right now? What do you think is the greatest challenge for teachers?
DE SANTIAGO: Our greatest challenge for both teachers and students is recovering from what COVID did to our schools. COVID unfortunately put a giant halt on learning and has set back a lot of our students. To catch up teachers will need a lot of help from parents and volunteers.
MANUEL: Teachers and students face many of the same challenges in our public schools. Issues such as school safety, bullying, learning gaps and staffing shortages affect both teachers and students negatively. As a school board member, I’d like to address these issues and work cooperatively to find solutions. Our teachers and students deserve it.
NEELLEY: I believe the greatest challenge for our students is transitioning back into a normal classroom environment after the disruption from Covid. Another challenge for some students is having their educational goals supported outside of school.
I believe the greatest challenge for teachers is the general demands of the job that are compounded by staff shortages, bus driver shortages, lack of substitutes, etc.
OTTS: The greatest challenge that students are facing right now will vary from student-to-student. Some students are facing poverty, homelessness and food insecurities that impact every aspect of their lives. Other students could be facing abuse or neglect in their homes. For others, the greatest challenge could be dealing with bullying or self-confidence issues. The list could go on and on. I believe that the greatest challenge that teachers are facing is identifying and addressing each of these issues that their students could be facing, and in turn helping their students rise above these challenges.
YOUNG: I think one of the challenges for students is catching back up after the set backs from the COVID virtual classes. I believe that had a tremendous impact on learning for all of the children. The lack of face-to-face instruction with the teachers was hard especially for our younger students. Now more than ever we need to make sure we are utilizing all available resources to work with our kids and make sure they are able to get back on the right path when it comes to learning and instruction.
For teachers I believe it is the staffing shortages at the schools. The staffing shortages being felt are putting additional pressures on the remaining teachers. We need to focus on recruiting and retention efforts. Asking teachers to do more (especially with helping our kids overcome the learning set backs from COVID) with less staff and support is difficult and stressful. As an ISD we have to get creative with the support we provide and utilize our community resources as well.     
What needs to be done to encourage teachers to continue in the teaching profession, particularly at GISD?
DE SANTIAGO: At the end of the day teachers are overworked, underpaid, have too many students per classroom, have distracted students, and must deal with the stress from state testing. How do we encourage teachers to say?
At the end of the day, we need to treat GISD as a business and like any business we need to stay competitive with our salaries in order to attract and retain the best teachers and administrators in order to keep student enrollment up since most of our money comes from the state. We need to be proactive and look at our expenses and make sure we allocate our funds to the correct departments and don’t waste anything. We need to become efficient at what we do and have school administrators that coach and train GISD employees to become the best teacher/person that they can be.
We also need the help from the parents and grandparents of our students. Learning does not stop when they get dismissed for the school day. We, as parents, need to teach our children to be respectful, to love one another just as God loves us, and teach them life skills. We need to go over what they went over at school and try to help with their homework, even if you don’t know the answer. Grandparents, if you are retired go and be a substitute teacher and/or volunteer at the school. The saying “it takes a village” holds true when raising our children. The schools and our future generations need our help.
MANUEL: Competitive pay in today’s inflated economy is one key to acquiring and retaining teachers.  Furthermore, we should be consistently empowering our teachers and providing them with support. Small things such as keeping their conference and lunch periods duty-free, supporting the decisions they are making in their classrooms and for their students, building in time for collaboration with colleagues, and listening to their feedback will go a long way with teachers feeling valued and appreciated. Also, teachers should be included in the decision-making processes within the district. Teachers’ voices must be heard and respected.
NEELLEY: I believe this issue requires a multifaceted approach:
We need to make sure we are paying as competitively as our budget funding allows.
We need to attract teachers/staff that are invested in the community of Gainesville.
We need to have a culture that attracts and keeps teachers in Gainesville.
OTTS: I know that GISD is committed to improving teacher retention and has set clear goals as a means of achieving this. I believe that it is vitally important that educators receive proper support throughout their careers, whether that be through mentor programs, campus instructional teams, professional development or other avenues. I also believe that giving teachers a clear path toward leadership roles will also help retain high quality educators. Teacher recognition is also very important. Our teachers and staff are working hard everyday for our students and they deserve to be praised for their dedication.
YOUNG: As someone whose job it is to recruit I can say staffing is a challenge across professions, companies, and organizations. As I look to the future, money and benefits are only a part of what will draw those still in the workforce to GISD. I do believe in staying in competitive. I hear time and again from many looking for employment that they are wanting to make a difference. What better way to make a difference than working with the children. Mission, Vision and Values will also play a part in future recruiting efforts. Retention in any profession rests on several factors such as working environment, work life balance, employee appreciation, etc. These are definitely things that must take part within GISD. I also believe that it can’t stop at the boundaries of the school district. We also must look at ourselves as well within the GISD community. Parent involvement and support for our teachers and what they do with our children every day. The teachers must know that as parents and a community we are there to support them and the work they do. When teachers know that they are valued not just by the school district but also by the parents and community it adds value to the work environment and empowers them to make a difference in the lives of the kids. Actual recruitment efforts can play out in various forms. Examples are Job Fairs, partnering with Colleges to reach students as they are finishing their degrees, professionals that use sites such as Linked In, Indeed, Handshake, etc, Digital Marketing Campaigns and more.
Many students are still struggling to catch up after COVID-19, both in academic knowledge and in behavioral development: what do you think should be done to recover from these developmental setbacks?  
DE SANTIAGO: Teachers can’t do it by themselves. They have classrooms well over 20 students and those students can be 1, 2, or 3 grade levels behind. They will try their hardest to get that student caught up but there isn’t enough time in a school year. It again falls back on the parents. We need to work with our children. Get them involved in educational summer programs and spend time with them daily.
MANUEL: Expectations of our students should be set at the beginning of each school year and followed through. Additionally, as a district, we need decision-making that is focused on serving our highest-need students.  
NEELLEY: GISD has invested in programs that are addressing this issue.  It takes extra time and work from the students and teachers and these efforts are ongoing.  Some examples of programs we currently use are Achieve 3000, iRead for K-2, Read 180, and System 44.
OTTS: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the educational and social development of many students, and I know that the educators in GISD are working hard to bridge those gaps through enrichment programs, extra tutoring, etc. No one better understands the needs of students than parents & educators, and if those two groups can work together, I believe that these developmental setbacks can be overcome.  
YOUNG: Instructionally – The most popular answer is probably tutoring either before, after or during school. However, if we can get creative with how we look at the tutoring or additional education opportunities it maybe an opportunity to get the information needed to the students without putting additional pressures on the teachers. Online resources are always an option but will only work if the parents know they are available and understand how to access/implement. Those that are more computer savvy need to understand that not everyone is. How can we help teach parents these websites and programs to access the online resources at home for their children? Can we utilize various apps like Quizlet to help kids’ study? Is there a way to get more parent involvement inside the classrooms? Is this information that needs to be shared with parents in multiple languages? I am a big advocate of summer school for advancement not just for kids who are “behind”. Why would we deny any child who wants the opportunity to learn? This would also help students who are not failing but still struggle to keep up with the class. If they would like the opportunity to attend summer school and help get a better base for the coming school year it would help with the coming years instruction. What about peer tutoring groups? Is there a way to incorporate some of our higher grades (especially those interested in a teaching profession) to help with tutoring some of our younger students?
Developmentally – What are our school outlet programs that can help get kids involved and overcome developmental setbacks? What clubs are available not just to our high school students but to our younger grades as well? When my son had the opportunity at Chalmers to join choir he jumped at the chance try out. I’ve never heard him sing around the house before but he liked the idea of belonging to something, working with his school mates and performing for the parents. If there was a way to expand this in some of the younger grades whether it is through Art, Cooking, Music, Language, FFA, International clubs, etc. I believe this could help with some of the developmental setback’s children may have experienced. Keeping parents informed of the various opportunities out there for kids that may not be run by the school. For example, the Summer Zoo Program was a fantastic opportunity that my daughter was able to participate in since she is focusing on a veterinary career. It is a great program, although not run by the ISD but they still provided the information on how to apply. Finding a way to get all these opportunities listed in one place for parents to look at and discuss with their children.
There has been much recent discussion over how diversity should be taught in schools: for example, teaching about the impacts of racism throughout history with the critical race theory debate. How do you think these issues should be handled, and what would you say to those who may not agree with you?
DE SANTIAGO: History is a great tool and should never taught with an opinion. We teach facts, from there our children will come up with their own hypothesis. The parents of course play a big role in that and should teach their own children what they believe in. We just need to be respectful of others and again love one another as God loves each of us.
MANUEL: Teaching diversity can reduce prejudice, eliminate harmful stereotypes and promote empathy, so it is valuable and does have a place in public education. As with any controversial topics, the best approach is kind language and kind actions while redirecting intolerant behaviors.
NEELLEY: I believe a diverse education is an essential part of student development.  I see GISD’s diversity as an attraction to potential students.  
To my knowledge, the state hasn’t banned any books. I am not a proponent of banning books. To those that disagree with me, I am open to hearing their side of the issue and having constructive dialogue.  In my opinion, you don’t have to agree with everything that you read – the objective is to educate yourself, understand others’ points of view, and broaden your perspective on the subject.
OTTS: I believe that the best way to teach diversity is through real world experience, and diversity is one of GISD’s strengths. During his time in school, my son has had opportunities to develop relationships with students from a wide range of different social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, and these relationships have been vital to his growth and maturity. Because of our diverse population, GISD students are given opportunities to expand their horizons and organically learn to better understand and value the experience of others.
YOUNG: I think the way someone views some of these political issues depends on a person’s individual background and experiences. Let me explain my background to better understand my stance on diversity. As a female born into a single-family household raised as a young child by my grandmother who was a migrant farmworker. Later in my teens (I was) taken in by a family from India that I still call my Mom and Sisters/Brother 30 years later. Married to a Jamaican immigrant, making our kids first generation Americans for his family. Between the two of us we have family in or from countries all over including America, Jamaica, Columbia, China, India, Pakistan, Canada, England, Yemen, and more. My kids have been involved in Chinese School and Hindi School. They have gone to the Mosque on Friday’s if my cousin was watching them. Puja at the Gurdwara or Hindu Temple for Mom. Celebrated Chinese New Year and Diwali. Even my 9-year-old asked recently when his brother going to talk. Referring to his 8-year-old non-verbal autistic brother. I realized that it has never occurred to him that his brother is special needs. To him his brother is just his brother and even though he has a different way of looking at the world, it’s all normal. I feel this is paramount to how he will view special needs as he continues to grow and encounter other special needs individuals. Growing up and being a part of such a culturally diverse background I can personally say I have never felt a lack of diversity and is something that we hold strong at the root of our family. I can say for my kids racial, religious, and cultural diversity is just an everyday part of life. We have never felt a bias against us based on race, class, gender or disability. In a melting pot family, they do not understand that they are Hispanic, Chinese, Black, White, etc. For them these are not separate but one, that one is just a person. I believe that the best way to promote these various diversities is through positive exposure and understanding of different people, places and cultures. Through positive exposure, understanding and tolerance people begin to look at other people not as separate but as one. I like the concept of Fiesta day and definitely believe that is a step in the right direction for racial and cultural diversity. With support from GISD, our own diverse community and parent support I believe we could bring race, gender, religious and disability diversity and understanding to our children in a way that would bring everyone together regardless of their political views on the matter.
What is your main platform? Why should people vote for you over the other candidate(s)?
DE SANTIAGO: My family and my wife’s family are all in education. I love education and see so much potential in Gainesville ISD but also see a lot of challenges. I only have 4 years until my child goes into school to make a positive change for Gainesville to benefit our children. If you vote for me that is what I will do. I will do what is best for our children and our teachers and will put my 100% effort into it. Thank you.
MANUEL: My main platform is Special Services and Early Education.  I want every student to have an opportunity to be successful.  As a school board member, I want to work towards finding opportunities for all students to attend preschool, regardless of financial ability. The early years of a child’s life are a critical time of development when the pathway for future success is set. In the late 1990s, I was a teacher’s aide at Gainesville Head Start, and this experience gave me the opportunity to see first-hand the positive results of an early education foundation.  Several of my former Head Start students are now leaders in the classroom and the business world.
My long term volunteer work shows my commitment to the community I grew up in, and I’m ready to take on the challenge of being a member of the Gainesville ISD school board. 
NEELLEY: I am an experienced board member that understands the challenges we face in Gainesville ISD and I ask for your support to continue working with the other board members and the superintendent to address these challenges.  These challenges include student achievement, capital projects to support growth in our schools, and staffing and funding challenges.  I have a good understanding of how school finance works from the state and local levels, and I know how important it is for our community to have a strong school district in the main city of our county.
OTTS: If elected, I promise to always make decisions with the best interest of our students, staff and community in mind. I look forward to working with Dr. Stewart and the other board members to build upon GISD’s strengths while addressing our shortcomings in order to best prepare our students for success in this dynamic world.
YOUNG: I want to wish all the candidates running good luck. I believe that anyone who has stepped forward to run is doing so with the best of intentions. Those intentions center around the well being of all the children in Gainesville. As I mentioned earlier with eight kids I will definitely be involved first hand in all the campuses, various programs and the school district for the next 18 years. I believe that this partnered with my work experience and diverse background would be an asset to the School District.

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