Marfa school trustees grapple with expanding Montessori program

MARFA –The idea of possibly expanding the Montessori program was the hot topic at the Marfa ISD school board meeting.

The district requested more information from Superintendent Oscar Aguero in last month’s meeting to see if it is a viable option to expand the program to the junior high school.

MISD assumed the Marfa Montessori Group program in 2013 to offer another educational option after the district received an “academically unaccepted” rating from Texas Education Agency. The program expanded to the older elementary classes in 2016. Parents could choose either a traditional or Montessori curriculum for their child’s education.

Monday night’s meeting started with three citizens commenting against the idea of another expansion for the four Montessori students entering junior high next year. Norma Valenzuela said she is not against the Montesorri program, but she would rather the school use its funds to expand the math and reading programs, citing that her youngest son was not prepared for his math classes in college, despite being on the National Honor Society.

“I feel like our kids are not ready for math up to this date,” said Valenzuela.

Bobby Lane read a prepared statement on behalf of herself, other parents and community members also against the expansion of the Montessori program. Some things she asked were if there is a real need for it and what is the urgency? She said that the district needs science teachers and other things for the traditional education program.

“Before voting on this expansion, you need to ask yourself what is needed versus what is wanted? In closing, I would like to say that I understand how important the role that the board of trustees play in the MISD. Please remember that the board of trustees have been elected by your constituents, neighbors and your community to represent them and their children. You have an obligation to do right by all of our children, not just a select few,” said Lane.

Dawn Shannon spoke as a taxpayer and said that it looks like the board cares more for the Montessori students than the other students.

“It looks to me like this school board is becoming the Marfa Montessori school board rather than the Marfa Independent School District School Board,” said Shannon. “I’m not saying this is the way it is. I’m saying this is the way it looks, and I would hope that you reexamine your priorities.

After citizen comments and the superintendent’s report, school board President Katie Price Fowlkes moved the Montessori agenda item to address the issue with the citizens present. She reiterated that the board is just looking into the expansion. Board member Yolanda Morales also said that the board is just seeking information.

“We weren’t voting on it,” said Morales. “Personally, I asked for more information because I want to be informed before I make that choice, and that’s what we asked for at the end of the last meeting, was to get us more information. Let us see the whole picture, so we’re not making a choice on a few facts. I didn’t come here to vote. I came here to see what information you have.”

Aguero presented projected payroll costs of $106,004 to hire the two required teachers (which includes a $1,500 stipend, insurance and other payroll costs) for the Montessori junior high program. That salary amount would increase or decrease based on years of experience. He also said that it would cost $8,400 to train a teacher.

Board member Teresa Villarreal Nuñez asked if the principals would be trained as well. Elementary Principal Amy White said that she is not trained in Montessori education and feels like she needs the extra training. Aguero said she has been sent to Montessori schools to see how the program works.

“It’s a whole different thing than what you’re looking for,” said White.

Fowlkes asked if there was any benefit to allowing Alpine students to attend a joint junior high program in Marfa. Aguero said they would be more cost-effective to increase student enrollment that would therefore bring in more funds. It was brought up that MISD’s average daily attendance is trending down, which will require the school district to look into recruiting more students in general. Adding the high property values, the district is required to pay or “recapture” funds to the state as part of the Chapter 41 “rich district” status.

“So eventually, we’re going to really have to look at our transfer policy. What is it that we accept? Right now, it really is at the principal’s or superintendent’s discretion if they have it,” said Aguero.

Morales asked if it was a possibility to charge tuition should the Montessori program expand, which Aguero responded that it is always a possibility, but the board would have to determine the policy as well as how it would work and how much they would charge. Morales meant charging tuition for all students, but Aguero said they can’t charge tuition for students living in the school district, only those living outside the district such as Alpine.

Board member Shawn Brugette said he believes that mainstreaming the Montessori students after elementary school will help them prepare for higher learning.

“I don’t think this is over Montessori as an offering to the students, as a learning program,” said Brugette. “That’s not in dispute. It’s all about the money.”

The board didn’t take any action on the issue.

Other business

The board approved extending probationary teacher contracts for Juan Tarango Martinez to replace Josh Steinberg as the High School Vocational Agriculture teacher, Kathylina Acosta to replace Cadet Bryant as the school counselor, and Robert Klockman to replace Vincent Parras as the high school robotics teacher. MISD is currently searching for a history teacher and technology director.

Aguero shared with the board that fashion designer Brandon Maxwell will be in town next week to film a commercial for the Kia Telluride vehicle. The district will receive close to $4,000 for the use of Hibbitts Gym, one room and a bus. There was a casting call on Wednesday for students age 5-11 to participate in the filming for two days. The core of the commercial is to feature the town of Marfa and its residents. Maxwell will walk through the campus while the kids play and run around in the background. There will also be a classroom scene featuring a teacher and students. Maxwell spent time in Marfa to design his Spring Summer 2019 collective last year, and as a result, Maxwell initiated a donation of $100,000 and a new Kia Telluride Luxury SUV to MISD from Kia.