Marfa school board approves proposal for new high school track, discusses COVID spread

MARFA — A unanimous vote to approve the proposal for a brand new six-lane high school track was met with celebratory whoops and claps at Monday night’s first school board meeting of 2022. 

All board members were present for the momentous occasion with the exception of Board President Katie Price Fowlkes and Shawn Brugette. The school board greenlit the project to replace the existing track, which is experiencing structural failures, for a total of $926,000. The company installing the new track, Hellas, is set to begin construction in the coming weeks. If all goes according to plan, the project will be completed in time for graduation in late May. 

“By graduation day we’d have green grass, a new track and looking really really nice for our seniors that are walking,” said Superintendent Oscar Aguero. 

The school board plans to seek out donations to help offset the cost of the new track, but will likely pull the majority from fund balance — leftover revenue, either from state funding or property taxes, that a school district keeps in reserves. The board will also need to budget for the track’s maintenance, which is a recommended $5,000 to $12,000 cost yearly or every other year for track cleaning and $245,000 to retop every 10 to 12 years. 

While deciding whether or not to approve the new track, Board Vice President Christa Marquez raised concerns about the school’s declining enrollment and whether or not the board would be able to afford the track’s upkeep in the future, with other big ticket items like a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system and security improvements also on the horizon. 

“This is something that we are going to have to make sure it doesn’t affect our balances when we get there, we don’t want to be like: in 10 years let’s figure it out,” said Marquez. “Maybe there’s some sort of plan, we’ll save a little each year and it will get allocated.” 

Ernie Villarreal reminded the board that their recent audit results showed the school board was in good standing financially and Aguero said even with the construction of the new track there would be a remaining two million dollars in the fund balance reserve. He added in the past seven years since he has been at Marfa ISD they have never dipped into fund balance. 

Athletic Director Linda Ojeda chimed in, stating the new track has been discussed as a possibility for the past eight years, but no action has been taken, and prices only go up every year. Board member Rene Gonzales echoed Ojeda’s concerns about the rising cost and said a new track would help boost the community by providing a visible upgrade to the school’s campus. 

“I’m a strong believer in look good, feel good, play good. The biggest thing the community is going to see is something on the exterior, something on the outside. HVAC is good and everything but you can’t see it,” said Gonzales. “This school hasn’t had something for people to go by and say, ‘Wow, they’re doing something.’ It’s time to take action.” 

Ultimately, all present agreed and passed the proposal for the new track unanimously, giving Aguero permission to sign the contract with Hellas and lock in pricing. 

Next up was an update from English as a Second Language (ESL) Coordinator Bernadette Devine, who overall reported a lack of consistency in language learning due to COVID school closures. She said the majority of elementary students have advanced to either Tier 1 or 2 status, the desired benchmark, with 25%, or four out of 16 students, lingering on the Tier 3 level. 

Marfa ISD’s ESL population is less than 20%, said Aguero. There are 42 high school students enrolled in the program and 28 program graduates who are still monitored. One priority that was highlighted during the ESL discussion was the enhancement of the student’s speaking abilities in particular, for elementary and high school level learners. Board member Yolanda Jurado said it might be worth observing ESL aids in classrooms and making sure they’re encouraging students to speak, not simply translating for them, which can be a common problem. 

“I just want to make sure they are empowered to speak for themselves, however that may be,” said Jurado. 

The superintendent then gave a COVID update, citing 22 active positive cases in students, five positive cases in staff members, and others out due to exposure. In total, 42 students and eight staff members were being quarantined due to either sickness or exposure at the time of the meeting. Aguero reported the district was at a 92% attendance rate for the year despite COVID-related absences. 

Aguero said teachers and administrators were doing their best to fill in and pivot when needed. The elementary school was stable, he said, with one substitute helping. At the high school, some classes have been combined, with teachers instructing via Skype or assisting other classes during their planning periods. The high school is utilizing Google Chromebooks and the Google Classroom platform to distribute and review assignments to students in quarantine, he said. 

The district is working to abide by Texas Education Agency requirements which do not allow for a teacher to teach in person and video conference simultaneously. Aguero said the accountability, at this point, is on the students to complete their provided assignments. 

Letters are soon being sent out to parents and guardians in English and Spanish about the school’s updated 2021-2022 academic calendar, announced last week. New full instruction days are February 9, February 21, April 13 and April 18. The district has a remaining five days they can use as “bad weather days” that do not need to be made up, said Aguero. Depending on how the spread of COVID continues to move throughout the school and community, the school may choose to abbreviate spring break, said Aguero.