Members of the Longview ISD community still have unanswered questions as the district moves closer to its March 31 application deadline to make all campuses charter schools. One main question still remains: Why now?

Board members’ answers have remained the same, which is that the funding is available now.

About 40 parents, employees and taxpayers of the district packed Broughton Recreation Center on Tuesday evening to ask three of the elected trustees about the district’s plan to make all 13 campuses charter schools.

Trustees Shan Bauer, Place 5, Ted Beard, Place 6, and Troy Simmons, Place 7, hosted a question-and-answer session about the district’s plan to turn all campuses into charter schools as authorized by Senate Bill 1882.

SB 1882 is legislation that provides financial incentive to districts that allow nonprofit organizations to take over campuses as charter schools.

Currently, the district has six SB 1882 schools operated by the nonprofit East Texas Advanced Academies. Those campuses are East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, Ware East Texas Montessori Academy, Johnston-McQueen Elementary School, J.L. Everhart Elementary School, Bramlette STEAM Academy and Forest Park Middle School.

The seven remaining campuses are Ned E. Williams Elementary School, Hudson PEP Elementary School, South Ward Elementary School, Judson STEAM Academy, Foster Middle School, Longview High School and the Longview Early Graduation High School.

On Jan. 6, the district received four applications from potential partners to run the remaining campuses. Those applicants are Longview Educates and Prospers, which was formed by city of Longview officials; Texas Council for International Studies, an International Baccalaureate program; Lions Pride, a partnership with Texas A&M University-Commerce; and the International Center for Academics and Technology, for which Superintendent James Wilcox is the original filing agent.

When asked if trustees knew about Wilcox’s involvement in iCAT, trustees deferred to Wilcox to answer.

“We’re a team of eight. We work together for every student in this district,” Wilcox said. “We don’t have a biased approach for reporting and giving information. We give all the information to everybody.”

The News-Journal filed an open records request on Jan. 7 with Longview ISD for the applications submitted to the district by possible charter partners. The district declined to provide the information after the initial request and is seeking an opinion by the Texas attorney general.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Simmons said he supports the charter move because he believes it is the right thing to do, not because Wilcox has convinced him to do so.

Simmons, who was first elected to the school board in 1986, said the district currently is as equitable as he has seen yet, and he wants to keep it that way.

“They’ve never funded (public education) right,” Simmons said, referencing lawmakers, “and when they did fund it right, schools were so segregated that our kids — black and brown kids — never got the benefit of a quality education. We were always secondhand, used, everything. This is the first time in 34 years I’ve seen this district be equitable.”

Bauer said she believes it is the right move because it allows the district to provide students with a great education.

“We’re trying to move forward, so our district is in front of the changing times as opposed to catching up,” she said.

Beard said the partnerships will allow the district to provide not only quality and equitable education, but a properly funded funded one, too.

Beard emphasized the tax system is not going to change, because Longview ISD still will be a public school district.

Simmons told attendees the board can decide to back out of a contract with a charter partner if that partner is not meeting the standards set by the district.

One man in the audience, the Rev. Homer Rockmore, asked what the difference is between what the district wants to do and the charter systems that have failed.

Simmons said the charters that people see failing are private, for-profit charter companies that select students. He said Longview ISD’s charter campuses will continue to accept all students.

Lauren Land, a mother who said she has three children in the district, said ETAA was formed a year ago, and a lawsuit already has been filed.

She said Wilcox’s involvement in iCAT is concerning to her as a parent. She asked trustees if there will be a pause and why the district is in a rush to make the change now.

The lawsuit Land referenced was filed Jan. 30 by the Texas State Teachers Association. The organization is claiming the district is in violation of the law by enrolling more than 15% of its student population in charter campuses.

The district has a Texas Education Agency waiver to bypass that rule, but the TSTA said TEA does not have the legal right to grant that waiver.

Bauer reiterated that the charter expansion is about being proactive instead of reactive and taking advantage of the opportunity now. Simmons said there will not be a pause.

Another attendee, Erika Rader, who said she mentors students at Ware, asked if the charters will be the first to go if the state cuts education funds.

Simmons said the board would do what it usually does when funding is cut.

“If money is cut, what we have traditionally tried to do, like in 2011 when the state cut $5 million out the budget, we made a concerted effort not to cut salaries,” he said. “We’ve always worked for the benefit of our teachers to pay them well and give them as much support as possible.”

But Simmons said the board will not know what to do until it knows what the state cuts.

Rader asked what would happen to the jobs ETAA created.

Simmons responded that, at this point, the district has no plan for that situation.

“It’s a plan to move our program forward, not to move our program back,” he said.

The Montessori program in the district also received some discussion.

Chandalyn Jenkins, who has a child at Johnston-McQueen, asked if the district has a demographic breakdown of the students who qualified for Hudson PEP because of the Montessori programs. She said her concern was to see if the ETAA campus truly is closing the gap between students of color and white students.

Hudson PEP is a districtwide elementary school for students who perform in the average to above average range in grades 1-5. Students are tested before admission.

Simmons said anyone can call the district’s administration and get that information.

He said the expansion will lead to some confusion, and trustees will not always have all the answers, “but the trade-off for that is what we can do for our kids. And for me, it’s worth a shot if it’s going to improve our student performance and our kids are going to be exposed to things that they haven’t been exposed to.”