Candidates running for a seat on the McAllen ISD school board shared their thoughts on the issues with voters at a virtual forum hosted Thursday evening by Futuro RGV. (Screengrab)

McALLEN — Candidates running for a seat on the McAllen ISD school board shared their thoughts on the issues with voters at a virtual forum hosted Thursday evening by Futuro RGV.

The hourlong forum was a polite affair. When the candidates differed it was often by shades rather than being directly opposed on the issues.

There were not many direct critiques at the way the district is currently being run, although the candidates certainly expressed ideas they hope will make it run better.

Most of the questions revolved around finance, including the possibility of teacher pay increases, how to address declining enrollment and whether it was time to go for another bond election.

Place 3 incumbent Debbie Crane Aliseda was asked about the district’s biggest asset and its biggest challenge. She said teachers account for both.

“There is nothing more important than a happy, highly skilled, highly qualified, highly trained teacher. They’re definitely our biggest asset,” she said. “But they’re also our biggest challenge. …They’re leaving the profession. They’re leaving the classroom because they want to be an administrator to make more money. They’re leaving the profession because they don’t make enough money. They’re not even starting the profession because they don’t make enough money.”

Lucia Regalado, Crane Aliseda’s challenger, said success is the district’s greatest asset and maintaining that success is its biggest challenge.

“It’s that intangible thing, I mean it’s comprised of a lot of effort, but I think our success is our biggest asset because that’s what can draw new students to our district. Perhaps recover some of the students that we’ve lost and in turn create new revenue for the district that we desperately need,” she said. “At the same token, our single greatest challenge is also our success. When you are a leader and you’re at the top echelon of performance it’s really difficult oftentimes to reach new heights.”

Sofia Pena, a candidate for the undefended Place 6 seat, said McAllen ISD’s biggest asset is its personnel and students, while teacher and student retention is the biggest challenge.

“We’re losing teachers and students to neighboring districts, and those are issues that I would jointly make honest and fair decisions at that with my colleagues on the board and with data to support those decisions,” she said. “In looking at our greatest asset, MISD is full of potential when it comes to our teachers and our staff. Some of the best and most hardworking staff work at MISD and I’ve met some of them along the way during the campaign.”

Gilda Garcia, Pena’s opponent, said commitment to infrastructure for student and staff success is the district’s biggest asset while integrating student’s back onto campus is the biggest hurdle it’s facing.

“All students and staff benefit from health, academic and intervention programs in addition to athletics, the arts, various extracurricular activities that within a core set of values provide an excellent environment in which they will excel and become well rounded individuals,” she said. “The biggest concern at the present time is to be able to balance the return of our student population in regards to what I would refer to as safe socialization and peer interaction. I believe that all campuses must be sensitive to struggle and obstacles.”

On the topic of longterm pandemic changes, Pena said said she saw it hurting enrollment and that engaging families would be important while Garcia encouraged looking at what’s worked for the district in the pandemic.

Crane Aliseda said skills learned in the pandemic will likely boost teacher efficiency, but that mental health will be an important factor to address when school resumes, while Regalado said permanent changes remain to be seen but likely will affect facility use and mental health.

On the topic of whether it was time to raise taxes in the district, Garcia said the subject was worth looking into while Pena gave that question a resounding no.

Crane Aliseda said not only was it not the time to do so but that doing so wouldn’t be allowed currently because of state legislation, while Regalado gave it an emphatic no and suggested alternate funding routes.

Asked about whether teacher pay needed to be more competitive, Pena said she believed teachers deserve a pay increase but that the district should focus more on what makes teachers stay rather than what makes them leave, while Garcia said the district is paying teachers competitively but that a study should be conducted on salaries.

Crane Aliseda said the district certainly needs to do more to incentivize teachers to stay in the classroom and Regalado said she would be committed to finding more money for teachers.

On the subject of whether charter schools in Texas need more oversight Garcia said she believes in school choice and that MISD should rise to meet the challenge they present, while Pena said charter schools pick and choose who they bring in and it’s not fair.

Crane Aliseda said charter schools perpetuate inequality and financial hardships for traditional districts and Regalado said they do not have enough oversight and do get too much leeway.

Discussing how to address declining enrollment in the district, Crane Aliseda said the district faces significant challenges on that front and encouraged staying in McAllen ISD while Regalado said the district needs to embark on a more aggressive recruitment campaign to boost enrollment.

Pena suggested talking to people who stay at the district rather than people who are leaving while Garcia said she feels the enrollment situation isn’t as so bad and advocated continued advertising and recruitment.

Asked about whether it was time for the district to put another bond election in front of the voters, Regalado said she didn’t have the information to answer that question but that if elected she would like to discuss it and that any bond should be specific and communicated well. Crane Aliseda said it’s not the time for a bond and when it is the time the bond needs to be done in smaller chunks.

Pena said she couldn’t commit to supporting a bond issue due to the current financial climate while Garcia said the possibility of a bond warrants conversations and that she’d like to see it happen in the near future.

Incumbent Sam Saldivar Jr., who is running unopposed for Place 7, did not participate in the forum proper but did give a brief statement outlining his commitments at the beginning of the event.

“Consistently I’ve listened, learned to serve the whole community,” he said. “Leveraging my acquired skills, knowledge and experiences, I will continue to significantly contribute to the district’s positive results benefiting our children.”

Watch the forum here:

mwilson@themonitor.com