Tioga ISD meeting features community input
By Abigail Allen
Throughout the messages shared by Tioga ISD community members, the common thread was a plea for everyone to come together.
Educators, parents and students took turns speaking to the school board and their fellow TISD community members about the damage negativity online and rumor-spreading has caused, starting with the invocation.
"Please let cooler heads prevail tonight and let's do all this business and everything in it to the best interest of the citizens, faculty and, most importantly, the students of this district," Rickey Kemp said.
Athletic Director Chad Rogers and members of his staff possibly leaving the district, the morale of the districts remaining faculty and staff, and the impact on the students—all resulting from TISD's financial difficulties—were repeated themes throughout the comments.
School Board President Paul Rodarmer chose to not enforce the time limit on speakers.
"I think everybody's comments are so heartfelt, we're just going to let everybody speak," he said a few speakers into the meeting.
Troy Mott encouraged everyone to move forward, speaking of his dedication to increase his efforts to make an impact via the athletic booster club.
"I have faith and hope that we as a board and a community, we can do hard things," he said. "It will take all of us putting aside our anger, our pride and our differences of opinion in order to make this happen."
Bill Norwood stepped up next, saying that Rogers and his staff created a positive culture in the district that made students want to participate and thrive.
"There's a big connection between academics and athletics, and there's a high participation [in] athletics in the schools," he said. "What you do as an athletic program affects a lot of kids."
His daughter, Ella Norwood, flanked by two of her friends, addressed the board and the crowd about feeling the impact of the coaching staff changes.
"Ever since Coach Rogers has applied to leave, there's been a hole not only in athletics but [also] in the community," she said.
She spoke of the influence the coaches have had on her and her peers, saying, "no one understands the relationship of a coach and a player."
"They showed us that we were building something special, and we all had an important role in it," Ella said.
Heather Nesmith, the next speaker, felt compelled to attend the meeting after hearing rumors of people wanting Superintendent Josh Ballinger and Tioga High School Principal Keith Kirkland "to be gone."
The two men have gone above and beyond to support her autistic daughter, Nesmith said.
"The rumors—all I'm going to ask is, leave Mr. Ballinger and leave Mr. Kirkland out of it, because these two guys are the reason that Tioga is the way it is, and they're the reason that my daughter will graduate," she said.
She was followed by first-grade teacher Casey Cassell, who explained that her experience before and after the financial issues hit a critical point in the district has been vastly different.
The 14-year veteran teacher came to Tioga because of the small class size the district maintained.
"It was a breath of fresh air," she said. "I fell in love with teaching again."
Since December, when the district cut staff and realigned classrooms, she has felt headed toward burnout and feeling inadequate to meet her students' needs, which are issues plaguing education nationwide.
She acknowledged that solutions will be complicated and asked the board for something specific—a view of the plan to get back on track.
"We need something to look forward to, something to hold onto, a reason to stay," Cassell said. "Please don't neglect us simply because we are keeping quiet."
Her fellow teacher, Rachel Nalls, spoke next, speaking predominately to the public.
She touched on the staff, students and administrators she's seen as part of the district in her 18-year career at Tioga, which has been her only district.
She spoke of the successes celebrated and the losses—in school and outside of it—shared over the years as well, including the challenge of navigating a "global pandemic together."
"I have to be honest, the last few months have been the hardest," Nalls said. "I would even say that some of the last few days have been tougher than even teaching during the pandemic. … The hardest part has been what's happened to the negativity, the rumors, the lack of the oneness has been extremely tough."
She quoted comments made on social media about the district, its employees and its future.
"I believe that some of you may think that you are being helpful by defending the teachers with your comments online," she said, setting off "defending" with air quotes. "But I can assure you that it's not helping. … If you truly want to help, get a background check completed; volunteer in a classroom, or better yet, get your name on the sub list."
Trina Colteryahn spoke next, opening with a congratulations to the eight FCCLA teams who made it to state.
Mentioning that she's a candidate for school board, she asked that the board wait to throw out possibilities as individuals until the board makes a decision regarding how to move forward.
"Please note that there has been speculation circulating of a breach in executive sessions, which could lead to further scrutiny from TEA and legal ramifications," she said.
She encouraged everyone to shift to a positive mindset regarding what the district can accomplish.
"There is value in each and every extracurricular opportunity," she said, adding that "we wouldn't possibly assign a higher value to one child over another, so why are we doing it within our school?"
Her husband, Kevin Colteryahn, was the final speaker in the first public forum session.
"We need to look for and avoid those that are promoting division and those that don't have the best interest of the children in their minds," he said. "Anything that doesn't facilitate the promotion of the school's financial stability and is not for the children, then we need to remove that."
Other comments he made about a real estate transaction that had been proposed in 2020 that drew a response from trustee Brandon Miller, who disputed Kevin's assertions.
"An attack on integrity is a big deal to me, so I do want to defend myself," Miller said.
In the course of his response, he and Kemp engaged in a brief back-and-forth.
In the second public forum, two speakers added their perspective.
Tawny Hurst, who echoed Nesmith that Ballinger and Kirkland are assets to the district, asked the board to consider a way for the families of transfer students to be heard.
"Unfortunately, we can't be a part of the board," she said. "We can't vote on the board."
She floated the idea of a seat being available "for a transfer parent," Hurst said. "Or, if that's a stretch, then maybe we could form a subcommittee of transfer parents to help be the voice of that group, too."
Hurst shared her appreciation for the staff and the board.
"I really believe that we're all going to come together and we're going to be fine," she said.
The final community member to speak was Diana Castillo.
She asked the board to identify metrics to use to ensure the elementary school students get what they need to succeed and to consider the impact long school days can have on younger students.
"I have created a Facebook group page for first-grade parents who are willing and wanting to come and volunteer," Castillo said.