The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;…
There was going to be a terrible spat.
In this case, the calico cat is Beeville Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Sue Thomas; Dr. Brett Belmarez, superintendent of the Skidmore-Tynan Independent School District, is the gingham dog.
Faced with substandard assessment test scores, the BISD board asked Dr. Thomas to contact the parents of district students who have transferred to other schools.
Thomas stresses that all she wants to do is to send a letter to parents to ask why they transferred out of the district.
“I may not want to hear their reasons, but that’s one way to try to address the problems,” Thomas says. “I have no ulterior motive; what I’m seeking is feedback.”
Still, at least one BISD board member has charged that S-TISD only accepts potential transfer students with higher grades.
Thomas has speculated that if transfer students were being taught at BISD, the district’s test scores would be higher — adding that if that should occur, the district would be forced to build another school to accommodate them.
Last February, Thomas contacted all nearby districts, asking for the lists of transfer students.
As an indication of the heightening enmity between BISD and S-TISD, in his initial reply, Belmarez asked if Thomas’ request was personal or done in an official capacity? Belmarez said he was curious to know why Thomas had not simply called him as a friendly, neighborhood district official.
“As for any neighborhood cooperation,” Thomas wrote “when you sent the letter home last year with your students about the Beeville ISD superintendent, you destroyed any neighborly district communication. I received death threats after you sent that letter.”
Belmarez says he doesn’t know to what Thomas is referring, saying he remembers no such letter.
In the fall of 2011, S-TISD buses picked up students at St. Mary’s School, which denied further use because of liability issues. S-TISD then asked the First United Methodist Church for permission to pick up students there, which the church denied for the same reason.
In late August of 2011, in an unsigned letter to parents, S-TISD told parents the buses would pick up Beeville students at Walmart, saying First Methodist had changed its mind because of numerous complaints from the Beeville ISD superintendent and members of the board who also attend this church.
A year later, Thomas admits that when an anonymous caller promised her that she would regret her action and that she would be sorry, it might not constitute a death threat, but she nonetheless felt it was at the time.
At the regular BISD board meeting April 16, Thomas read the results of her survey.
Students who have transferred to BISD include Goliad, 3; George West, 3; Pettus, 12; Pawnee, 1; S-TISD, 3; Mathis, 1; Three Rivers, 1; and Kenedy, 1.
Those transferred out of BISD include Pawnee, 38; and Pettus, 43.
How many from S-TISD?
Thomas doesn’t yet know, citing a number of certified letters mailed to Belmarez, with receipts signed by Robin Moore – who works in the S-TISD business office — but returned to Thomas unopened.
Belmarez says there was no need to open the letters because all of his replies were via email and, in some cases, hand-delivered to BISD.
In documents received by the Bee-Picayune, on Feb. 26, Thomas asked Belmarez why he had not responded, threatening to contact the attorney general’s office.
The next day, Belmarez warned that Thomas’ threat to contact the attorney general “would not advance your interest in receiving that requested information in any meaningful way.”
Belmarez explained the school’s entire directory would have to be perused to obtain the transfer data, noting that S-TISD does not maintain a separate database on transfer students.
Ironically, the Texas Education Agency mandated districts to maintain a list of transfers but dropped the requirement two years ago.
He estimated it would take up to 60 days to complete the request at a cost of $675.
At issue is the Federal Education Right for Privacy Act (FERPA), which forbids the release of student information without parental consent.
On Feb. 27, Thomas suggested that if S-TISD did not have the time to sift through its directory, could Belmarez send it to her so that her staff could do it? BISD, she said, would pay the $675.
Belmarez maintains that such a release without parental consent violates FERPA.
Thomas countered that the act does not require prior consent and S-TISD policy states the district can release such data to anyone who follows the procedures for requesting the directory information.
Thomas also noted that at the beginning of each school year, S-TISD sends a letter to each parent instructing them to notify the district if they do not want their children’s information released. In others words, if a parent has not replied, the district has permission to release the information.
On March 4, Belmarez told Thomas that S-TISD considers a student’s enrollment status falls under FERPA’s confidentiality guidelines.
However, he said S-TISD would prepare the requested list, once it had removed the names of any students whose parents objected.
Belmarez said he hoped the list would be complete in the required 10 working days.
On April 2, almost a month later, Thomas wrote Belmarez to say that she still had not received any data.
S-TISD has mailed a letter to parents asking for permission, but the letter is dated April 4, exactly a month after Thomas’ letter.
To date, Belmarez says, about 10 percent of the parents have objected.
This week, Thomas says she has received an email from S-TISD saying the list was almost complete and to please send a check for $420 for processing.
Thomas replied the same day that the check would be in the mail, but asked to verify the S-TISD address considering “Dr. Belmarez has refused to accept my last two letters. Will he refuse to accept this letter as well?”
While she waits, Thomas is asking parents of BISD students who have transferred to contact her to discuss their reasons for enrolling their children at S-TISD. She also plans to make the request in recorded public service announcements for local radio stations.
“I’m not a bully,” Thomas says. “I don’t like litigation. We don’t need this kind of conflict when there is an assault against public schools.”
Both superintendents have sought legal advice.
On his part, Belmarez says he would welcome having a one-on-one or a moderated discussion with Thomas “to help in subduing the hostilities she feels for S-TISD and me.”
Such a summit is not without danger, according to the poet Field:
Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;…
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.