After serving six years with Waco Independent School District, Superintendent Bonny Cain is stepping down.
Her last day hasn’t been officially decided yet because she wants to give the school board plenty of time to find a replacement and help with the district’s leadership transition. She expects her last day to come sometime after graduation, she said.
Cain announced her retirement at the end of Thursday night’s school board meeting, days before the district heads into a weeklong Thanksgiving break.
The decision comes after state-mandated governance training from the Texas Education Agency on three of the district’s seven struggling schools, an external investigation that found academic wrongdoing at University High School and the questionable hire of a former teacher fired from a different school district because of a racist social media post.
None of those issues, all of which have happened since June, influenced her decision to leave, Cain said.
Cain started discussing her retirement with trustees in the spring, Waco ISD board President Pat Atkins said Wednesday.
“We’ve wrestled with that, and we started having these discussions in the spring before we even knew what was happening at University. Once that was brought to our attention in June, there was no good time to make the announcement,” Atkins said. “It was important to let the external investigators issue their report, and if you look at that report, there’s nothing that rises to the level of the superintendent’s office. It was very campus-specific.”
At 66, Cain has been thinking about leaving since March, shortly before she became aware of academic issues at University High, she said.
“I was looking at what we needed to do about facilities. Do we need to update our strategic plan? We have a whole new teaching testing system coming up. There were all these things I could see that needed someone to stick with it,” Cain said. “But then this University High thing came up. At first, all we had were fatal (computerized grading) errors from a person who was new in that particular job. Then as it got bigger and bigger and bigger, I had to stay for the investigation.”
Then the district was hit with the state-mandated training, and she decided to stay through the training as well.
“The change agent can’t be the stabilizer. I’ve been in (education) for 40 years. There’s always something you want to work on,” Cain said. “I can think of all these things I would really like to see through . . . There will never be a time as far as Waco ISD that I’m thinking, ‘this will be a good time to leave,’ because there’s always great things that are going to happen. It was a hard decision.”
Cain was hired in 2011 from Pearland ISD, a larger school district with an exemplary academic accountability rating where she served for more than 20 years, 11 of which were as a superintendent.
She came during a tumultuous time when the district faced the decision of closing nine of its struggling campuses and consolidating. She said working closely with the board during that time showed the commitment of the board to its community, but a lot has happened during her tenure to take note of, including getting teachers all on the same page and addressing the fact that more than 80 percent of Waco ISD students are economically disadvantaged.
“The closures had to happen, and I actually knew that before I came here. I could tell that from the data and the finances. Closing those schools and getting more money going to instructional programs and teacher salaries was one of the best things,” Cain said. “I think the transition from the TAKS to the STAAR test — it’s such a more difficult test, and making that shift when you don’t have to deal with these poverty issues isn’t as much of an effort. But when you’ve got kids who may not have that background, it’s a big effort.”
Atkins said Cain’s work with the board through that process helped build trust, despite their differences.
“When you think back to 2011, when we had to close all those schools, Dr. Cain comes in and has one speed and it’s, ‘Go. We need to get this done,’ ” Atkins said. “We talked almost daily during that entire process, kind of tweaking boundaries and looking at campuses that could be closed or consolidated . . . really looking at it from a lot of different angles. That developed a very deep, trusting relationship, and we have two very different styles. She tends to be go and do it now, and I want to be a little more deliberate, thoughtful and strategic. It’s turned into a nice balance.”
Waco ISD was ranked academically acceptable at the time of Cain’s hire and has retained that rating through the transition to the STAAR test, according to TEA documents.
Though Waco ISD didn’t receive the exemplary rating during her tenure with the district, Cain helped lead the work of turning struggling schools around through the efforts of transformation committees, turnaround plans, district and campus improvement plans and more.
When she started, 10 Waco ISD schools were on the state’s academically unacceptable list. When schools transitioned from TAKS to STAAR in 2013, nine schools were on the list.
The number bumped back up to 10 in 2014 and has dropped since, to seven campuses.
Both University High School and Waco High School were rated academically unacceptable when Cain started but have since passed state academic standards.
As Atkins looks back on his time with Cain, he said Cain’s greatest impact to the district isn’t necessarily the numerous programs she’s helped curate or the strides in academic accountability. It’s not necessarily the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing or Greater Waco Advanced Healthcare academies and their partnerships with local businesses and healthcare providers, or the ATLAS academy that meets the needs of the district’s gifted and talented students, he said. And it isn’t the fact that Waco ISD started producing high school musicals under her leadership, he said.
“The two things that really changed was a sense of urgency and the entire rhythm of this district from six years ago,” Atkins said. “And it comes at a price. There are folks who will tell you out of that sense of urgency folks were moved around too often at the campus level. The other thing that happened, and it’s something that’s taken place over this entire community, is having folks in key positions that had a sincere level of trust among one another so we could begin to collaborate.
“What came about initially was some pretty large institutions where individual leaders felt comfortable dropping those barriers and some of those silos and saying, ‘let’s work together to fix some of those issues. Let’s quit saying this is my territory. Leave me alone, I’ll take care of it.’ It became much more about what we could do as a community to move the needle, and she was a big part of that.”
Cain said she’s not necessarily quitting education altogether. She wants to eventually move back to East Texas, where she may decide to help adults learn to read, hold another administrative position or help the homeless community, she said.
She has two pieces of advice for whoever takes her place: Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and hire the right people for the right positions.
“My suggestion to the next person coming in or to anybody in this situation, when you have a struggling district, be so careful who you hire. There is no substitute for leadership and getting the right people in those positions,” Cain said. “There’s an old saying in education that if you’ve got a weak staff and a strong principal and you have the choice of a strong staff and a weak principal, you choose the weak staff and strong principal because a strong principal will turn that staff around.”
The board of trustees will most likely use a Texas Association of School Boards executive search service to find the next leader for Waco ISD, but that decision has not been made yet, Atkins said.
“I wish there was something about Dr. Cain (people) knew, and I don’t think it’s fully appreciated,” Atkins said. “That is the level of energy and time and commitment that she’s brought to this job and the tireless effort she’s put forth for the children in this community for the last six years.”