Political curmudgeons might well grouse that local attorney Pat Atkins should have completely fixed Waco Independent School District by now, given his 17 years on the Waco ISD board of trustees, including nine years as board president. Such cynics fail to realize that applying intelligent solutions is difficult when dynamics are always shifting, always raising new challenges and headaches — everything from losing an enormously promising and popular superintendent (for a minor, roadside pot arrest) to trying to prevent scores of teacher layoffs during a nationwide recession that instead shuttered schools (and with some of the public consequently and ignorantly blaming the school board rather than our state lawmakers who cut $5.4 billion from public education funding in 2011).
While fellow trustees will no doubt accept Atkins’ resignation during their meeting this evening — he and wife Sandy are soon moving outside the school district, so it’s pretty much a necessity, sooner or later — they’ll approve this departure with significant regret. During his many years on the board, Atkins has offered a reassuring consistency in his vision, integrity and leadership, even as he welcomed bold ideas and politely but firmly built up consensus in the oft-frustrating field of public education. His departure comes as the district witnesses some real success in academic fortunes at several inner-city campuses dogged by years of failing test scores. Success is attributable to an unprecedented in-district charter-school arrangement in partnership with the Texas Education Agency and Transformation Waco as well as efforts by former Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson and Atkins in enlisting community support.
Interim Superintendent Hazel Rowe, who stepped into Nelson’s shoes, says Atkins’ influence is almost impossible to articulate: “For 17 years, he has asked what we can do, together, as a community to give our kids a brighter future. And for just as long, he has taken seriously the responsibility to be a good steward of our community’s tax dollars. Our kids, our schools and our community are all better off because of his leadership.” An example of this leadership and the faith many in our community demonstrated in Waco ISD came in 2015 when voters approved hiking the district’s tax rate by five cents with the additional funds expanding opportunities for students to earn college credit while in public school; raising literacy rates, particularly in pivotal primary grades; and improving behavior and discipline.
While no one might be indispensable, some are more dispensable than others. Atkins’ departure heaps a major challenge on remaining trustees. A superintendent with a dynamic personality left the school district a few months ago. Now a longtime school board president ever mindful of long-term goals and articulate in expressing policy aims departs as well. They will not be easily replaced, but trustees must consider the consequences if they don’t distill what made these two successful and develop such qualities in themselves and others. Meanwhile, is it too soon to consider Pat Atkins for Texas House or Senate where his expertise and leadership are so very badly needed?