Q&A – MSD Board Candidate Rony Baltazar-Lopez

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 by Terry Rogers

Rony Baltazar-Lopez

On Tuesday, July 21, Milford School District Board of Education will hold an election for an at-large seat. Voting will be held from 7 AM until 8 PM at Milford High School (1019 North Walnut Street) and Evelyn I. Morris Early Childhood Center (8609 Third Street, Lincoln). Rony Baltazar-Lopez and Scott Willey are both vying for the seat. Below are questions we asked Baltazar-Lopez and his answers.

Baltazar-Lopez is 25 years old, borna nd raise din Milford. He graduated from Milford High School in 2013 and was appointed to Milford School Board in 2019, the youngest and first Hispanic member of the board. Baltazar-Lopez graduated from the University of Delaware in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and is currently pursuing his Master of Public Administration (MPA) from the same institution. He is currently the public information officer for Attorney General Kathy Jennings at the Delaware Department of Justice. His previous work experience includes being an outreach coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Delaware, and most recently, as a legislative aide in the United States Senate.

What do you see as the biggest issue facing Milford School District in the upcoming school year?

Our biggest challenge as a school district right now is the uncertainty of the upcoming school year due to COVID-19.

First, we need to improve and expand mental health supports and resources for students, families, and educators. Our students have experienced an enormous amount of stress, anxiety and/or depression from being home all this time. Parents and guardians have had to become teachers for their children while managing their full-time responsibilities. Moreover, teachers have had to abruptly transition from traditional lesson plans to finding innovative and expansive ways to reach their students.

Second, we need to alter school board policy to allow us to continue adjusting to the growing concerns around COVID-19 and create mechanisms to allow us to react quicker should we be hit with another crisis in the future. We do this by forming a committee of various stakeholders—students, teachers, parents, and others—to find ways that we can improve upon any mistakes we made during this pandemic, and improve for next time so that no student is left behind.

Third, as we continue discussions regarding reopening, school districts need to ensure that they are following proper protocol in accordance to the DOE’s recommendations to continue teaching our students while reducing the spread of COVID-19. These protocols must be translated and properly communicated to our non-English speaking families as well.

Do you feel the current Milford School Board has handled the recent COVID-19 pandemic well? If so, what were some of the positive outcomes? What would or could you have done differently? 

Yes, I do believe the Milford School District handled the recent COVID-19 pandemic well considering the short notice given by Governor Carney and his administration to close schools. Our district has been hard at work since day one, especially our teachers who had to abruptly transition to remote e-learning, to ensure that no student was left behind in learning and that no student went hungry.

We have not experienced a crisis like this in recent times and for many of us, COVID-19 hit us by surprise. This pandemic challenged school leaders to think outside the box and forced us to step outside our comfort zones to try something we have never done before. Like many new ideas or projects, there will always be room for improvement, and we can certainly learn from our mistakes so that we do better next time.

With that said, we could have certainly transitioned quicker to remote e-learning and we could have provided hotline numbers and resources sooner to our students and families.

However, moving forward, we need to improve and expand mental health supports and resources in preparation for the upcoming school year. Moreover, we need to alter school board policy to allow us to continue adjusting to the growing concerns around COVID-19 and create mechanisms to allow us to react quicker in the event of another crisis in the future.

With graduation rates in Milford at almost 90 percent, how would you, as a school board member, continue to improve this rate? 

According to the latest report by the Department of Education, Milford School District has steadily increased its graduation rates since 2017. In 2017 the graduation rate was 86.32 percent; in 2018, it was 87.39 percent; and the latest report for 2019, the graduation rate was 88.42 percent. While I am content that our school district’s rates are increasing, I am also cautiously optimistic given that graduation rates for our diverse students, English learners, low-income students, and students with disabilities are far from close to 90 percent.

In 2019, the graduation rate for Hispanic/Latino students was 83.33 percent and the graduation rates for multi-racial students was 75 percent compared to the 89.93 graduation rate for white students. Moreover, the graduation rate for English Learners was 66.67 percent; the graduation rate for low income students was 80.23 percent; and for students with disabilities, the rate was 81.48 percent.

To improve these outcomes, first we have to ensure we expand on proven early-warning indicators. This means that we develop or improve strategies for tracking students at greatest risk of dropping out beginning in their first year of high school or even before that.

Second, we need to expand and improve upon targeted and school-wide interventions early and consistently. This means that our schools should personalize the learning experience for broad student groups by focusing on a school environment that emphasizes inclusivity; an education that emphasizes the connections between high school and careers; and an education that is rigorous as many students don’t necessarily dropout due to academic challenges.

Third, we need to improve attendance rates to improve graduation rates. The less time a student misses class, the less likely they are to fail. Chronic absenteeism occurs when a student misses about 10 percent of the school year (about 18 school days). In the 2018-2019 school year, about 12 percent of Milford students experienced chronic absenteeism. Unfortunately, students with disabilities and lower income students are likelier to experience chronic absenteeism.

Furthermore, redefining our disciplinary practices and policies should also be taken into consideration as out-of-school suspensions reduces the amount of class time for students and puts them at a greater risk of falling behind.

What ideas do you have to improve student test scores throughout the district? 

According to the Delaware Department of Education, student proficiency rates in English Language Arts and math for students in the Milford School District between grades 3 and 8 stand at 52 percent and 43 percent, respectively. Moreover, only 51.26 percent of students were considered college and/or career ready in the 2018-2019 school year.

I strongly believe that for us to improve these scores, we need to create a motivating and inspiring school environment, free of politics, for all our teachers and students. At the school board level, we need to pass a school wide resolution that reflects our intentions to improve these scores to reassure our teachers, students, parents, and community members that we are serious about improving these goals.

My next proposal is that we expand and enhance the mentoring program at our elementary schools. Specifically, allowing our high school seniors the opportunity to use their “senior options” for volunteer credit. Research indicates that third grade is a critical turning point for students as a child who can read on grade level by third grade is four times likely to graduate than a child who does not read proficiently by that time. As a former mentor in the Washington, D.C. Everybody Wins! Program, reading and mentoring children is crucial for their development.

Next I would encourage our principals to expand on before and/or after school tutoring sessions. Our school district has done a good job providing tutoring after school within the last few years and I would like to see that expanded so that more students have the opportunity to stay before or after and receive the help they need.

Next, while only about 10 percent of our school budget is truly flexible, I would propose reallocating funds based on student needs. This means filling teaching positions as well as instructional support positions such as paraprofessionals that best fit student needs, especially for our low-income, English learners, and students with disabilities.

Furthermore, communication with our families is vital in this process. Encouraging our families to attend family nights, information meetings, and engaging them in their child’s education is key to improving scores. Additionally, as school leaders, it falls on us to engage our families not just through traditional means but also through multiple languages using town halls, church events, and yes, social media to foster these connections.

Ultimately, I would like to say that scores are not the only indicators of a child’s success. Recognizing this and fostering an environment that focuses on students as individuals rather than test scores is important.

Overcrowding continues to be a problem in Milford schools. What ideas do you have to address this overcrowding?   

The population of the Milford School District has increased over the past several years and it will continue to grow in the nearby future. As school leaders, we need to ensure that we allocate existing financial resources to address overcrowding in the short-term. This means investing in mobile classrooms or finding mechanisms of distribution of students among the various buildings.

However, these ideas are temporary solutions to the increasing student population. Overcrowded schools lower the quality of education a student receives, and we simply cannot let that happen.

With that said, revitalizing the salvageable areas of the old Milford Middle School must be our top priority to alleviate overcrowding in our other schools. This long-term solution will require our upmost commitment. While the Milford Middle School Committee led several public hearings to discuss input for the building, school leaders have a responsibility to ensure that our community remains onboard for this type of solution. Now more than ever we need leaders who will ensure transparency, accountability, and be effective communicators (and listeners) moving forward with this type of project.

Recently Milford School District requested a Certificate of Need from the state to refurbish the old Middle School into a 5th/6th grade school. Although the request was denied last year, the district has stated they plan to submit another request this year. Do/did you support this request and would you like to see the district continue to seek approval to refurbish the old school? If not, what are your ideas for the building? 

Yes, I did support Milford School District’s move to submit a Certificate of Necessity (CN) to the State of Delaware to revitalize areas of the old Milford Middle School into a fifth and sixth grade school. I continue to support this initiative and I expect that we submit another CN to the State this year.

I was one of the last classes at the old Milford Middle School before it closed its door in 2013. Seven years have gone by since the school was in operation and we have yet to move significantly further in the process. Having a vacant and deteriorating school not only exacerbates our overcrowding issues, it hurts nearby property owners whose property values are stagnant or decreasing because of the vacant middle school.

With that in mind, I agree with the majority of the public in using the building as a school. Not only is it on property that the school district owns, the school itself has historical value that cannot be overlooked. The old Milford Middle School—which back in the 1950s was a high school—saw the first group of African Americans bidding to become the first black students to enroll in the District.

Moving forward, school leaders have to be engaged with the public about these efforts to ensure that we are transparent and accountable for all decisions made. We also have to make visible efforts to reach out to communities that have not been part of the decision, including our non-English speaking folks and low-income families to ensure a process that has support from all our residents. 

What areas do you see that could be improved in Milford and what ideas are you hoping to implement to make those improvements?  

I believe we can improve on mental health supports and resources for students, families, and educators. I have been a proponent of increased mental health supports since my first day on the board. I believe that mental health is extremely overlooked, and the lack of access produces outcomes that are not beneficial to our schoolchildren and families.

To increase mental health supports and resources, our first step is increasing awareness of mental health needs. According to NAMI Delaware, 50 percent of mental illnesses begin by age 14. Our school board needs to pass a resolution that explicitly states its intention to address the need for mental health supports. We do this by

  • Expanding outreach and partnerships with various other community agencies to ensure that we have resources readily available for our students;
  • Encouraging our teachers and counselors to be trained in Mental Health First Aid to see the signs of mental illness and to help students when they’re experiencing a crisis; and
  • Providing presentations and speakers at assemblies to assure our students that there is no shame in seeking help when they need it.

Another area that Milford School District can and should improve on is increasing teacher and staff diversity. According to the most recent report by the Delaware Department of Education, in the 2019 school year, less than 6 percent of Milford teachers were African American and less than 3 percent of teachers were Hispanic/Latino. While 90.71 percent of all teachers were white teachers, the Milford School District is comprised of 25 percent African American students and 20 percent Hispanic/Latino students. To increase diversity among our staff, we need to look into hiring an equity and inclusion staff member who will be responsible for recruiting and ensuring that the hiring process is fair for teachers of diverse backgrounds;

  • Establish a committee of various stakeholders that will make recommendations on board policies that need to be changed to increase diversity and inclusion; and
  • Expand incentives, such as tuition reimbursement for teachers to seek further education, to bring more diverse and qualified teachers into our district.

Schools may be facing budget reductions due to lost revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic at the state level. In what areas do you see the district able to cut costs without impacting student learning? What areas do you not want to see cut?  

Fortunately for education, Governor Carney passed a $4.5 billion operating budget for the next fiscal year without cuts to schools or state workers. However, with the ongoing pandemic, as a school district, we need to ensure that we maintain an emergency fund for the future should there be reductions in revenue from the state. This will allow us to keep operating without reductions in staff or cuts throughout our district.

Should there be a desperate need to cut costs in certain areas in the future, I would make it a priority to ensure that our teachers, parents, students, and community residents voice their opinions at a public forum at one of our school board meetings so that they can publicly share their opinions on what programs they do not want to see cuts from.

Ultimately, I believe that education should never have to be at risk for budget cuts. I will use my legislative and policy experience to meet with our state elected officials to advocate for our students and teachers in our district.  

Recently, a federal judge declared that the method for determining property tax in Delaware was unconstitutional as it used 20 and 30 year old assessment numbers to determine taxes. In what way do you see this possibly impacting Milford School District in the future? 

Our state funding system in Delaware relies in part on local taxes but it has limited the ability of school districts to raise sufficient local funds by disregarding the lack of a regular property reassessment. About 27 percent of all public education funding in Delaware comes from property taxes and three-quarters of those property taxes collected go directly to districts. Property taxes are levied based on a percentage of the most recently assessed value of the property. We all know that property values are not static and market values fluctuate over time.

In Kent and Sussex counties, property taxes have not been reassessed since 1987 and 1974, respectively (both before I was born). This has prevented school districts from keeping up with inflation, which erodes the purchasing power of our budgets and thus requires more dollars to achieve the same results. It has led to the increased need for referenda, which requires increased school personnel time to pursuing referendums that otherwise could be used for educational purposes. Furthermore, it deprives school districts from their fair share of the Equalization Funding, it deprives us from reliable data on a district’s wealth, and it prevents equity among taxpayers.

While we wait for the next phase of the court case and whether defendants will appeal the ruling to the Delaware Supreme Court, should this ruling be left as is, I would expect that property values will be reassessed by the counties. This would increase the revenue coming into our district. This means that, in the future, we could see a less need to go to referendum for major expenses and it would present us the opportunity to reduce the high tax rate that Milford already has due to the low property assessments in both Kent and Sussex counties.

In addition to the two polling places, voters who live within the boundaries of Milford School District may vote by absentee ballot. Applications for absentee ballots can be obtained at https://ivote.de.gov or at https://elections.delaware.gov/services/voter/absentee/school.shtml or call the Kent County Elections Office at 302-739-4498. The deadline to register for absentee ballot is July 17 at 12 Noon. Those who plan to vote in person must bring photo identification to the polling place.

 

 

 

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