Alan White can remember standing in the basement of the Texas State Capital, where the Texas Ethics Commission met, after he and his fellow Decatur school board members had made history.
“It’s dark,” White explained. “And they’re up here, and you’re standing in front of them looking up at them. It’s intimidating as all get-out.”
Each member had been fined $1,000 by the commission for what it ruled was the use of public funds for political advertising in the $32.8 million bond campaign for a new high school. The school had used wording like “best solution” and “the right thing to do” in some of its bond information to the public.
It wasn’t the kind of history a school board wanted to make.
“I don’t think any school board had ever been fined $1,000 before that, and I don’t think any board has been fined since,” he said. “A $1,000 fine for a job that pays nothing? That’s kind of rough.”
Before the hearing, White had suggested the board offer to do training for other schools on how not to make the same mistakes in exchange for a reduced fine. The commission agreed, reducing the fine to $100, which was eventually waived after the board performed the training.
“But we all agreed amongst ourselves, if we had to pay the $1,000 it was worth it to get the bond passed for the high school,” White joked.
Nearly 10 years later, White can look back on it and smile. After all, it was a successful bond issue that got the board in hot water after two failed attempts at a new high school.
After 15 years on the school board, including two terms as president, White will officially retire this May. The passage of the high school bond is still one the biggest accomplishments during his time on the board, White said.
Much has changed since White was first elected in May 1999. Voters then had just approved a bond package for the district’s second elementary school, which would later be named Carson Elementary.
The school district’s finances were still recovering from some dark times in the not-too-distant past.
“They were looking at consolidating,” White said of some of the financial discussions. “They were going to close down the intermediate school and move it in with the junior high and the old elementary school.”
Those proposals never made it to reality, however, and over the years the district’s finances improved to what is now an extremely healthy state.
“I was fortunate to see a lot of great hires in this district, but (Deputy Superintendent for Finances) Gary Micinski may be the best with what he’s been able to do. He’s done a phenomenal job,” he said.
Over the years, a third elementary was built, and upgrades were made at facilities around the district. A multipurpose building was added, and a softball field was built.
Recent projects include the renovation of the district’s oldest facility into an administration building, and the district may soon add a larger agriculture facility to handle that growing program. White said he is also proud of all the extracurricular activities the district has been able to add in the past decade-and-a-half.
Technology has been one of the biggest changes, White said.
Decatur was one of the first districts in the county to implement a 1-to-1 laptop program at the high school and provide increased technology to teachers and students at all grade levels. Since that time, several other school districts around Wise County have followed their lead and implemented similar programs.
White said he had a bucket list of things he wanted to see happen in the district, and the list is “pretty much completed.” About the only thing he wishes he could have done during his time is convince his fellow board members of the need to purchase property in the district for future school facilities to handle growth.
“I guess my biggest fear is that August rolls around one year and we have 250 more kids than we had the year before,” he said. “I’m not saying we’ll ever grow like Southlake or Frisco or Little Elm, but we’re going to grow, and I hope the district is ready for that growth when it comes because I honestly believe it is coming.”
His biggest concerns moving forward are more on the state level than the district level. White said the state is constantly changing the rules for local school districts, and the local school district’s power continues to be eroded.
“It’s like you get a rule book and get used to all the rules, and then you finally get comfortable with it and then they give you a whole new rule book, which means more training. It’s really been tough on teachers,” he said.
If White’s best day as a board member came when the high school bond passed on its third try, the worst day had to be the bond’s failure on the second try, after the first attempt lost by only a few votes.
The second time, it wasn’t even close.
“It didn’t get beat, it got killed,” White said. “That was not a good time.”
The school board was able to take some of the lessons learned from that bond defeat and work on a better plan for the third attempt. White said many citizens felt the school had been designed “too big,” but the board tried to do a better job of explaining to the public that the extra space was to accommodate future growth.
White knows future school boards will have their own challenges. On the local level, he said he will be interested to see what happens with the upcoming discussion about open or closed campus lunch at the high school.
But he takes comfort in knowing the district is in a better place now than when he was first elected.
“I feel like I’m leaving this district in good shape,” he said. “I’m very happy about that.”
He offered a few words of advice for the board member who will take his spot.
“The main thing is to keep the focus on the kids,” he said. “I hope whoever gets elected to my spot has the passion to help kids.”