The two candidates for an at-large seat on the Waco Independent School District school board agree on many of the challenges the district is facing, but differ on priorities and the perspectives they say they will bring to the board.
Investment advisor Angelo Ochoa, 42, the son of a WISD teacher, husband to another WISD teacher and a former one himself, said paying attention to the district’s teachers is crucial, particularly as pressures are driving experienced ones out of the field. The Rev. Marlon Jones, 42, pastor of St. Luke AME Church, said it is a matter of changing a district culture into one that listens more, is more integrated with the community and draws resources from that community.
The two are seeking election to the remaining year of the at-large seat vacated by Cary DuPuy when he resigned in the middle of his fourth term in November. The board’s other at-large seat is held by Keith Guillory, elected last May.
Jones said a sense of not being heard by district officials is complicating the solutions to challenges such as student literacy, discipline and teacher well-being.
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“People feel by and large they don’t have a voice — parents, students, educators, administrators,” he said.
Listening to their concerns and involving them in addressing issues increases the chances of better solutions. Jones also said the context of what students and the district are doing well provide helpful perspective. Discipline changes when offending students are not perceived as inherently bad. And while low test scores show a need for strengthening literacy efforts and academics, Jones said 50 recent Waco ISD graduates walked off with associate’s degrees from McLennan Community College at the same time they received their high school diplomas.
“How you define a problem is how you address a problem. We need to build from a place of strength,” Jones said.
He said he believes school trustees should not get into day-to-day school management, but he feels they play an important role in community-to-school connections.
Ochoa’s job as an investment advisor for Disciplined Investors is closer to the career the Waco native imagined after graduating from Tarleton State University with a degree in business and finance and beginning work with Central National Bank. Teaching was not high on his list after growing up the son of longtime Waco ISD elementary school teacher Bianca Ochoa, with a wife, Jamie, a Hillcrest Elementary School teacher, and brother Santiago, who taught at Cesar Chavez Middle School, Provident Heights Elementary School and now Midway Middle School.
But when an opportunity arose to teach finance, business and accounting to students at Waco ISD’s A.J. Moore Academy in 2010, he allowed his wife to twist his arm into the classroom, Ochoa said. For the next nine years, Ochoa taught at A.J. Moore Academy, then University High School when it absorbed the academy. He trained students in the volunteer income tax assistance program that allowed them to file tax returns for community members. Ochoa was named Teacher of the Year at University in 2019, an honor his wife and his brother also won at their schools.
He is back in finance, yet still a teacher advocate, he said. During the two years of COVID-19 disruption with Texas schools, he saw more and more teaching friends and colleagues reach a breaking point and talk about leaving the profession altogether.
“It went from ‘It’s bad’ to ‘If I could find another job, I would,’” he said. “To me, that is a scary, scary thing.”
That persuaded him to run for the school board.
“I can give a voice to teachers, so teachers can be heard at the very top,” Ochoa said.
While the state and Waco ISD have increased salaries and offered financial bonuses both in hiring and retaining teachers, Ochoa said low salaries are not the top of teacher concerns he is hearing when compared to workload, health and safety issues, administrative support and job demands.
“It’s not the money. It’s something else,” Ochoa said. “We sometimes forget we are hiring professionals. And we treat principals the same way.”
The two candidates for the District 4 seat on the Waco Independent School District Board of Trustees differ on what they consider the role of a trustee.
At the same time, Ochoa believes replacing superintendents at this time would only continue Waco ISD’s long-running cycle of new superintendents and their administrations every four or five years, and he supports current Superintendent Susan Kincannon.
“I’m 1,000% on board with Dr. Kincannon,” he said. “I think she’s more than qualified to get us where we need to be.”
Continuity also is a consideration in the current discussion of the district’s relationship with Transformation Waco, a charter zone within the district created to improve learning at five schools that had been threatened with state closures before their standardized test scores improved.
“I know a lot of really, really good persons in Transformation Waco,” Ochoa said. “I would like to see Transformation Waco and the WISD collaborating more, but if they’re not working hand in hand, ultimately kids aren’t being helped.”
Ochoa and his wife have four children: Henry and James, who attend Hillcrest Elementary; Garner, who attends Atlas Academy in Tennyson Middle School; and Abigail, who attends Vanguard College Preparatory School.
Ochoa is on the boards of Educators Credit Union, the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute, the Greater Waco Legal Services and the Hispanic Leadership Network. Ochoa also volunteers weekly at Indian Spring/Carver Middle School.
Jones, a 2004 Paul Quinn College graduate with a Master of Divinity degree from Texas Christian University, has taught a little in the classroom, including second grade at Focus Learning Academy and middle school at Advantage Academy in the Dallas area.
He points more to his experience in youth entrepreneurial and development programs, from years with Boys and Girls Clubs and their summer camp programs to the nonprofit Youth Entrepreneurs and his current role as vice president for leadership development in the organization Starry, which works with at-risk and runaway youth.
Those experiences not only involved working with school districts in Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, Corsicana, Temple and others, but demonstrated to him how businesses and community volunteers could be used to help students.
Jones said Waco programs such as Motivation Days, where adults from the community go on campus simply to encourage students, or pastors who join police as a settling presence on the last day of school as examples where the community can supplement district efforts. He also suggested the Waco district confer with surrounding districts to share what works for them on issues like student discipline.
“Part of leadership is having the humility to ask for help. I know how to ask people,” Jones said. “I see tremendous potential for our district. I don’t know how you can see an opportunity and not step up to serve.”
Jones also has served on boards and committees for Waco organizations such as the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce, United Way, public radio station KWBU-FM and the Elm Street Steering Committee.
His wife, Scherrie, is an instructional specialist in math at J.H. Hines Elementary School. They have four children, Marlon III, Patrick and Reese, who attend Mountainview Elementary School, and Paiton, at Vanguard College Preparatory School. They moved to Waco in 2018.
Both candidates said growing public concern over several years of rising property values would shape any Waco ISD board discussion of budgets and tax rates.
“It’s a huge concern to me. … A lot of people are really, really hurt every time taxes or valuations go up,” Ochoa said.
He said, however, that improving district performance has an economic dimension, with better schools more likely to attract outside business, improving the local economy.
Jones said he would “lean on the experts in our community” for advice on easing the impact of local taxes, but that school-business collaborations and cooperation could lead to budget savings.
“The resources in Waco are tremendous,” he said.
Asked about outside pressures from state Republican leaders to ban certain books from school libraries and constrain teaching on racism and sexuality, Ochoa said he would consider a range of opinions before making a decision as a trustee.
Jones warned about the intent behind such actions. “I think we’re in a dangerous place where education is being weaponized to win elections,” he said.
Two Waco organizations will hold candidate forums this month for Waco City Council and school board races. The Hispanic Leaders Network will host a “Meet the Candidates” forum from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, 915 La Salle Ave.
The Waco NAACP will hold a candidate forum via Zoom from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 25. The webinar ID number is 97386009601. For more information, call 254-733-5261.
Early voting for the May 7 races will take place April 25-30 and May 2-3.