Board president abruptly resigns
By Miles Smith
The president of the Lockhart ISD Board of Trustees resigned abruptly on Monday after saying he didn’t approve of the board’s continued support of a Sept. 4 vote to require students, teachers and anyone who steps foot on LISD campuses to wear a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Steve Johnson, who has served on the board since 2014, resigned following 90 minutes of public comment and discussion about whether to remove a mandate that has been in place since Labor Day weekend, when trustees voted 5-2 to require all students, staff and visitors to LISD campuses to wear facial coverings.
The number of active cases at LISD schools have dwindled since the vote. On Sept. 1, when the special meeting to consider a mandate was announced, active COVID-19 cases on campuses numbered 160.
At press time on Tuesday, active cases in the district totaled only 24.
But when the board voted for the
mandate, Johnson said, they did so in defiance of an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott, who prohibited any public or local governmental entity from requiring individuals to wear facial coverings, threatening to levy a $1,000 fine to any who violated the order.
Johnson tendered his resignation after no motion was made to rescind the order.
“It saddens me right now that in this point in my board career that I don’t believe what we’re doing is right, breaking the law,” Johnson said. “Morals, ethics, and our personal responsibility to obey the law has just been thrown out.”
Johnson said he expected the vote on a future anticipated bond issue to expand facilities to gain classroom space to fail due to taxpayer distrust.
“It’s a divisive situation we’re going through right now, I don’t believe the bond will pass,” Johnson said. “If we’re willing to spend money on lawsuits or whatever, how are the taxpayers supposed to trust what we’re doing. I’ve missed many nights of sleep. I’m tendering my resignation with the board of trustees effective immediately.
“I hope everything goes the way it should. I think we’ve done some good work. I just can’t continue to compromise my ethics.”
Vice President Michael Wright took the reins for the remainder of the meeting, but per board policy, board members will need to choose new officers among themselves at the next meeting.
As for filling the vacancy created by Johnson’s departure, that will likely happen via appointment, as it is too late to call a special election in November, and the position must be filled within 180 days, meaning a May election would be too late, a district spokesperson said on Tuesday.
Trustee Warren Burnett said he requested that the mask mandate be placed on the agenda. Burnett joined Johnson as one of the only two trustees to vote against the mandate, but he said on Monday he would have voted for it if trustees supporting it had included guidelines for eventually lifting it.
“Kids don’t want to wear it, teachers don’t want to, I don’t want to,” said Burnett. “If we don’t let people know there’s a definite end, we’re just going to make people angry. If we’re down to zero cases, and we’re still making people wear it, we’re going to hear from the whole community. We’re just going to continue the dissension between (both sides) of the community.”
Prior to Johnson’s departure, a largely rudderless conversation among board members on opposing sides of the issue turned a corner when trustee Tom Guyton suggested they direct district staff members to help them take an analytical approach.
“We’re not going to come to 100 percent consensus on this,” Guyton said. “I think we need data every month to take a look at this and see where we are. I don’t think it’s going to go away, but how we live with it is what counts. As a board member, I don’t know what the day to day is, but that’s what we have (Superintendent Mark Estrada) for. He’s our boots on the ground. He’s our day-to-day guy.”
The CDC on Tuesday released new studies that showed schools that have required masks have had a lower instance of COVID-19 cases than those that have not. In one study in Arizona, schools that didn’t require masks had 3.5 times the cases than schools that did.
Trustee Barbara Sanchez said the improving district numbers were tantamount of the effectiveness of the mandate.
Prior to his resignation, Johnson disagreed.
“It is an opinion,” Johnson said. “The data is going down, but it could have been going down anyway.”
Later in the meeting, the board approved a pair of measures designed to help the district facilitate COVID-19-related operations, voting unanimously to hire four COVID-19 liaisons to help with tasks ranging from remote conferencing to case tracking, and to implement a virtual school program for students in kindergarten through fifth grades.
The hour of public comments included eight speakers who wanted the district to repeal the mask mandate and 21 who wanted to keep it in place.
“I feel like there are a few of you who feel like you didn’t get what you wanted and you want a do-over,” lawyer and local resident Andi St. Leger said. “So I’m frustrated. I feel like we’re about to outlaw dancing.”