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Atkins will step down from the Waco ISD board after 17 years

Pat Atkins In a letter sent May 20, Pat Atkins submitted his resignation as an at-large member of the Waco ISD Board of Trustees. He was first elected to the school board in 2002 and has served as the board’s president for nine years.

Atkins told fellow school board members that he and his wife plan to sell their home in Waco ISD and move outside of the district later this year. At that time, he will no longer be eligible to serve on the board. Atkins notified trustees of his plans now, because the board is beginning its search for the district’s next superintendent.

“My wife is a Waco ISD teacher, and I have three children who graduated from Waco ISD schools,” Atkins said. “Serving on this school board has been extremely gratifying and, at times, very challenging. For the past 17 years, I have been blessed to work with a group of educators and board members who are deeply committed to the students in our community. We’ve faced difficult decisions, and we’ve disagreed at times. I’ve never doubted, though, that each of us was doing what we thought was best for kids.”

For Atkins, one of the most difficult decisions came in 2012. 

During the 2011 legislative session, lawmakers cut $5.4 billion in funding for public education statewide, including $3.4 million in state funding for Waco ISD. Between October 2011 and February 2012, Atkins and other district officials led a community discussion about how to close that funding gap. The resulting plan included closing nine campuses.

“In one night, the school board voted to close one-fourth of our campuses,” Atkins said. “As difficult as that decision was, it was heartening that not a single person addressed the board that night to voice opposition to the plan. I think that speaks to the process that we went through. We had numerous conversations, listened to feedback from the community, and revised the plan along the way. We created opportunities for every voice to be heard, and I’m proud of that.”

Atkins identifies the district’s 2015 tax ratification election as another turning point during his time on the board.

In November 2015, voters approved increasing the district’s total tax rate by five cents. School board members committed that the additional funds would be used to expand opportunities for students to earn college credit, raise literacy rates and improve behavior and discipline.

“We’ve already seen significant progress in all three areas,” Atkins said. “This year, 30 seniors will graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree from McLennan Community College. Between 2016 and 2018, the percentage of third graders passing the state reading assessment increased seven percentage points. Our out-of-school suspension rate has dropped by 51 percent since 2015.

“There’s much more work to be done, but there’s no doubt that the tax ratification election has been a game changer for Waco schools. In 2015, eight schools in Waco ISD failed to meet state standards. In 2018, only one campus did.”

During Atkins’ tenure, the legislature took aim at schools that were failing to meet state standards. A law passed in 2015 requires the commissioner of education to either close any campus that fails to meet state standards for five consecutive years or replace the school district's elected board of trustees with an appointed board of managers.

In 2017, six Waco ISD schools failed to meet state standards. Five of the schools had failed to meet them for five or more years in a row. As a result, they could have faced closure if they failed to meet state standards for another year.

However, a law passed in 2017 offered school districts the option of partnering with a non-profit organization to operate chronically underperforming campuses. If the partnerships met certain eligibility criteria, the campuses would receive a two-year reprieve from accountability interventions (i.e., closure or the imposition of a board of managers) and additional funding.

“After a series of community listening sessions, it was clear that we needed to both keep the five schools open and maintain local control,” Atkins said. “In response, Waco ISD and Prosper Waco created a new nonprofit organization, Transformation Waco, to operate the five schools. The result is a first-of-its-kind in-district charter partnership that is focused on addressing the unique challenges and needs of economically disadvantaged students attending these campuses.”

In 2018, four of the five schools met state standards. While only one campus needed a reprieve from the accountability interventions, all five benefit from additional funding, which will total about $10 million over the first two years of the partnership.

Atkins actually helped to lay the foundation for the partnership years earlier. 

In 2014, he was part of a small group of community members who came together with former mayor Virginia DuPuy to discuss the future of the Waco Education Alliance, which she had founded to support public education in the community. Prosper Waco emerged from those discussions as a new collective impact initiative focused on improving education, health and financial security in the Greater Waco community.

“The premise of collective impact is deceptively simple: community leaders and organizations can accomplish more working together than on their own,” Atkins said. “For this model to succeed, Waco ISD has to be at the table. I’m proud of the role that we played in the creation of Prosper Waco and of how Prosper Waco has helped to advance a common agenda that is measurably improving the lives of people in our community.” 

Atkins currently serves as the president of the Prosper Waco Board of Directors.

“Pat has had such a significant influence on Waco ISD that it’s hard to put it into words,” Dr. Hazel Rowe, interim superintendent, said. “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.”

At their monthly meeting on May 23, school board members will discuss how to fill the vacancy created by Atkins’ resignation. State law and board policy allow the remaining board members to either fill the vacancy by appointment until the next trustee election or call for a special election.