11-09 watchdogs-01

Mendi Perry (left), and Marla Naylor (right), of the Westwood ISD Watchdog group.

After a $40-million Westwood school bond was defeated Tuesday, opponents said many bond supporters accused them of not caring about students or the community.

Nothing could be further from the truth, said representatives of the Westwood Independent School District Watchdog group, which opposed a sweeping plan to reconstruct and redesign the aging school district.

“Nearly everyone in our group was excited when we heard about improvements to our schools,” Mendi Perry, a Westwood resident and member of Westwood's class of 1989, told the Herald-Press Thursday. “We didn't go into this with a 'we don't want it' attitude; we just wanted to know how the money would be spent.”

The Westwood ISD Watchdog group, with roughly 350 members, said it worked to inform district voters and taxpayers about all issues pertaining to the proposed bond – information, they said, voters couldn't get elsewhere.

Some critics of Watchdog, however, have alleged it was tied to an outside, ultra-conservative media group, “Empower Texans,” that they said is working to undermine public schools around the state and privatize public education.

No way, Perry said.

“We are not affiliated with any other group,” she said. “We are just neighbors and residents looking to do what's best for our community.”

Perry said the bond, which lost 877-774, was “want-based,” rather than “need-based.” It didn't, she said, address some of the most pressing problems with WISD facilities.

Last May, an almost identical bond plan lost by five votes.

To bridge the gap between bond supporters and opponents, Perry said, WISD officials must do something she said they've promised to do: Listen to community.

“Give everyone a seat at the table,” she said. “Don't hand-pick people for the advisory committee; pick several that are for the bond and several, maybe from our group, that oppose it. Bring in a certain number of new people with fresh eyes, and let's figure this out for the kids.”

Michael Page, chairman of the Westwood ISD Facility Advisory Committee, acknowledged a more diverse cross-section of the community should be represented as the committee considers future bond proposals.

“Our goal is to get our residents involved with the district,” Page told the Herald-Press. “Anyone new would have to commit to getting caught up to speed, however.

“It would be great for them to take a seat at the table. Before they take a bite of the meal, though, they need to understand where all the ingredients came from.”

Perry said WISD officials, and members of the Westwood School Board and Facilities Advisory Committee, have not been transparent.

“Everything we received, we had to get through open-records requests,” she said. “They refuse to answer direct questions. To date, I believe we've made over a dozen requests for information they would not share with us.”

Watchdog member and retired US Air Force service-member Marla Naylor told the Herald-Press she has asked Stanford for information, only to be directed to find it elsewhere.

“We are all about helping the community and helping the kids,” Naylor said. “But we, as taxpayers, have to be sure district officials are being good stewards of our money.”

Page said he attempted to answer all questions the watchdog group asked him, but some of the requested information was more specific than he could provide.

“I gave them the information I had, which was general information given to me by the contractor,” he said. “Focused itemizing on a project this size, much like with building a home, however, doesn't happen until the loan – or bond – is approved.

“A good deal of the public information requests they made, however, was for information I would have been happy to share. All they needed to do was ask, or come to the meetings where it was presented.”

Perry said Watchdog members want the school buildings renovated – for students and the community. But first, she said, WISD officials and the Westwood School Board must be open and honest with residents on how the money will be spent – and how much it will cost.

Group member Christina Moser, a nurse and nearly 30-year Westwood resident, questioned the costs of the proposed bond.

“The poverty rate in Westwood is over 60 percent,” she said. “We have seniors who can't afford medicine, and kids receiving federally funded school meals.

“I don't know if WISD officials have considered the negative impact this bond will have on the community.”

In an earlier interview, WISD Superintendent Wes Stanford said the district, school board, and community will consider all options and alternatives, following the bond's defeat on Tuesday.

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