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Transgender bathrooms overshadow Dripping Springs school board race

Three candidates, including two incumbents, are vying for two school board seats in Dripping Springs, where a battle over which bathroom a transgender student should use has overshadowed a typically low-key race.

The trio — incumbent Ron Jones, a consultant; incumbent Barbara Stroud, a family law attorney; Trey Powers, a senior mortgage loan officer — said there are far greater challenges facing the district, including growth, sustaining academic rigor and increased fiscal constraints because of the estimated $3.1 million in property tax revenue the district must hand over to the state for recapture, which helps fund property-poor school districts under the Texas school finance laws.

But as the state weighs a contentious bill that would require transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room facilities that match their biological sex in public schools, it’s been the No. 1 issue the candidates field questions about. The controversy has boiled over in Dripping Springs after district administrators decided to allow a third-grade transgender student who was born a boy but identifies as a girl to use the girls’ bathroom. The district has no blanket policy regarding bathroom accommodations for transgender students, but like Austin, Round Rock, Leander and other local districts, officials take up the issue on a case-by-case basis.

“It is unfortunate that this, a social issue, is the single issue we are most often asked about,” said Powers, who is making his first bid for public office. “There are so many other important issues to be discussed that directly relate to the quality of education provided our students.”

All three said, if elected, they would comply with whatever law the state enacts.

Both Jones and Stroud said they support the administration’s decision in the situation. Jones said regardless of where one stands on the issue, it will be decided by the state or courts, and he doesn’t think the district should use its limited resources to fight whatever the decision is.

Stroud said such decisions are best when made by the educators who are most familiar with the individual students and facilities available. If the state passes a bathroom bill, she said the board and administration will discuss the issue with district attorneys to determine how to comply with the law while still “respecting the needs of individual students.”

Powers said he disagrees with the district’s decision to allow a student to use a bathroom opposite their born gender. Powers, who has children who attend Walnut Springs Elementary and volunteers there daily, said he was proud of the way the administration was caring for the child, and the way the school community responded to the situation, by allowing the transgender student to use a single-stall bathroom. However, he disagreed with the change to let the student use the girls’ bathroom.

“My position is not based on a personal feeling regarding transgender individuals,” Powers said. “It’s based on my disagreement with a policy that makes an accommodation for one student at the sacrifice of many.”

Beyond the bathroom issue, Stroud and Powers pointed to managing growth as one of the district’s biggest challenges. The 6,000-student district is estimated to grow about 6 percent annually, adding nearly 3,000 more students to the rolls within 7 years.

Jones and Stroud said they want to continue their leadership and governance over the district as the administration moves forward with personalized learning plans. Jones said the district’s designation as a District of Innovation, the first among many in Central Texas, will allow Dripping Springs some flexibility in moving those plans forward.

Powers, who described himself as fiscally conservative, said grappling with the growing recapture payment is a top issue facing the district. In his experience developing and managing large budgets, he said, efficiency and fresh ideas are often the answer to cut costs. He said he also wants to improve communication between the board and the public.

To avoid a $2.4 million budget shortfall and to increase the amount of property tax revenue that goes into district operations, Dripping Springs, with voter approval, shifted its taxes, increasing its operations and maintenance tax rate (while simultaneously reducing the rate it collects to pay for debt). While the estimated recapture payment grew from about $2.1 million to $3.1 million, the overall increase in operations revenues offset that rise and gave school officials more to run the district. But school officials contend the recapture payment, which will continue to grow as property values increase, represents an increasing financial hardship.

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