Election pits interim trustee against challenger
School safety and students’ social and emotional well-being are prominent issues in a special election to fill a Friendswood ISD school board seat in which an interim trustee is vying against a psychiatrist who says he wants to introduce a new voice.
The Nov. 6 special election, which results after Matt Robinson stepped down from the Position 2 to run as a Republican candidate for a Texas Board of Education position, pits interim trustee Denise Ruiz against Dakota Carter. Early voting runs Oct. 22 through Nov. 2 at three sites.
“We have power to better meet the needs of our students each day through our character education and support systems that are in place,” said Ruiz, 56, a 25-year Friendswood resident who served as a FISD trustee between 2006 and 2010. “In our ever-changing world, we as a district strive to ensure the needs of every child are being met.”
Carter, 30, a psychiatrist at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said his experience as a mental health professional can bring an essential voice to issues related to students’ psychological needs. Carter said that after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation and the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School, he organized a series of free workshops and counseling services for students and families in Friendswood.
“After Santa Fe happened, we realized tragedy can occur in our own backyard,” said Carter, who moved to Friendswood two years ago. “I have met with our community after tragedies like Harvey and Santa Fe and continue to see, treat and solve problems for children and students in our district every day, many times until late hours because of the need in our community.”
Carter, who is gay, decried comments on social media that claim he is promoting an “LGBT agenda.” An Aug. 29 comment from Robinson posted on the Friendswood Republican Women Facebook page says, “Dakota Carter wants to promote the LGBT agenda in our Friendswood schools.” Attempts to reach Robinson, who is running against Democrat Elizabeth Markowitz for the District 7 position on the state board, were unsuccessful.
Ruiz said that such comments on social media are not reflective of her campaign or personal opinion.
Said Carter: “My campaign, which has nothing to do with gay issues — I just happen to be gay — had been focused on kids and the issues of my patients, and the narrative that has been put out there because no one can attack my credentials or my experience or what I do in the community, is attack about something called an ‘LGBT agenda’ from people I’ve never met.”
Over the summer and in the wake of the shooting in Santa Fe, Friendswood ISD expanded its discussions on campus safety. In addition to hiring safety monitors for each campus, the district formed committees made up of parents, teachers and students and organized town hall meetings.
Ruiz and Carter both said that the district must remain vigilant to keep students safe.
“The district has been proactive in evaluating, reinforcing and activating all safety measures and changes needed to keep students and staff safe,” said Ruiz, who is vice president of Ruiz Cash & Carry, a family owned restaurant supply business in Houston. “I feel it is important to consistently examine our facilities and programs in place, and I fully support the additional steps taken to ensure everyone’s safety.”
Carter would like to see the district do more.
“With the families I have seen, and even a few teachers, there is a concern that the ways in which we identify and handle these students is challenging and unclear,” he said. “While physical barriers and protections are vital, and I support having (Friendswood police) and others on campus, we should try to stop these tragedies before someone walks onto campus.”
Both candidates also said the district must keep teachers’ salaries competitive, which Ruiz said is critical in “maintaining and drawing exemplary teachers for our students.”
Said Carter, “While we do have to focus on finances, our schools’ successes rest on our students and these educators.”
The district recently approved a 2 percent salary increase for its employees.
State funding and cuts to public education remain a challenge to districts across Texas. Ruiz said that cuts statewide have a significant impact on what districts can and cannot do for students, especially in light of Hurricane Harvey’s impact.
“With Hurricane Harvey and our property values decreasing, we are waiting to see what the Legislature does in the coming session,” Ruiz said. “In this year’s budget, each budget director/principal looked for ways to make cuts across the board with a goal of keeping the deficit at a minimum and programs intact.”
Carter said he is concerned that with more state funding cuts for schools, the burden will fall to the local community. Business leadership on the board, he said, is essential.
“We also must make hard decisions on local programs and initiatives while we keep FISD competitive. Therefore having an innovative, creative business leader on the board will be vital to maintain our success in a financially responsible way.”
Ruiz, who served a total of five years as a trustee between 2006 and 2010 and has three children who graduated from Friendswood ISD, cites her history with the community and district as a leader and volunteer.
“As a current board member,” she said, “I feel I am very familiar with the issues that are facing the district at this time. Giving back was instilled in me at an early age, this district and this city are near and dear to my heart and I’m honored to serve this community and our kids.”
Carter, who is married with one child, said, “Being a board member is more than living here, showing up or volunteering, it is being an active member of our community who interacts with students and families every day who also has the knowledge, education, experience, and expertise to implement new ideas and go to work for FISD.”
The last day to register to vote in the Nov. 6 general election is Oct. 9.