By STEFAN MODRICH
For the first time in more than 50 years, Stafford is preparing for a municipal election without Leonard Scarcella, the late former mayor. The current group of candidates made their cases to voters at the Stafford Civic Center, and without an in-person audience due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce hosted the candidate forum last Thursday for the upcoming local elections for positions on the Stafford Municipal School District board of trustees, city council and mayor. Early voting is scheduled for Oct. 13-30, with Election Day on Nov. 3.
The forum was broadcast on Facebook Live and Stafford METV and featured a media panel of journalists from the Fort Bend Star, Houston Chronicle and Fort Bend Independent.
The night kicked off with the three school board candidates, who are vying for two seats on the seven-person board. Incumbents Jacqueline Jean-Baptiste and Christopher Caldwell shared the stage with challenger Clint Mendonca, who sharply critiqued the fiscal responsibility and the educational standards of the board.
Jean-Baptiste cited the board’s passing of a $62 million bond, the largest in SMSD history, as a notable accomplishment. She added the board has a bond oversight committee that ensures the bond funds are spent responsibly.
“We are very fiscally sound,” Jean-Baptiste said. “We have a great amount of money in our fund balance. We even put money back into our fund balance every year. We’ve passed a balanced budget for the last seven years.”
The bond package helped lead to the construction of a new middle school, which was completed in August, and a new administrative building opened in June. The existing middle school was converted into a STEM campus.
One significant point of contention between Mendonca, Jean-Baptiste and Caldwell was the subject of academic rigor. Mendonca pointed to data from the Texas Education Agency, which he said left much to be desired in terms of performance and career preparedness.
Stafford’s intermediate, middle school and high school each earned “B” overall ratings. Stafford Elementary received a “D” overall rating.
“We need to step that up,” Mendonca said. “We need to improve the quality of our schools, we need to improve the college readiness of the students when they’re graduating, and we need to make sure there’s enough engagement from the whole community to make sure that the school district succeeds.”
When asked about the lack of availability for digital devices for remote learning, Caldwell said the fault lied with the increased demand globally for the technology necessary for virtual classrooms, and not with the school district. He said the board approved a $2 million purchase last year for the devices.
“We do have, and have purchased enough devices for every student in the school district,” Caldwell said. “The holdup is not the school district, it is actually the production of that device.”
Mendonca said it was a mistake to use Apple as the vendor for computers or tablets because Microsoft or Android allow for more flexibility and mixing and matching of devices.
“Unfortunately larger school districts did place bigger orders and we got pushed to the back and there’s nothing we can do about that,” Mendonca said. “But had we made a more prudent decision with where we were getting our devices from, I believe we could have dealt with the backlog by turning around and shopping elsewhere and getting as many devices as possible for our students.”
In response to a question about the city’s nonresponse rate in the 2020 U.S. Census of 36 percent, all three candidates agreed the school district and the city have an important role to play, and should work in tandem to increase civic awareness and participation.
“In cooperation with the City of Stafford and the municipal school district, it is everyone’s responsibility to inform our community about the importance of the census,” Caldwell said. “And the importance of the money it can bring into the community and to the school district.”
Mendonca said while the census is not the direct responsibility of Stafford MSD, the community is full of engaged citizens who can be mobilized for the benefit of the school district. He also said that in the future, making civic engagement a more important piece of the school curriculum could also contribute to developing students who are better prepared to succeed.
“If we include the importance of filling out the census and getting out there and voting to those students, we can prep them for the future,” Mendonca said. We can get them ready, so this issue doesn’t happen in future years.”
Generational divide in city council race
The race for Stafford City Council Position 4 was marked by several stark contrasts during the forum.
Incumbent Don Jones, running for his third term, leaned heavily on his experience as a school administrator at Stafford MSD and within the Houston Community College system as an adjunct professor and program director.
The challenger, Adam Sanchez, is a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission. He previously ran for mayor in 2019 and worked in the Public Works Department in Missouri City, and said his aim is to represent “the next generation of Stafford leadership.”
Jones listed The Grid, a $500 million mixed-used development on the site of the former Texas Instruments campus at Highway 59 and West Airport Boulevard, among his accomplishments in his four years on city council.
“We need to point out and shine a light on (the fact that) we have a development going on that people see at Highway 59 and Interstate 69,” Jones said. “We’ve got to start letting people know that we are here, that we are open for business, and that we are exciting and a great place to spend so we can generate that much-needed tax revenue.”
Among the changes Sanchez said he would seek to affect if elected were to make the city’s zoning code more friendly to small businesses. He said he has been active in promoting Stafford’s small business community because of its importance to helping produce sales tax revenue for the city.
“We have to combine The Grid, The Fountains and the Stafford Centre,” Sanchez said. “It makes it a point of destination. It will only generate tax revenue to put the city in the best light and tax revenue to put back in the fund balance.”
Among other points of emphasis for Sanchez were having a proactive approach to improving drainage and flood control in the city and strengthening Stafford’s relationship with Missouri City’s animal shelter.
Sanchez also said it was important for the city to be creative when addressing the myriad economic challenges restaurants and particularly bars have faced, even after the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission recently loosened some of its restrictions in an attempt to make it easier for bars to obtain food and beverage permits and essentially reopen as restaurants.
“We should work with our county officials, our elected officials at the state and federal level to find funding,” Sanchez said. “If (bars) are forced to shut down, we’re going to have to come up with something that will keep them going. Just because you shut down a bar, doesn’t mean it only affects the bar. It affects the people that go to it.
“This pandemic threw a curveball to everybody and we can’t just pick and choose which businesses open and which ones stay closed.”
Jones proposed a community forum of small business owners to allow them to voice their concerns.
“These business owners need to be heard from,” Jones said. “We need to hear directly from them to know specifically what they need. And then we also need to bring these resources in this forum that are available. The Small Business Administration is providing loans as I speak. We need to connect those entities to the help that they need.”
When asked about the 2019 measure that hiked the mayoral salary from $10,800 to $120,000 and added $7,200 annual salaries to each city council member, Jones and Sanchez each said they agreed that the figure was a fair amount of compensation, noting that Scarcella never made more than $10,800 for nearly his entire mayoral tenure.
Councilman Ken Mathew, running unopposed for reelection, underscored the importance of attracting young professionals to the city.
“When the young people come here, they bring their children, and (Stafford MSD) is going to benefit,” Mathew said.
Mayoral candidates vie to succeed Scarcella
The field for the mayoral forum consisted of two active council members in Cecil Willis and Mayor Pro Tempore Wen Guerra, AJ Honore, who formerly served as Mayor Pro Tempore, and Jim Narvios, a law student at Texas Southern University.
“I’m a poor politician but a good businessman,” Guerra said in his opening statement. “I was instrumental in bringing The Grid and a lot of the developments that are working along Highway 90 as we speak.”
Guerra said despite the economic recession that has resulted from the pandemic, the city was still able to balance the budget.
“I want to leave this city in a financial state that we don’t have to worry about what we’re going to do next month, next quarter, next year,” Guerra said. “I want to make it easy for the next mayor to not have to suffer what we’re going through right now.”
Willis leaned heavily on his 36 years of experience in making his case to voters in a fiery opening statement, a jab at Narvios lacking elected public service on his resume.
“This is not a time for internships, it’s not a time for on-the-job training,” Willis said. “It’s also not the time to abandon the ship. I will continue the course that Mayor Scarcella has set. It’s sound, it got us to where we are, and there’s no reason to throw something out.”
Narvios, who served for 15 years as the City of Houston’s spokesman for multiculturalism and diversity, said he “felt a need to serve the people” and a calling to run due to the pandemic and the death of Scarcella.
He was critical of spending $555,000 on the Stafford pyramid monuments and millions on landscaping, and said he would not cut funding to essential city services.
“I may not have the experience that (my opponents) have,” Narvios said. “But you have to understand, we are in the position we are in today because of the administration that has come before me.”
Willis was also adamant that one of his goals is to “elevate SMSD to what we dreamed it would be” and insisted that the school district “was not created for the world, it was created for Stafford.”
The district currently offers enrollment to non-residents on a space-available basis through an application process.
Honore’s vision for the city includes an increased focus on animal welfare and community policing as well as the addition of a grocery store. He also proposed “advocating for our heritage” through the creation of a history museum.
Asked about how he would make up for the city’s budget deficit, Honore said the city would earn $1 million by repealing sales tax exemptions for energy and telecommunications companies. He also said several residential rental properties are not paying their tax bills, which would be another revenue source.
Willis said the city is on a solid foundation after it received the largest sales tax check in its history in August.
“There is a light to the end of this tunnel,” Willis said. “Stafford has a strong, sound, economic base. It’s getting stronger.”