For Ector County ISD Superintendent Dr. Scott Muri, it has been a year for the books.
Officially starting his duties July 1, 2019, Muri has dealt with the Aug. 31, 2019, mass shooting, the pandemic and a board member who posted items on Facebook that some found offensive. These are things that might cause others to run, but Muri has faced them head on.
News coverage from the Houston area when Muri took the ECISD superintendent’s job seemed to say why would he want to leave Spring Branch ISD?
But Muri saw an opportunity and a challenge.
“I think I’m beyond happy that I came here. I am having a blast, even if it’s the pandemic and everything that is happening in our state and our nation and our world. This is the right place for me. I feel it. The people have been incredibly welcoming. The board has been incredibly gracious and just real team players. We talk about in education — the team of eight — which is the seven trustees and the superintendent. It’s nice to have a team of eight and I’ve enjoyed this team of eight experience a lot. … I have great respect for these folks. We will add a new member of our team of eight (this month), so we’ve been a team of seven for a few months, but we’ll be at full strength again so I’m excited about that,” Muri said.
After the resignation of Doyle Woodall from position 4 on the board, the panel selected Chris Stanley to fill the spot. He and other interested candidates will have a chance to run for it in May 2021.
Board members Steve Brown and Donna Smith are gratified with the job Muri has done since he got to Odessa.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s exceeded any expectations we’ve had as a school board,” Brown said. “He’s done such an excellent job.”
Brown added that Muri has handled all the challenges that have come up with “so much poise and expertise.”
“Then as we’ve gone into the COVID-19 era, he is beyond what you would expect of a superintendent. He has an understanding of the issues and very calmly and methodically solves problems … He has just done an exceptional job. I’m very pleased to have him on board. He just has the poise and leadership of a true statesman,” Brown said.
Smith said she feels lucky that Muri is leading the district.
“I can think of few other people, if any, who could have met all of the challenges that we’ve faced with such leadership, innovation and just general positivity. He’s got a way of looking at the big picture, coming up with interesting and workable solutions and making everybody around him feel the same kind of confidence that he exudes,” Smith said.
She added that when Muri applied for the job, “none of us really understood why he wanted to come to Ector County, but I’m happy that he did. He could have gone anywhere. … I think he saw that we needed him. I think he saw that there’s potential and a lot of community will to improve the school system. He says that he thinks that we were an opportunity and everything he’s said and done since then, I believe him — that we do present and interesting and positive opportunity. … If he can help us make things right, then that will be a tremendous accomplishment,” Smith added.
Muri praised the staff, senior leadership and the other 4,200 employees he’s gotten to know.
“We’ve made some transitions, brought in some quality leaders and had to make some leadership adjustments over the past year so we’ve added some new members to the team. I’m excited to bring new talent to our community,” Muri said.
Last school year, ECISD had a shortage of 350 teachers. This year, there are less than 120 spots and he praised the human resources and talent development department for their efforts. Grow your own programs paying off, the economy and other factors have been a factor in filling those jobs.
“I’ve said all along that the 34,000 kids that we serve deserve excellence and we’ve done quite a bit of work this year to begin to focus on exactly what that means. … I’ve enjoyed developing the strategic plan (and) putting all of that together,” Muri said.
The strategic plan that was in the works before Muri arrived was scheduled to roll out in March, but then COVID-19 happened.
“A lot of that work is happening, but it’s just not as public as we would like to have been. We’ll talk about some of that work publicly once the time is appropriate. Right now, we’ve got to pay attention to the crisis that is before us and make sure that we’re dealing with that. People aren’t ready to hear about some of that work yet. It’s a little bit too early for some things,” Muri said.
He noted that the community itself, businesses and community leaders have been welcoming and want to be part of the solution for ECISD, which has had its share of failing schools under state standards.
“They want to partner with the district and help us do really good work for kids. You don’t find that everywhere, but you find that here in the city of Odessa. That’s been refreshing to have so many people from all aspects of our community just be excited about what the school district can do for this community,” Muri said.
He added that he’s glad the district has been able to do things like offer breakfast and lunch to students while school was shutdown. It is offering free meals to all students this year.
“I lift up our child nutrition folks for doing that work. Our counselors, that traumatic experience for families, making our mental health professionals available was pretty important as well. Our technology folks have done a lot as we’ve transitioned from face to face to a completely virtual environment. People in the organization have really risen to the occasion. I’ve enjoyed working with them side by side to make the things happen for our kids, so yes it’s been an eventful first year but I wouldn’t trade any of this for anything,” Muri said.
He said he first found out there was a problem coming back from spring break when he got a call while in the middle of a street in Marfa.
“That was the first indication that we may need to react pretty drastically to the COVID-19 pandemic and we may end up shutting down schools. I remember having that conversation, hopped in my truck and started the drive back to the city of Odessa. This was during spring break. I brought several of our senior leaders back from their spring breaks and we began pretty quickly working on a plan that would allow us to return to school on Monday, but in a completely remote environment. Having to react that quickly to situations, certainly going through Harvey helped a lot, but in school situations there are traumatic opportunities and disasters — whether natural disasters or manmade disasters — that we experience. Each of those really build a skill set that allows you to make smart decisions. But I’ll also lift up, and I’ve been impressed with the team effort, not only the team at ECISD, our trustees and other senior leaders that really rose to the occasion, but the county” as well.
Each Wednesday, Muri meets with city, county, University of Texas Permian Basin, Odessa College and hospital leaders for pandemic updates.
“Just the shared learning and the regular conversations that we have among leaders has also helped us make some pretty smart choices as a school district, but also as a community. I’m thankful for colleagues that share their wisdom and expertise so that I can guide our district to a good place so that collaboration is pretty critical,” Muri said.
Muri is part of a group of top district officials from around the state that talk to Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath regularly.
One of the ideas discussed was phase-in opportunities and it was said that having a “longer runaway” could help ease districts into the school year.
“Then permission, if you will, was granted by TEA that allowed any school district to phase in but it’s up to us to create what that looked like and we didn’t have to do it. We brought the idea back to this team and we began to work on a phasing process and I will tell you we are incredibly grateful that we phased in. It has allowed us to take all our plans and ideas and implement them, but on a small scale. We had 4,200 students on the first day of school physically present and then 4,200 staff members physically present and the rest were all virtual. But we were able to every single day work through some of the challenges that were unanticipated. But because we had such small numbers of human bodies, we were able to adjust very quickly. We’ve talked about how important agility and flexibility are right now and we’ve had to be very agile and flexible every single day, so phasing has helped us open the year.”
Students who have already been in school know the rules on mask wearing, knowing water fountains aren’t working and one-way hallways. So when new students join their schools, they have role models in place.
“… It might be something as we think about the future and next year, assuming it’s a more typical school year, maybe phasing is something we consider — not this long — but at least that first week of school just phasing groups of kids in each day to make that transition more successful for them and then more successful for the adults,” Muri said.
Brought to Odessa to improve academic outcomes for ECISD students, Muri said that is what he wants to build on as he continues his tenure.
“There are other smaller pieces. I want our parents to have more school choice. I want our magnet opportunities and choice opportunities to be accelerated for kids and I want our kids to be excited about where they go to school and our families to share in that same level of excitement.
I want our kids to have more options after they graduate from high school. We shared a data point last year that 6.5 percent of our kids finish something after four years. I want many more of our kids to have opportunities after high school, whether it’s military, two-, four-year institution or technical school. But our kids need those opportunities and I want that for them, so we’ll put pieces in place,” Muri said.
The 6.5 percent was regarding the Class of 2013 successfully completed a technical certification, two- or four-year degree after six years.
Muri said that he wants to expand the use of technology in the community and provide broadband access to every family in ECISD and beyond.
“We have kids today that live in our community that do not have adequate broadband,” Muri said. “They’re struggling right now in this virtual environment as their internet connection is … bad or nonexistent. That creates gaps and we have to do something that eliminates those gaps for kids. (There are) a lot of things that we want to do, but it really all centers on providing an excellent academic experience for our kids so that their hopes and dreams can be fulfilled. They can go wherever they want to go. They can do whatever they want to do and we owe them (that). Education is your ticket to success in life and the ticket that some of our kids get is just not as valuable as it should be and we’ve got to add a lot of value to the ECISD academic ticket.”
ECISD this year also began unconscious bias training virtually. Position 4 board member Doyle Woodall resigned this past spring after protests cropped up over some Facebook postings. Data also was shared with the board that a disproportionate number of African American students received discipline referrals compared to their peers.
Part of efforts to mitigate that is ongoing unconscious bias training.
“… It is really an ongoing opportunity that our folks will maintain throughout the year and years to come. It’s important that we all understand each other. We live in a very diverse community and that level of understanding and appreciation for diversity is critical, so unconscious bias training is already happening and will continue,” Muri said.
Ector County ISD is a member of the Texas School Alliance