A Conversation with Dr. Doug Killian


Dr. Doug Killian is a lifelong educator, beginning his career as a first-grade teacher and working his way up through the administrative ranks to become the superintendent of Pflugerville Independent School District. Along the way, he’s headed up a number of different school districts, each with different student populations and unique funding challenges. We’re grateful he was willing to share what he’s learned over the years.

Joshua Kumler: Pflugerville, for those who may not know, just where is that, what's the size of that? What are some of the unique challenges that you face as a superintendent in Pflugerville?

Dr. Killian: Okay. So, Pflugerville is located just north of Austin, Texas. Actually, we flank Austin ISD to the north. And we're right sandwiched in between that and Round Rock ISD. We're about 25,500 students. It's a great district and it's very diverse in terms of not- only geographically, economically, also student-wise, and also in businesses too and where those lie. So we're very much like the state, I guess, on a smaller scale. We've got on our west side of the district it's a little bit more urban, more has the feel of what Austin ISD has. And then as you head out to the east, it's more suburban, and then we get out into the rural country about, it's about half built out at this point. So we've got a lot of farmland.

Josh: So you're considered what's called a fast growth district-

Dr. Killian: Yeah, we've gone, that's actually, we've gone in and out of fast growth. So over the years, we grow a little bit faster some years, a little bit slower other years, pretty flat other years. So we're actually at this point, a friend of the fast growth schools coalition, not an actual fast growth member. So-

Josh: What line do you have to cross to make the official designation?

Dr. Killian: You have to have at least 2,500 students, which we qualify there. But your growth over the last five years has to be around 10 percent or greater or at least 3,500 students. So we fluctuate on the 3,500 students over the years. Some years we grow three, five percent, other years we'll grow one percent. So...

Josh: But so regardless of the particular percentage, just growing at a fast rate, causes unique challenges with regards to how the funding comes in and what your needs are. So can you just kind of address those from Pflugerville's perspective?

Dr. Killian: So in any given year we may need more buildings and there is really no state assistance for districts in our situation to address those needs. And there used to be, there used to be existing debt allotment money that used to be received by a lot of the fast growth districts, but our wealth levels have gotten to a point, they just haven't kept up with inflation on the yields, and so we just don't get that aid anymore. So year-to-year we'll have to look at what our demographic growth is and some years we'll have to start looking at building another elementary school. For instance, our demographer is projecting that we're going to grow about 700 students a year over the next five years. And so that's roughly the size of an elementary school a year. Well, if the state's not going to kick in for any of that, that puts the burden on the local property tax owner and we have to go out for bonds to pay for those buildings and that's burdensome. The other thing I'd just add to that is, you know, we have this thing called 'The Texas Miracle' as Governor Rick Perry used to say, and most of the places where you see where fast growth districts are located are exactly where big companies that were brought into the state ended up locating. Well, they tend to buy houses and have kids and those kids have to go to school. So, we've had this great Texas miracle and we've offered incentives to businesses to come, but we haven't done what we needed to do to pay for the facilities that are needed and the infrastructure in those areas.

Josh: Yeah, absolutely. So, your experience as a superintendent has put you in a couple of different districts of varying sizes and designations. I think you mentioned specifically Poteet as a rural district that you worked in. So what are the differences in moving between these different districts and the challenges that are unique to a rural versus a suburban district?
Dr. Killian: So, I mean, when you're in a rural district, one of the things that we were challenged with, we happened to be property poor, and so under the finance system we didn't have a lot of local money and local discretion in our funding. A lot of it came from the state or the feds and it comes with a lot of strings on how you can spend it. So the flexibility the other districts that are more wealthy have, we didn't have. And we were also pretty low funded. T he property tax rolls were just not enough to be able to spend on new facilities. So we had to patch things together a lot. So then we moved, my wife and I moved to Huffman, which is just outside of Houston right next to Humble. And it was a bedroom community. So I've learned a new part of the finance system that really hurts, we were basically a lot of rooftops. We didn't have a lot of industry and so the tax base was overburdened with our local property tax owners, the families in our community. So some of the things that we wanted to do were difficult to do in a district like that. Fast forward to Hutto, a lot of the same kinds of things about being an emerging suburban kind of area, actually, just a little bit north of Pflugerville. And some of the challenges there were again, not having enough business infrastructure to spread the tax base over for all the growth. But then it was just fast growth. I mean, a really quick growth, even faster than Pflugerville's growth. And so you just couldn't keep up with the building. You were constantly having to rezone kids. That makes you the most popular person in town when you're rezoning people's kids. So all those kinds of challenges are in the funding formulas that, you know, you think you move from this district to the next, it's more wealthy. Well, then they have another challenge. The system is just not equitable right now.

Josh: You've had a very varied career.

Dr. Killian: Yeah.

Josh: And the one common denominator is in no situation are you getting what you need.

Dr. Killian: That's exactly right.

Josh: Oh, man. Well, so that kind of brings us then to your work on the public school finance commission, trying to find some solutions there. So what has that experience been like for you so far?

Dr. Killian: You know, the thing that I would like to stress that I've really enjoyed about being on the commission is I was impressed with the legislators that are on the commission, that they really do seem to want to find some answers. You know, some of the things that I thought were gonna happen have happened in terms of, we kind of degrade into what our political views are and all that. And that's difficult when you're sitting there trying to do something for the good of the entire state of Texas. So it's hard when you have a thousand school districts in a state this size to come to a consensus on a commission because anything you do has consequences in the formulas. And so, one tweak that doesn't seem to seem like it does very much to everybody might really hurt somebody and might really help somebody else, so you have to be really cognizant of that on the commission. And I have to worry about over advocating for just one school district, because while Pflugerville's in this position right now, they may not be in the same position financially in the future. And so you could set up a system that would even injure them, and I don't want to do that. I think I need to be a representative, a commissioner on this finance commission that looks for something greater for Texas.

Josh: Absolutely. So you've served on specifically on the outcomes committee of the commission, which you mentioned was not your first choice.

Dr. Killian: Right.

Josh: And you also mentioned experience in Poteet when you, you know, did not have a lot of the local money, it was all coming from state and federal and so that comes with these strings that are attached to it. And in looking at tying outcomes to state funding for education, you're suddenly in the position of kind of at least having a voice in the conversation about what those strings might be. So how did that experience inform your work on the outcomes commission? What are sort of your thoughts coming out on the other side of having put these recommendations out?

Dr. Killian: Well, one of the things that in the outcomes subcommittee meeting that we were at that informed my and beliefs was the experience I had as a first grade teacher actually, and how important it was to read on grade level at a very early age. And we had a lot of data presented to us in the commission about how important third grade reading is and how that's so predictive of success into middle school and all. And then actually how Pre-K could impact, positively impact postsecondary readiness. So one of the things that came out of that subcommittee, was a move to try to fund some type of pre-K early literacy. So that was one of the recommendations that we moved forward, and I was really happy to see the rest of the subcommittee see the same thing in the data, that we needed to do something for all day Pre-K for our most at risk children in the state.

Josh: So you started as a teacher?

Dr. Killian: I did. I started as a first grade teacher in Laredo at United ISD.

Josh: You really have been all over the place?

Dr. Killian: Yes, I have. Yes I have. I haven't been thrown out anywhere yet, though. So that's positive.

Josh: I guess that is- once you get up into the upper ranks of administration, you kind of just go where there's the job opening.

Dr. Killian: Well I think, you know, for me, my career has been centered around doing things in the best interest of children. And so when I see an opportunity where I can go make a bigger impact on more kids and that's kind of where my moves have been. It's why I left the classroom in the first place to get into campus administration. And then it's also why I ultimately moved into the superintendency, because I kept feeling like if I could get to that next level I could just make it better. I used to rail against the man kind of thing where I was, “well, you know, if we just did this and if someone would just stand up and do this!” And so that's kind of what moved me into the positions and trying to make some kind of a difference. And actually I think on my resume, it says "Career goal: to make the most positive impact on the most number of Texas children." So that's what I'm trying to do.

Josh: Totally. Sort of continuing along those lines, a lot of the push back that you'll hear from some corners in regards to trying to get more funding is, the money that we already have isn't being spent efficiently, look at the cost of administration.

Dr. Killian: Right.

Josh: And so what are the big misunderstandings about the direct impact that school administrators have on what goes on in the classroom?

Dr. Killian: I think what's funny about that comment is that when you start looking at the actual numbers for administration, it's about two percent of a budget. So, when you look at those numbers too, they include the back office stuff that I think everybody wants. I think people generally want to get hired and they want to get paid. They want to have the health benefits and all that. They want to have a budget created that meets their needs in the classroom as well. And then we have to have these little transparent things. It's called board meetings, where we could do governance and follow what the representatives for the community want to have, the board of trustees want to have done. So those are reasonable costs. And if you look at what major corporations spend on their leadership, two percent's a pretty good deal. Obviously when you get into smaller districts that ratio is tighter. The cost is not spread over so many kids and so many staff members and a larger budget. So economies of scale does help. But there is, I think, diminishing returns on- you can get too big and have too much efficiency and then you're not delivering services. So those are some of the things I think that people don't think about with administrators. And then just, part of my job is to get some of the rules out of the way so we can be more effective. There's got to be somebody to do that, because I've noticed even as I've gotten into bigger and bigger districts, the administrivia that we do, the bureaucracy, it gets created regardless of whether or not you want it to or not. There are things that are subscribed to me that I'm supposedly doing in the district that have nothing to do with me. It has to do with the machine and just the enormity of the business that people make general rules instead of trying to do things in the best interest of children. So I got that from a assistant principal I had when I was a first grade teacher, she used to sign her emails at the end "In the best interest of children." And so I adopted that moniker myself because I asked her one time why she went with that moniker, and she said, it reminds me of what I'm here for. And I started thinking I could probably use that reminder every once in a while. So I've been using it for about 26 years now. So.

Josh: That's awesome. So, you know, everybody's asking you guys to be soothsayers these days, but as we near the end of the commission's tenure and the beginning of the legislative session, what do you hope to see and what do you expect to see?

Dr. Killian: You know, I hope to see bold, bold moves. I think Nicole Conelly Johnson had said that, that she had hoped for bold things to happen. I think the work of both the outcomes and the expenditure so far has been more bold than I thought it was going to be, considering all the politics that generally coalesce around public school finance. So it keeps me hopeful. I think the proof in the pudding will be what happens with the revenues committee. That's a very tough piece in Texas. We are a low tax state, but we also want to have a lot of services and someone's got to pay for those services and in a democracy that's taxes. So, you know, I think coming out of the- when the legislature starts meeting, after they, are able to choose a speaker of the house, I hope that what we'll see is a lot of the bills that the legislators that are on our commission are filing to try to get this stuff moving. I think we're going to see that. I think we've got some really good leadership that are part of the commission on the House and the Senate side. So I think we're going to see it.

Josh: So if you had the magic wand and you could implement whatever change you wanted to, to how Texas funds public schools, what would you do?

Dr. Killian: You know, we're always told that the formulas are super complicated and all that, but they're complicated for a reason because it's such a diverse state and there are so many different needs. But the simplest thing that I can think of in the formula that I, if I could wave a wand, I would raise the basic allotment. I think a lot of districts are hurting in different areas and for different reasons and if you raise the basic allotment, it would help districts with pretty flexible money to meet those individual needs, whatever they are, whether or not it's a transportation issue for funding because they're out in a rural community and the roads are pretty bad and they're tearing up their buses, or it's the fast growth that see in some of our suburbans that they need to build some buildings or staff some buildings, buy some furniture, whatever it tends to be. Even if it's, you know, if it's recapture, the pressure of recapture, if we raise that basic allotment, it's going to help everybody. And I think more than anything else, we need some more equity in our finance system.

Josh: Absolutely. Is there anything I missed?

Dr. Killian: I don't think so. I think it was a really good cross section of what we've actually been talking and struggling about in finance.

InterviewJessica House