LAKE TRAVIS, Texas (KXAN) — KXAN is sitting down with superintendents across the Central Texas area to talk to them about challenges, goals, and safety measures.

Lake Travis Independent School District Superintendent Paul Norton spoke with KXAN anchor Tom Miller about staffing and legislative hopes, but their discussion started with safety.

Below is a transcript of their conversation:

Tom Miller: So much of the focus going into this school year was on school safety after what happened in Uvalde, and all the districts were inspected by the state. How did Lake Travis do it? What have you been doing on school safety?

Paul Norton: Since the incident happened in Uvalde last May, it’s been a huge point of emphasis for just about every school district – school safety – it’s been no different here in Lake Travis.

School safety has been very important for many years and so we have looked at our safety plan. We’ve been very fortunate. We have our own police department that allows us to implement some things and do some things that other districts may not be able to implement quite as quickly.

But, yes, we have had a safety audit from the state of Texas. We scored great — no deficiencies, no issues at all. And so we’re in good shape there with our state audits. They could come back and do some more, but the ones that we had this past fall we scored perfectly on them. It was great to see and great to hear. They come unannounced. They call us the end of the month and say we’re coming next month, and they come whenever they want to and they show up how they want to. Their goal was to get in the building. And very fortunately, [they] weren’t able to get in the building, and all the other requirements were met when they came in our audits.

Miller: One of the district’s stated goals is increasing student achievement and closing the learning gap between student populations. How is that going?

Norton: It’s going extremely well. We had a curriculum audit last spring in Lake Travis ISD. It’s something that we haven’t had in a long time and so we spent the summer working with our principals, assistant principals, curriculum department and some teaching staff on things that we need to implement and improve upon when it comes to academics.

Academics in Lake Travis ISD have always been extremely high, lots of high expectations. Those continue to be the case. We just have some areas that we can improve upon, as any entity does that’s a growing and thriving entity. And so we’ve had lots of training with our staff this school year and continue to do that. We already have some meetings planned for this summer to continue that planning process and implementation of strategies and initiatives to help us get higher and higher, and continue to improve our scores across the state of Texas in our school district.

Miller: Staffing is a big issue for a lot of school districts. I looked this morning: there’s 117 openings in your district. What is Lake Travis doing to get more people, and how is that impacting things?

Norton: The 117, that’s positions that we have posted, and so some of those are in preparation for next year. So we don’t necessarily have 117 openings right now.

Our biggest concerns and shortfalls right now are bus drivers. [They] continue to be a shortage area for us, and in the area of special [education] we continue to have shortage with special ed teachers, special ed aides, and it’s something that we’re constantly working on. We’ve been going to different job fairs. We’ve been working with different groups to try to improve our numbers in that area, as well as in food service.

So bus drivers, special ed area, food service, and we’re continuing to find ways to improve those numbers and increase those numbers to where we can provide all the services that we need to for our students.

Miller: Are there still students who need a ride to school that can’t get a ride to school because there’s just not enough drivers?

Norton: We’re short about 35 to 40 bus drivers. And so as we continue to grow as a school district, that’s going to be more and more of a struggle for us to try to find ways innovative ways to hire bus drivers. We’ve been able to add close to 15 bus drivers since the school year started, so we have made lots of efforts to increase our numbers of bus drivers that are available to drive our bus routes. But we still have a shortage.

So anybody out there that’s looking to drive a bus and needs something to do in the mornings and afternoons, we’d love to have you come join the Lake Travis family.

Miller: We still have COVID, flu, RSV going around. Are there steps the district can take to help mitigate that?

Norton: We sent out information to our families back late in the fall about different areas that they can do to be aware of when it comes to illnesses. We continue to keep a close eye on COVID, the flu, all those things.

We don’t want our folks coming to school if they’re sick because we don’t want to spread it out. But we do keep a close eye on those numbers and try to provide alternatives for kids that are at home in a way to continue to stay up on their grades, to where they’re not feeling like they have to come to school. We want them to come to school, but if they’re sick, we want them to stay home. And making sure that we have ways for kids to get their education while they are at home.

Miller: We know the state legislature is going to be working with a significant budget surplus. Are there some things that you would like them to direct that money toward?

Norton: The first thing is to address the staffing shortages, and how we do that is to put more money into education. And so one of our top legislative priorities is funding for schools. Since the last funding increase for educators, which was in 2019, the cost of living index has gone up 12%, and we have not received 1% of an increase. And so that is a big push for us this legislative session because people look at Lake Travis and they think of all the money, the wealth that’s in our school district. They don’t understand that 43% of the tax dollars that we raise go back to the state of Texas in recapture. And so we don’t have those funds, we get funded based on student enrollment, our student attendance, just like every other school district, in the State of Texas. So funding is a big piece.

Accountability is a big piece as well, making sure that we are holding ourselves accountable, but also doing student accountability in a way that’s equitable and fair for students across the state of Texas.

And then of course, school safety is another big piece of our legislative priorities to making sure that as we get funding from the state of Texas for school safety, as they’ve promised, leading up to this legislative session, that they don’t tie our hands in how we have to use that money.

Every school district is different, and every school district has different safety needs. And so giving us local control and how to use those funds that fit the needs of our community and our students and our staff is the best way for that to happen. And so we’ll continue to work with our legislators to try to find a way to have that funding come in but not tie our hands and tell us how we have to use it.