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New Burnet superintendent shares vision and concerns

Burnet Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Aaron Peña stands beside the Bulldog logo at a Burnet Chamber of Commerce Coffee and Conversation meetup. Peña gave a presentation on district challenges at the meeting. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Dr. Aaron Peña sees a bright future for the Burnet Consolidated Independent School District. The new superintendent shared his vision, along with perceived challenges, during a Burnet Chamber of Commerce meetup on Tuesday, May 21.

“The focus (of our district) needs to be on learning, and that’s one of those things that I’m going to be a bulldog about, no pun intended,” Peña said during the Coffee and Conversation event. “Everything needs to be about learning.”

Peña was hired in March to replace retiring Superintendent Keith McBurnett. The two will work together on the BCISD Education Foundation Board of Directors. Peña was formerly assistant superintendent of Midway Independent School District in Waco.

According to Peña, his learning-focused approach requires training and retaining what he calls “highly skilled” teachers. He cited teacher retention as one of the greatest challenges facing BCISD due competition from surrounding school districts.

“Research tells us that teachers are the most important school-related factor in education,” he explained. “The teacher is the program. We’ve got to focus on those individuals.”

Peña cited a 2019 study from Rand Education and Labor, which stated: “When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, teachers are estimated to have two to three times the effect of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and leadership.”

Research supports that students tend to perform better when their teachers are paid well, he continued.

A 2022 Sage Journals study bolsters Peña’s claim.

“Our findings consistently show a significantly positive association between teacher base salary and districts’ performance,” reads the study’s conclusion. “We find that both mathematics and English test scores are significantly higher in districts that offer a higher base salary to teachers, compared to those in districts with a lower teacher base salary.”

BCISD offers competitive pay compared to neighboring districts, but it is a close contest.

First-year teacher salaries (including benefits) for the 2023-24 school year at area districts are listed below:

  • Liberty Hill ISD, with a student population of 8,520, offered $59,866. 
  • BCISD, with a student population of 3,300, offered $56,414.
  • Marble Falls ISD, with a student population of 4,042, offered $55,620.
  • Lampasas ISD, with a student population of 3,546, offered $54,420.
  • Llano ISD, with a student population of 1,945, offered $51,788.

Another challenge facing BCISD is funding, said Peña, adding that unfunded state mandates and inflation have made managing growth difficult.

“My job is to put the best teachers in every classroom in front of every kid, and that is hard to do,” he said. “We’re in a competitive market, but we have to make teachers a priority.”

He pointed to inflation, which has devoured much of the $6,160 allotment per student from the state of Texas. That allotment, which was set in 2019, represents the amount of money the district receives from the state per student to fund their education. Adjusting for inflation, the number is closer to $7,506 as of the 2024 school year, but the allotments did not rise with the costs.

He also pointed to House Bill 3 from the 88th Texas Legislature, which requires all schools have a school resource officer on campus for the students’ safety. Peña agrees with the policy but noted each school was only given $15,000 to make it happen—not nearly enough to fund an SRO’s salary. For reference, MFISD pays about $58,980 annually for an officer at Highland Lakes Elementary School in Granite Shoals.

Despite the funding challenges facing the district, Peña is optimistic about the future.

“For Burnet CISD to flourish means that our community is not only going to attract the best teachers but the best everything,” he said.