AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Prior to meeting with supporters Monday evening at Sam Houston Park, gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke met with area educational leaders in a roundtable, including individuals from the Amarillo Independent School District as well as Amarillo College, to speak on the importance of public education, what he calls his number one priority. 

O’Rourke, who previously served as El Paso’s Congressman, announced his campaign for the Governor’s seat in November, facing incumbent Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as well as other Republican challengers like Don Huffines and Allen West. 

“There’s nothing more important to the future of this state than education,” O’Rourke said after Monday afternoon’s roundtable. “I’m here in Amarillo because Amarillo College, the Amarillo Independent School District and other contributing organizations are doing it right.” 

During the 45-minute conversation, O’Rourke and educational leaders touched on various topics including the impact of career and technical education as well as education’s impact on the overall Texas Panhandle economy. He also spoke on the status of teacher pay within the state and the importance of flexible instruction. 

Throughout the conversation, O’Rourke referenced his own family, stating that one of his high school children is in the midst of making career decisions. 

“(There is this) anxiety around whether or not those kids will want to stay in El Paso, stay in Amarillo, especially if they go off to take a job or college somewhere else, or if they graduate from high school and choose not to go to college, whether or not they find opportunity in these communities,” he told the leaders. “…I think the tough thing for so many of us is through our tax dollars, we pay to educate our kids in pre-K through 12, massive investment in libraries and museums and quality of life. Then, just when they’re about to produce return, they go to Dallas, or Oklahoma City, or Los Angeles or somewhere else.” 

Tamara Clunis, the vice president of academic affairs at Amarillo College, said during the roundtable that what she is seeing is that young people are not leaving the Amarillo community. The young people are just not taking higher education opportunities, even with programs like the Thrive Scholarship in place. 

Clunis said the college is attempting to bring those higher education opportunities to these students, attempting to help the students realize that there is a higher education opportunity for them, including their programs like coding and the college’s cloud accelerator program. 

“I am so excited about Amarillo College, what we’re doing with this is going to change the way higher education operates and functions,” she said. “We just need to figure out how to serve more students with it over time.” 

Kimberly Anderson, a representative from the Amarillo ISD Board of Trustees, also spoke on the Thrive Scholarship, as well as programs led by nonprofits providing services for the district’s students, including Snack Pak 4 Kids and Storybridge. 

However, multiple leaders stated during the roundtable these nonprofit programs, which fill in the gaps for these students, would not be as necessary as they are in Amarillo if the state gave adequate funding for education. 

Overall, O’Rourke said the key issue for public education is for students to find a “high-skilled, high-paying (and) high-value job” that students can achieve in Amarillo. O’Rourke believes that what he sees in Amarillo gives him hope throughout the rest of the state. 

However, O’Rourke agreed with the educational leaders, saying after the roundtable that the state needs to chip in further to help this educational success occur. 

“It’s clear from talking to educators throughout Amarillo that we need more state funding to make sure that we have more educational opportunities. Right now, the local property taxpayers in Potter and Randall counties are footing the majority of the bill for public education. I’d like to see the state kick in a little bit more so that we can pay our educators more so that we can enroll more students at Amarillo College and ensure that we have more people who have the skills necessary to compete for the jobs that we are creating across this state, and also to start some of the small businesses that are going to hire more people from this community going forward,” O’Rourke said. “…If we want to see higher-paying jobs, if we want to see more business growth, if we want to see a better quality of life in Amarillo, we absolutely must invest in pre-K through 12 education and then higher education certification like those that we saw here at Amarillo College today. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s a lot cheaper than having folks who don’t have the necessary training or education to compete for these jobs.” 

O’Rourke also said that investing in teachers throughout the state by raising their pay would also help the students, attracting and retaining the best teachers in the Texas Panhandle.

“Making sure that we pay teachers what they are worth is a matter of budget priorities,” he said. “We could spend millions of dollars on a wall with Mexico that we don’t need, or we could invest those dollars in our classrooms with our public school educators who are going to have every opportunity, if we pay them enough, to make sure that those kids are a success over the course of their lives.” 

Outside of public education, O’Rourke said there are many needs throughout the Texas Panhandle that he feels are being unmet by the state government in its current iteration, including broadband connectivity for rural communities, expanding Medicaid as well as keeping rural hospitals and clinics open. 

“This part of the world, West Texas and the Panhandle, produce the food, the fuel and the fiber that literally helps the rest of the state make it,” he said. “We need to make sure that the rest of the state is paying attention to and delivering the resources to the Panhandle so that we can all be successful going forward.” 

Supporters at O’Rourke’s campaign rally Monday night shared with why they support him.

Robin Crawford said she and her husband Mickey supported O’Rourke in 2018, saying, “We voted for him when he was running for Senator. We think that he’s the change that we need in Texas. He’s pro-education, and he’s for the people, the working people.”

A student at West Texas A&M, Marcus Rogers, said he wanted to see what O’Rourke would do to secure the state’s power grid.

Rogers said, “…especially since I’m from the Dallas area and my family was affected by the power grid failure in the state of Texas. And Beto is one of the few people running for governor that is trying to fix this issue, especially with so many people being impacted by that.”

Other supporters told us they are focused on issues like women’s rights and gun control measures. Kathie Grant said, “I look forward to Beto looking at women’s rights, especially our reproductive rights. Start looking at women.”

When asked what changes she would like to see if O’Rourke is elected, Grant’s friend, Diann Anderson, added, “Gun control first. Definitely gun control of some sort.”

After the roundtable on education, asked O’Rourke about his position on guns.

O’Rourke answered: “We’re Texans. We will defend the Second Amendment and we will also ensure that we have the kind of responsible gun ownership that protects the lives of those around us. We’re a little more than two years removed from a mass shooting in Midland-Odessa that killed eight. From another the month before that killed 23 in El Paso, we have four of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, just in Texas and just in the last five years.

He continued, “I think some common sense measures, like universal background checks, like extreme risk protection orders, and just making sure that if someone wants to carry a firearm in public that they go through training, and a background check like we used to have…”

O’Rourke went on to criticize incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott, saying, “But instead of doing that our current governor has signed into law a permitless carry bill that allows anyone including violent criminals to carry a loaded firearm in public without a background check. And it’s why law enforcement police chiefs sheriffs alike were opposed to this measure, because it makes us less safe at a time of rising crime in Texas. So let’s protect the Second Amendment. Let’s do a better job of protecting the lives of those in our communities.”

As has previously reported, there are exceptions for felons and those under 21, and buyers are still required to pass a background check at a gun store.

The Governor’s race, along with a number of other state and local races, will be on the ballot in November 2022. For more information about the 2022 election, visit the MyHighPlains website