When Daryl Zeller was selected to be the Abilene ISD Board of Trustees president, it came at one of the most perilous times in the nation’s history as the country and world were fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schools across the country had been closed since March 2020, students were going through online learning, and school districts were grappling with how to safely re-open schools in August 2020. So, in May 2020, when his six other board members selected Zeller to be the next president of the board, he was stepping into a situation that no other board president had ever confronted.

Zeller helped lead the district and the board through the re-opening and beyond, including the recent completion of the projects from the 2018 bond election that built three new elementary campuses, The LIFT, and provided numerous renovations and upgrades to fine arts and athletics facilities throughout the district.

Zeller and the board are working with district administrators on other issues, including tackling learning loss issues resulting from the pandemic. And while Zeller’s background isn’t in education, he did grow up with a teacher in his home.

While his father was a farmer, his mother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in a small town outside Grand Island, Nebraska. After his father took a job working with the railroad, the family moved to Fort Worth, where Zeller later graduated from Fort Worth Paschal High School.

He enrolled at Abilene Christian University in the fall of 1980 and soon met his future wife, Rebekah Gibbs, whose parents – JB and Winnie – were both educators in the AISD. JB Gibbs was the first head football coach at the new Madison Junior High School, choosing the school colors (orange and white) and mascot (Bison). 

Zeller graduated from ACU in 1985 with a degree in finance and married Rebekah in 1985. All four of their children – Grant, Suzanne, Peter, and Abigail – went through AISD, and all four graduated from Abilene High School. The Zellers were heavily involved in educating all their children, starting at Austin Elementary School, where Zeller served as the PTA president.

Recently, Zeller sat down with us for a question-and-answer session to discuss where AISD stands now and what the future holds for the district.

Q: Can you pinpoint something in your educational background that interested you in serving in public education?

A: My mentor in life was my old biology/coach, who became my fishing buddy (Herb Stephens) and was until the day I spoke at his funeral. He was from West Virginia, came to TCU and stayed around, and coached in Fort Worth. In eighth grade, he was doing a basketball camp, and I was a little eighth-grade punk who thought I ruled the world when I showed up for the camp. But he pulled me aside and set me in place. I didn’t know him at the time, but he knew I had the potential to lead and be better than where I was headed. Besides my parents, Herb was the most influential person in my life. He instilled his love for kids into me, so he’s the person who had the most influence on me as far as getting involved in public education.

Q: When did you start thinking about running for the school board and being more involved in the entire district, not just at Austin Elementary?

A: I went from Austin PTA to being involved in PTA at Lincoln and Mann middle schools, and then really involved in the Booster Club at Abilene High for years. My claim to fame in that regard is the old Warbird Wagon; that was my dream in 2004 when we used to have to carry everything into the stadium and unbox it and then put it all back when games were over. Several people asked me about running while in the booster club, but I gave it little thought. Then back in 2015, Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) was going around the country sounding the alarm to get people to step up and serve in their communities, whether on city councils, school boards, or wherever they felt led to do. I heard him talk about that and felt like the Lord tapped me on the shoulder, and I felt like the school board would be where I would serve the community next. Then some folks told me it was time to step up. The district had gone through some tough years with the previous superintendent, but we were transitioning to Dr. David Young as the superintendent, and it was time for me to step in and do my part to serve.

Q: When you were first elected, what did you expect in this role, and what did you find? And how do those things differ?

A: I’m in my seventh year (elected in 2016), and I tell people all the time that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done from a volunteer service aspect and, at the same time, the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. But the growth and the joy of going through this has been quite a journey. I would have never anticipated the last 2 1/2 and now almost three years of what we would go through and leading the board through that as the president.

Q: When you started, everyone had great expectations for what they wanted to change, just as I’m sure you did. But how did the reality of what you can do play out for you?

A: I’ve been on the board for six years, and our enrollment has dropped in each. It’s sad because great teachers do great work for students every day. And the scope of programs we can offer can’t be found at any other school district in our area. We had a big enrollment peak in the early 2000s, and it’s been in decline ever since, so this problem of declining enrollment – for whatever reason – is nothing new. The one thing that keeps me up every night is our culture, the breakdown of families, and the discipline challenges from those issues. It’s different than when I grew up and makes me wish I could fix it with the wave of a magic wand. It’s the top of the conversation at most of our meetings. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody.

Q: When you first started thinking about running for the school board, what was the advice you were given about how to handle the role?

A: Some folks told me I was crazy. And that will be the case again whenever I decide to step out. I’ll probably talk to somebody and let them know that they’ll hear from all sides. But we’ve got to have good people step up. I believe it’s a calling, just like I believe teaching is a calling. I think that’s the only way you get through hard times if you’re doing something you believe the Lord has called you to do. I’m communicating that with teachers as we go through some tough times with discipline and other issues, and I encourage our teachers and staff to hang in there because they’re making a difference. 

Q: A couple of years ago, you were selected to be the new president of the Board of Trustees after former president Randy Piersall stepped down from his board position. How has that new position changed your view of how the board operates, how the community views the school board, and the role of the school board?

A: That all happened right at the start of COVID, so I walked into that role at a tough time. My focus was helping our district get through the pandemic. It was almost a survival mode for keeping people safe and healthy. It was scary. I’m a people-pleaser, so it’s been difficult because the issue became political and divisive when it didn’t need to be, and it just did. Decisions on our protocols, masking, and even pep rallies and what the kids could do became divisive. I tried to keep an even keel, and I had people on both sides of the conversation upset with us most of the time, which usually tells you that if that’s happening, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

Q: You were part of the board in 2018 when the $139 million bond package was created, voted on, and passed, and we’ve now seen the result of that bond throughout the district. How much pride do you take in having been a part of that entire situation and leading the board through the final stages of the bond?

A: The biggest thing is the community’s belief that there was a need and that the district still had a future. We haven’t yet felt the impact of our improvements; I think that’s still to come, which is very satisfying. We’ve had an incredible past in the AISD, and it’s pivotal to continue making the changes necessary to keep moving forward.

Q: What is your feeling when you walk through one of the new elementary schools or The LIFT?

A: It’s pride. It’s hope for the difference a building can make. Just thinking about memories that will be made, or which of those students walking those halls will go on to do incredible things. And that will happen because this district has a history of producing kids who have moved on to bigger and better things.

Q: What is it that you’re most concerned about when it comes to the teachers in the AISD?

A: Now more than ever, the spotlight is on teachers because of the failure of our families to raise our kids. Now teachers must do all these extra things beyond education, from mental health to personal well-being to spiritual well-being, because there are voids. Then add the safety issues where they show up to work wondering how safe they are, and those things keep you up at night.

Q: The shooting in Uvaldze last May has put everyone on alert in schools nationwide, especially in Texas. Securing our schools will be a big part of the legislative session in Austin, and I know it’s what you and the rest of the board are also thinking about. What are you saying to each other about security in the AISD?

A: We take it very seriously because we’re accountable for our students’ and staff’s safety and security. We’ve got great people working on that, and every day that’s the top priority in our district. Since Uvalde, we’ve had quite a bit of emphasis on hardening our schools. AISD has not only taken the protocols the state has mandated, but we have added an extra layer, but I don’t think you ever let your guard down.

Q: What’s the next most important thing on the horizon for AISD, and where are we as a district?

A: For our district leadership, it’s three things: academic improvement, safety and security, and discipline. One day one might be more important than the other two, but those are the topics of almost every conversation. As far as where we are as a district, great things are coming. There has been tremendous effort coming out of COVID that we haven’t felt yet. But we have to stay the course; we’ve got some things in place that we need to give time to work. Now it’s a matter of how fast we can catch kids up, so that’s where my focus will be for a while. 

Q: Dr. Young has said it’s the job of everyone in the AISD to help tell the story of the AISD. What would you say to a family moving into Abilene looking for an education home for their kids?

A: The AISD will give your kid all the opportunities they would ever want. The resources are there for it. We offer a product that will help any student, but we must have parental involvement. Parents are the key to success in education, whether in public education, private education, or home school. We’ve got good things on, and I think our culture will strengthen kids as they get out into the world.