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High School Stakes

Austin ISD election could shape a new direction for the district

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 5, 2012

With two open and two contested seats on the ballot, next year's AISD board could look much different.
With two open and two contested seats on the ballot, next year's AISD board could look much different.
Photo by Sandy Carson

On Nov. 6, voters in the Austin Inde­pen­dent School District won't just be selecting new trustees. They will effectively be holding a referendum on district Super­intendent Meria Carstarphen. Currently, the board is balanced 6-3, with pro-Carstarphen members in the majority. The four seats on the November ballot mean that balance of power could switch. Yet being a school board trustee is a thankless task; they're unpaid, unappreciated, held accountable for the district's failings, and rarely complimented on its successes. No one joins a school board (in Travis County at least) if he or she has aspirations for higher political office, and with the amount of time the job requires, it's a minor miracle anyone runs at all. In fact, in many years the incumbent seats are uncontested. (By the way, the board is based on a "hybrid" system, with seven districted seats and two at large.)

But this year is different, with two open and two contested seats on the ballot. Board President Mark Williams is stepping down from his Central and West Austin seat, triggering a fight between District Advisory Coun­cil member Amber Elenz and local activist Charlie Jackson. Williams' exit is as big a surprise as that of at-large member Annette LoVoi, which sparks a contest between civil rights attorney Gina Hinojosa and Sooch Foundation Executive Director Mary Ellen Pietruszynski. And both incumbents face strong challenges, as well. In South­east Austin, Sam Guzmán is being pursued by Jayme Mathias, a Catholic priest, while in North Central, incumbent Chris­tine Brister faces the wrath of educators in the shape of retired teacher Ann Teich.

A loose slate has emerged among the challengers, with Mathias, Teich, Jackson, and Hinojosa all powered by frustration at the board's unwillingness to tackle Carstarphen. Since the last election in 2010, there has been a series of contentious decisions – an 8% cut in staff, the botched facility master plan, the imposition of in-district charter IDEA Allan – that has shattered community faith in the administration. Even some board members have publicly grumbled that Carstarphen and her cabinet are unresponsive to requests and often withhold information.

Guzmán argues that the process is working correctly, and specifically that Car­star­phen is doing her job by bringing administration recommendations to the board. "If she didn't," he said, "I would say she was not doing her job." Yet Jackson charges that the tail is wagging the dog, with the administration subtly setting the agenda to get what it wants. He said, "However you frame the discussion, then it leads to the inevitable conclusion." There's little doubt that this policy process – real or perceived – has put Guzmán and Brister in a difficult position. Then there are the wild cards, Elenz and Pietruszynski. This is the kind of election in which "experience" can be a disadvantage, and both will face questions over how close they are to the administration.

Historically, the AISD elections have been held in May, but in 2011 the board voted to move its elections into the Novem­ber cycle. For the first time, district leadership will be selected at the same time as the U.S. president, and voter turnout for these races is likely to reach record levels. If the new board changes direction and begins seriously challenging the administration, the effects could be tectonic. AISD wields a billion-dollar budget and has a huge influence on Austin's development and population. As one political consultant noted, this is the first time in years that AISD elections have been watercooler talk among the campaign pros.

District 2: Experience and Activism

Sam Guzmán vs. Father Jayme Mathias
Elementaries: Allan, Allison, Brooke, Dawson, Galindo, Govalle, Houston, Langford, Linder, Metz, Palm, Perez, Rodriguez, Sanchez, Widen, Zavala
Middle Schools: Martin, Mendez
High Schools: Eastside Memorial, International High
Guzmán
Guzmán
Photo by John Anderson

School board elections are normally fairly bloodless affairs. This year the fight for Dis­trict 2 is a lesson in bare-fisted East Austin politics, as incumbent Sam Guzmán faces open warfare over his support for the IDEA Public Schools charter school at Allan.

Mathias
Mathias
Photo by Jana Birchum

Guzmán came aboard in 2007, succeeding longtime trustee Rudy Montoya, who stepped down. A year ago, he was politically bulletproof. Now his entire legacy may be judged by one decision: the insistence on creating an in-district charter school run by IDEA Public Schools, taking over Allan Ele­ment­ary and, starting in 2013, Eastside Mem­orial High School. Guzmán's logic was straightforward: AISD had left East Austin to languish, so it would take radical ideas and a radical restructuring to shake things up. If it works, then he'll be vindicated. If it fails, then his legacy will be one of a divided community, furious that AISD took away their neighborhood school.

When Guzmán first ran for re-election in 2008, he argued it had taken him that first year of Montoya's unexpired term to work out how the district operates and how to shape policy. He stands by the IDEA decision, if not how it was made. He said, "Do you sit there and do the same thing over and over again and have the same results, or do you actually try to do something?" He also rejects the idea that there is broad community opposition to IDEA and put the blame for the controversy on protest groups like Occupy Austin and Occupy AISD. He said, "There's a lot of people I talk to that are part of the community, yet they didn't go before the board because they don't do that. Maybe they work, maybe they can't, maybe they have childcare problems."

If Guzmán hadn't pushed for the IDEA project, he probably would not have faced a challenger. Now he faces Jayme Mathias, a young, charismatic, enthusiastic priest who approaches every public meeting like it's a tent revival. "I often joke that I came from the corn fields of Iowa to the corn tortillas of East Austin," Mathias said, but otherwise his campaign is light on humor. While not a native Austinite, he was a graduate student here in 1995 when, he recalled, "Pizza companies would not deliver to East Austin, and we had the roaring of the Holly Power Plant, which sounded like a train in our backyards." He was assigned to Cristo Rey Catholic Church in 2000 and has spent the last 12 years as a pastor and two years as a foreign language teacher at San Juan Diego Catholic High School. "I totally empathize with what teachers go through on a daily basis," he said. "My first semester, I was asked to give two courses simultaneously, in the same classroom, at the same time." He was then promoted to become the school's president. He said, "I branded that place as theschoolthatworks.com and was traveling all over to Central Texas to bring resources."

Like Guzmán, Mathias is not without controversy. He's not averse to stepping on toes: In 2009, when he became pastor at Cristo Rey, he fired staff member and El Concilio activist Gavino Fernandez, and the two fought a war of words among neighborhood factions and in the pages of the Austin American-Statesman. Fernandez has been promoting an online name-calling campaign against Mathias, who has refused to respond to the smear campaign, but with Austin voters that's a tactic as likely to backfire as succeed. Mathias recently broke with the Vatican and now serves as pastor for Holy Family American Catholic Church – part of the American Catholic Church of the United States, which he calls "much more progressive and open-minded." The final decision to leave came after the local diocese barred him from inviting Chicago Congressman Luis Gutiér­rez to his church to discuss immigration issues – because Gutiérrez is considered too pro-choice by Bishop Joe Vásquez. Mathias said, "Here we have a Catholic Hispanic congressman, who is always on the side of the people, who went to prison for advocating for the undocumented, and we cannot have him come and have him speaking."

Despite Mathias' challenge, Guzmán's professional star is in the ascendant. In February, he was elected the 2013 president of the statewide Mexican American School Board Association. He argues that his hard-won experience will make it easier to move more resources to his district, and that the board is a battle of increments. He said, "With time and tenure, you're able to win the trust of the other trustees to be able to move forward with the programs that you feel you need for your particular district."

When Guzmán replaced Montoya, he did it with only 574 votes out of a total turnout of 845 in a four-horse race. No one expects this November affair to be a 500-vote election, and not just because it's a presidential election year. Behind the scenes, Guzmán's supporters have implied that Mathias is a mouthpiece for political consultant David Butts – a charge Mathias denies. "I met David Butts for the first time at Gina Hinojosa's launch," he said. Meanwhile, he accuses Guzmán of being a political opportunist, representing the same East Austin establishment that has let the community languish. He sums the election up as a simple choice: "Do we want this top-down model where we have trustees who believe they know what is best for our students and their families, or do we want a bottom-up model where we as a community are getting together?"

District 3: Engagement and Accountability

Christine Brister vs. Ann Teich
Elementaries: Barrington, T.A. Brown, Cook, McBee, Reilly, Ridgetop, Walnut Creek, Wooldridge, Wooten
Middle Schools: Burnet, Webb
High School: Lanier
Brister
Brister
Photo by John Anderson

Local educators describe North Austin as the new East Austin, and as a consequence, District 3 has many of the same issues as the traditionally troubled and underserved neighborhoods east of I-35. It is the densest and most diversely populated AISD board district, and many of its campuses are overcrowded, but incumbent Christine Brister feels that's definitely one area she can tout as a win for her district: "When I came on the board, they finally designated the undesignated elementary school for North Central." In addition, Dobie and Webb middle schools now have pre-K units, and there's another elementary in the planning stages. But Brister still faces a tough road to re-election after siding with the administration on several controversial decisions.

Teich
Teich
Photo by Jana Birchum

Brister now addresses a District 3 different than the one that first elected her in 2008. Under the latest redistricting, it now reaches across I-35 and takes in the growing Mueller community. Her challenger, retired AISD teacher and neighborhood activist Ann Teich, sees high-needs schools across the district; for her, Burnet Road is just as much a dividing line as I-35. She said: "We have poverty, we have families that are mobile because they can't afford to live or their job takes them somewhere else. We have language issues. We have probably between 40 and 50 different cultures just at Lanier High School alone."

Teich compares Brister's term to her own activism with groups like Save Texas Schools, and her history teaching in low socioeconomic communities around Austin, including time at Martin Middle School. And she comes at many of AISD's problems with a teacher's sensibilities. "There needs to be a true, genuine working relationship between central office and the campuses," she said, adding she has often found that to be lacking. She points to how rarely Brister and her fellow trustees are seen on campuses, as they have taken the administration's line that trustees should try not to disturb the school day. By not traveling to schools around Austin, she said, Brister "does District 3 a disservice. She's making decisions for all schools, not just District 3."

Teich argues that trustees have to find the real troubled campuses for themselves, rather than letting that information be filtered through the administration. That will also make them better informed about, for example, how grant and foundation money has been spent, whether grant money is needed for radical redesign, or whether a campus is doing just fine. After all, she said, campuses like Webb turned scores around without becoming charters. "Magic bullets are not the way to go," Teich said. "It takes time. It takes effort. It takes doing your homework, dealing with community. That's what turns a school around."

Teich is critical of how the board overlooks District 3 in its discussions and notes that while the board has talked a good game about adding schools, so far there's been no sign of construction. Moreover, there's been little action from the board about why everything is taking so long. She said, "There are some of our board members who don't ask those questions, and if they're doing it, they're doing it way behind the scenes. They're not doing it in public."

That criticism could be a dig at Brister. She is the quietest member of the board, rarely likely to comment at length or critically about proposals. Teich said, "I've tried to reach her in the past, just as a constituent. She's not responded." But harsher critics see Brister's silence as passive submission to whatever Superintendent Meria Carstarphen asks for. Brister has heard those criticisms, but argued that silence does not mean she does not care. "Voicing my opinions more loudly from the dais may help," she said. As for the idea that she is not fully briefed, or does not hold the administration sufficiently accountable, she said, "I don't feel like I am disengaged, because I do feel like I get my information before the meetings."

Yet she has often found herself on the wrong side of public protest, and she concedes that there have been problems with the balance between the board and the administration. When it comes to issues of the scale of the Facility Master Plan, she said, "We need to be a little more thoughtful going forward, and a little more forceful with the superintendent." But she stands by her decisions and argues the board must vote its own will, even when the headlines and the signs are against them. She said, "Every time we bring an issue forward and there's an outcry, do we drop it?" Unpopular as that makes her in some quarters, she argues that she deserves a second term because of that voting record: "If I'm going to be held accountable for something, I'd rather be held accountable for its implementation, rather than just a vote that I took."

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