High School Stakes
Austin ISD election could shape a new direction for the district
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District 5: Community Relations and Data AnalysisAmber Elenz vs. Charlie Jackson
Elementaries: Barton Hills, Bryker Woods, Casis, Lee, Mathews, Oak Hill, Patton, Pease, Zilker
Middle Schools: O. Henry, Small
High School: Austin
Many Austinites wish they had District 5's problems. Located in arguably AISD's most affluent community, all nine of its elementaries are rated Exemplary or Recognized by the Texas Education Agency. Its outgoing trustee, Mark Williams, has spent the last six years as board president. Now two first-time candidates are hoping to bring the often-unacknowledged district problems to the surface.
Austin Council of Parent-Teachers Association's ex-president and current District Advisory Council member Amber Elenz probably has as much districtwide experience as any trustee, but her AISD activism began at the ground level. Her daughter entered Bryker Woods Elementary a decade ago, just as the campus was caught in a testing scandal; a campus that had been 50% transfer students was losing students fast. "We were down to two kindergarten classes with 17 kids," said Elenz, so she decided to get involved in the PTA. "We started working together to make it a place to be proud of. Within three years, we'd turned it around – closed to transfers, at capacity." It was a similar story when her son was diagnosed with severe dyslexia – she started working with the campus to build an academic language therapy program. "It was this perfect collaborative effort," she said, "where the teacher won because she got this further certification, my child won, and so did 60 other kids."
Elenz's philosophy is ground-up: The campuses know best what they need and how to make it happen. One of her proudest achievements is expanding the use of roundtable discussions to bring together parents and staff from "vertical teams" (district jargon for a high school and all its feeder schools). "Amazing successes," she said. "Eastside Memorial team was one of our most successful. Crockett, who had never done this before in their life, first time talking to each other." That kind of communication she believes, is her strength: She said, "I know the principals, I know the [parent support specialists], I know the PTAs."
If Elenz emphasizes community relations to fix the district, then Charlie Jackson is the number-cruncher, prepared to extract the data from district staff if the administration is not forthcoming. Not surprising, considering he started his career working for Texas Congressman Bob Eckhardt, "investigating things like Pinto car crashes" before founding anti-conflict activist charity Texans for Peace. More recently, he was a founding member of Austinites for Geographic Representation – the group responsible for the 10-1 City Council redistricting proposal (see "Point Austin: The Usual Suspects," July 27). He had stayed out of education politics because his wife was a teacher, but he said, "When I moved Downtown it was purposefully with the intent to become a lot more active – attending school board, keeping up with the issues, and maybe getting into [district] politics."
In recent years, he has concentrated on his IT firm Acceleros. Although he is best known as a peace activist, being perceived as "the business candidate" in an AISD race could be a big negative among liberal and progressive voters. However, even though – or possibly because – he was president of the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce in Arizona in the mid-1990s, Jackson is publicly critical of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which he said reflects only "the Downtown central club." He praised the chamber for making education a high priority, but said, "where it becomes negative is when it tries to set policies in a realm where they don't understand certain things."
In many ways, District 5 provides AISD with one of its proudest boasts – that, unlike many other urban ISDs, middle-class parents still use public schools. But like all of Austin, the district is changing, and Elenz called it "very different than when Mark started." It melds the growing suburban population of Travis County with South Austin and the city center population, and "what a Casis parent wants in terms of how big a school should be is very different to what a Barton Hills or Bryker Woods parent thinks the right answer should be," she said. "Getting them to understand that they're all on the same team is an interesting challenge for whoever's in this seat."
For Jackson, "The primary issue is competing with Eanes and other wealthy surrounding districts and trying to live up to that competition in a way that parents will still choose to live in AISD." But it's a tough balancing act, keeping District 5 schools open without simply pandering to affluent families. The district already has local enrollment problems; three of its elementaries are being threatened with closure under the abortive Facility Master Plan (see "What the Task Force Wrought," May 27, 2011) and are maintained at capacity only because of transfer students. Unfortunately, that situation can generate community tensions about "their" neighborhood school. Yet Jackson argues that the board won't avoid another round of white flight by letting surrounding schools languish in order to lavish more assets on middle-class neighborhoods. For him, it's not about good campuses, but a successful district. He said, "That would be solved if you were looking at the district as a whole, and you were improving all the schools."
Position 8, At-Large: The Shadow of CarstarphenGina Hinojosa vs. Mary Ellen Pietruszynski
For critics of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, the most important race of all may be the one to replace Annette LoVoi. Along with her fellow at-large trustee Tamala Barksdale and District 7's Robert Schneider, LoVoi has represented consistent resistance to the administration. Many meetings have ended with her asking Carstarphen and her cabinet for more information or voting against her more radical proposals. At the same time, her exit deprives the superintendent's critics of their closest and most effective standard-bearer. That means Carstarphen's shadow runs longer over this race than any other, and this race will arguably give a clearer vision of what the whole of AISD – not just one district seat – wants from the board.
The battle lines are already drawn. In 2011, Sooch Foundation Executive Director Mary Ellen Pietruszynski co-authored a letter to the Statesman defending Carstarphen against "misdirected and dangerously shortsighted" criticisms of her style of leadership and imploring the community to "let Meria Carstarphen lead AISD as she sees fit." Civil rights attorney Gina Hinojosa is taking the opposite stance, arguing that the board must represent the core beliefs of the community and either redirect the administration or just say no. While she hears and understands the criticisms of Carstarphen, she said, "The criticisms are misplaced, because ultimately those controversial decisions are being approved by the board, so that's where the buck stops."
So far, Hinojosa has been sweeping the local endorsements. Her supporter list includes the great and the good of Austin politics, including former Mayor Gus Garcia, current Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and even Leffingwell's most recent challenger, Brigid Shea. Being the daughter of Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa also carries some political leverage – but then again, Pietruszynski is not short of resources herself, having hired Houston-based communications firm Elite Change to handle her campaign. Yet the single most telling endorsement may be retiring trustee LoVoi herself, who is backing Hinojosa.
An attorney by training, Hinojosa has spent time working on civil rights issues with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Equal Justice Center. She said: "Right now, there's a tremendous opportunity to rally the community behind our public schools in a way that is so necessary, and in a way that is not happening. In fact, I've seen that just the opposite is happening." She points to the chaos caused by the Facility Master Plan and the proposal to close a swath of neighborhood schools as the turning point for her. "It shook confidence for so many in the community," she said, but she found one positive aspect: "For many years, I'd been watching what was going on at the district and attending school board meetings, and I have to say that it was rare that those meetings were full. When this proposal happened, you had to fight to get in." However, she is frustrated by how those meetings are run. "The board can't ask questions of speakers," she said. "You can't speak on issue items, like you can at council. They may be the most inaccessible elected representatives that we have."
Hinojosa has the activist and social justice credentials. Yet in terms of raw educational experience, Pietruszynski should be leading. As the executive director of the Sooch Foundation, she has helped manage donations to schools and needy groups around Austin, and even worked with the district on its (ultimately unsuccessful) application for a federal Promise Neighborhoods grant (see "Children's Zone: Can Harlem Come to Austin?", Jan. 29, 2010). Pietruszynski said: "I see one side of Austin through my eight years running this foundation. I am the mother of two children who are products of AISD, so I saw another side of Austin through that experience." Her top priority is the budget. Calling herself "a proponent of alternative sources of funding," she notes that she has "experience looking at outside stakeholders and means of collaboration to bring additional funding sources to the district."
Not everyone is happy about external donor groups. Many education advocates fear that school districts are so cash-starved that they'll chase any dollars that a trust or foundation offers – and accept whatever strings are attached. One symptom of that education foundation involvement is "experimental models," and mixed influence has been seen locally behind the push for charters and single-sex schools. While she calls neighborhood schools the heart of the district, Pietruszynski supports "educational choice." She said: "It's important to me that we encourage diverse educational opportunities across the district. We are not a one-size-fits-all district. If we want that, we can go to our neighboring districts."
Hinojosa says she also supports choice, but argues that it has to be done in a way that doesn't drain other campuses and communities of resources. Many Austinites feel like choice is being forced down their throats – the current case in point is Allan Elementary – and Hinojosa argues the district has done a poor job absorbing those stakeholders' concerns. Consider the neighborhood group PRIDE of the Eastside: When they fought back against turning Allan Elementary into a charter school, they were slammed by IDEA Public Schools CEO Tom Torkelson as "professional protestors." And when the board voted on IDEA Allan, the PRIDE members were literally left out in the rain while seats were held for IDEA staff. For Hinojosa, that kind of behavior is symptomatic of a district that has forgotten how to engage the community. It was the same problem with the Facility Master Plan, where the district somehow found ways to alienate long-term education activists who are normally its biggest supporters. Hinojosa said, "We need to see that energy and that organization as an opportunity, rather than something to fear."