As the Austin Independent School District board of trustees prepares to swear in its new members, voters who backed a major switch in direction will see how much change they can really create.
Four new members – At-Large Place 8 member Gina Hinojosa, the Rev. Jayme Mathias in District 2, Ann Teich in District 3, and Amber Elenz in District 5 – will join the board Nov. 19. Their prime task may be to restore faith in the district. During the election, the consensus among all candidates was that AISD is terrible at community outreach. It doesn't help that it's almost impossible to get hold of the current trustees: The only way to reach most of them is through voicemail at the board offices or a single email address (email@example.com). Board meetings – all held at the Carruth Administration Center – have been criticized for being difficult for parents and stakeholders to attend, let alone be heard. With only an hour of citizens communication, slots on controversial issues can go fast. Outgoing board President Mark Williams has sparred openly with employees union Education Austin when he refused to let people grant their time to other speakers – a common practice at City Council. Trustees have also been without access to in-house legal advice since longtime general counsel Mel Waxler quit his post to become Superintendent Meria Carstarphen's chief of staff in June. The district hasn't filled his position, and the board has depended on pricey external lawyers for legal advice ever since.
The first and most important job for the new board will be selecting a new president. With Williams exiting, two veteran members are being eyed for runs. District 4's Vincent Torres has been quietly supportive of Carstarphen and less of a swing vote than expected over the last two years. However, Robert Schneider in District 6 has become a champion for Carstarphen's critics, regularly challenging her for what he sees as unresponsiveness. If both prove to be too divisive for the board, then the short list for a consensus candidate would be short indeed.
So how much of a mandate did the new board receive to rewrite the rules? On election night, Teich romped easily past incumbent Christine Brister, who had suspended her campaign and seemed undecided whether she would serve again even if re-elected. The worst defeat of the night went to the candidate perceived as being closest to Carstarphen and the current administration, and it came citywide: Hinojosa beat Mary Ellen Pietruszynski 69% to 31% in the Place 8 race. Pietruszynski only won one significant box: precinct 247 in West Austin. Generally, she trailed Hinojosa by double digits almost everywhere, and by as much as 65% in East Austin's precinct 152.
So far, there seem to be few tears spilled that Elenz beat out Charlie Jackson to represent West Austin. The consensus was that both were good candidates in very different ways – Jackson came with social justice credentials, but Elenz had much deeper roots in the community. Ultimately, Jackson only took one box – precinct 325, which had only nine total votes cast – and Elenz won in a landslide. However, even though she came in with Williams' seal of approval, Elenz represents a District 5 significantly different from the one he held, having lost chunks of the center city in redistricting, and going out much deeper into the Southwest suburbs.
The closest battle, and possibly the clearest sign of a divided community, came when Mathias – powered by popular discontent over the deal with IDEA Public Schools – squeaked past Sam Guzmán. It was a narrow, 1% win, and a late start in campaigning may have crippled Guzmán's chances of holding his seat. Mathias was ahead by 5% in early voting, but Guzmán had a remarkable surge on Election Day, biting into Mathias' lead in some precincts by as much as 12 percentage points. Guzmán's supporters may take solace that they could make so much headway so late in the game; on the other hand, there'll be a lot of headshaking over how Mathias – a gay, white, excommunicated former Roman Catholic priest – could even get within challenger distance of an establishment Hispanic candidate like Guzmán.
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