AISD: Fall Election Drought?
Board balance in question as few candidates step up
In 2012, Austin Independent School District voters used the board of trustees election as an indirect referendum on Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. This year could be the same – if anyone can find any candidates. Unlike the City Council races, which are already splitting at the seams with declared hopefuls, AISD faces the serious risk of empty seats on its volunteer board.
The math is pretty simple. The AISD Board is currently split, with four trustees highly supportive of the superintendent, four more critical, and one swing. Of those nine, five are up for re-election this year – three Carstarphen loyalists, one determined critic, and that pivotal swing voter.
DISTRICT 1 (Northeast): Incumbent Cheryl Bradley is one of the longest-serving current trustees, having joined the board in 2002. Regarded as Carstarphen's most vociferous ally, she has publicly stated that she will not run for re-election.
DISTRICT 4 (Northwest): Board president Vince Torres, a trustee since 2006, has softened his once-adversarial relationship with Carstarphen, and is now point person for most of her proposals. When asked whether he would run for a third term, he said he'll make a decision closer to May.
DISTRICT 6 (South): Lori Moya, another veteran of the '06 election – and along with Bradley, a firm supporter of Carstarphen – said she's not had any thoughts to date on whether she will run.
DISTRICT 7 (Southwest): The longest-standing thorn in Carstarphen's side, Robert Schneider, arrived with Bradley in 2002. Unlike her, he is determined to serve a fourth term. Asked whether he will run again in November, he said, "I'm planning on it."
AT-LARGE POSITION 9: One-termer Tamala Barksdale said she's "not ready to announce anything just yet," but neither has she ruled anything out. She simply stated that "the work is at times frustrating but overall incredibly fulfilling."
With only one incumbent confirmed to run again, and one definitely out, there could be as many as four open seats next November. Moreover, not all the incumbents are safe: Moya's support for the abortive IDEA Public Schools contract was extremely unpopular with many public school advocates and East Austin residents, while Schneider's Republican-leaning district has a lot of pro-charter, pro-voucher voters. Barksdale has been getting flack from both sides, for being both too critical and too supportive of Carstarphen.
A shift of just one seat on this finely balanced board could lead to major changes in policy. However – although it's early – there is a dearth of announced challengers to either fill the vacant seat or take on the incumbents. So far, no one other than Schneider has formally thrown a hat in the ring.
According to Torres, getting enough candidates to run for the school board is "always a concern", but this election cycle seems tougher than usual. One prime reason is money – this year, any potential candidate will be making some serious calculations. In previous elections, council candidates faced the high cost of a city-wide campaign. This time, the overall campaigning cost of running for an AISD seat versus that of running for a council seat in one of the new single-member districts will be much more comparable. And a council member earns more than $60,000 a year; AISD trustees are unpaid. This could explain why former AISD board president Mark Williams – who stood down in 2012 – is contemplating a mayoral run, and there is already buzz that District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias may run for Council in 2016 or 2018.
It's not just about the money. Education remains a politically and emotionally charged issue in Texas, and there will inevitably be resources for any serious candidate. Both Education Austin and the pro-administration Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce have historically recruited and backed candidates, and will undoubtedly do so again in this cycle. Moreover, Austin Kids First – the "education reform" PAC that threw over $30,000 at pro-Carstarphen candidates during the last board elections ("We're All About the ... Kids!" Oct. 19, 2012) – sat on a $50,000 war chest at the end of the last reporting cycle.
Yet trustee elections are not the only votes the board is worried about. AISD has prevaricated on a tax rollback election – required before the district can raise the property tax rate – every year since 2008. Even after years of cuts, the district has been forced to dip into its savings, and there is a consensus that this can't continue. However, with so many candidates in other races (both conservative and progressive) inevitably running on anti-property tax platforms, plus the city's transportation bonds and Austin Community College construction bonds likely on the ballot, Torres said he fears that taking a TRE to the polls in November is "pretty much suicide."