With filing for the November election imminent, AISD's board of trustees has vacancies, and it has candidates. Unfortunately, they're not in the same seats.
Voters will select candidates in five AISD seats this fall: District 1 in Northeast Austin, District 4 in the northwest, District 6 in the southeast, the sprawling District 7, covering most of southwest Travis County, and the Position 9 at-large seat. However, three of those seats will be vacant, as the incumbents step down.
Cheryl Bradley (District 1) has made it clear to her fellow trustees that, after three terms, she will not run again. Historically one of the most unapologetically confrontational trustees, in her recent appearances at board meetings, she's had a clear case of senioritis, causing board President Vince Torres (District 4) to intervene when she has gotten into shouting matches with members of the audience. Then Torres, in a surprise June 26 announcement, formally declared that he will not be running again. He wrote, "Instead of campaigning and being distracted by the politics of a trustee election, in the time I have remaining on the Board I have decided to focus my efforts on selecting the best superintendent possible for AISD."
The bigger surprise came five days later, when Lori Moya (District 6) also announced her exit. This was a surprise, since in May she indicated she was leaning toward running for re-election. She had already drawn one potential challenger, PR consultant and education advocate Paul Saldaña, which led to some uncomfortable internecine squabbling among the Hispanic political establishment. Saldaña is seen as the political acolyte of former mayor Gus Garcia, while Moya is the daughter of Garcia's longtime ally, former county commissioner Richard Moya. If Saldaña does indeed run, and no other challenger appears, he could walk straight on to the board.
Former board president Mark Williams understands why all three incumbents, two of whom have served two four-year terms – Bradley has served three – would stand down at once. "Eight years is a long time. If it was two more years, you might say, 'I could do this,' but four? Oh my god."
That still leaves two other seats, and Tamala Barksdale (At-Large Position 9) has yet to make any statement about her future plans. However, one incumbent wants to stick around. Confirming what he told the Chronicle in June, Robert Schneider is looking for a fourth term representing District 7. A retired UT researcher specializing in massive parallel computing, and a board member of the Texas Association of School Boards, he called this election cycle "a time of unprecedented opportunity for AISD." Laying out the challenges facing trustees, he wrote, "In the coming months the board will approve a FY 2014-15 budget, hire a new superintendent, and work through school finance challenges from statewide recapture." However, he is not alone in wanting to make those decisions; he has already drawn two challengers. Yasmin Wagner is a creative director at computing firm AMD, a board member of YWCA of Greater Austin, and has served as a representative on the Austin Council of Parent Teacher Associations and a member of the district's Boundary Advisory Committee. She'll also face Realtor and former teacher Theresa Bastian, who has her own PTA background, having served until recently as Gorzycki Middle School PTA president.
Even with that three-way fight, that leaves three empty seats, and with Barksdale undecided, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said, "We could be looking at four." So far, Saldaña is the only person to express even potential interest: However, Zarifis was confident that there will be a competitive slate come Nov. 4: "There's a lot of attention on City Council, but Austin cares deeply about its schools." With filing opening on July 18, he said, "There's ample time for folks to step forward, to get them vetted and find the right candidates."
However, the recent announcements have undoubtedly changed the electoral politics. While Moya faced a tough battle, Torres seemed secure. Moreover, Barksdale's popularity – plus the added expense of running districtwide – was enough to put off most challengers, but until she formally declares, she could spur a new race. Now slates change, as advocacy groups try to recruit candidates for previously safe seats. Williams himself will be part of a Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce public forum, scheduled for late July, intended to educate potential candidates on "what it takes to be on the board, rules and responsibilities," he said. "It's more about good governance and less about specific issues."
What's really interesting, though, is not just the number of empty seats, but how the outgoing incumbents have voted. Bradley and Moya were consistent supporters of former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen's education reform agenda of charters and single-sex schools, while Torres – who initially was one of Carstarphen's toughest and most open critics on the board – increasingly backed her positions. Their exit could result in radical policy changes. Zarifis describes this election cycle as carrying the potential for "a turning point, not unlike City Council." He said, "I think this is an opportunity to get a board that is more reflective of Austin values when it comes to public education."
However, there is also likely to be pushback from groups less friendly to Education Austin's positions. Well-funded pro-reform PAC Austin Kids First, which first made its mark in the 2012 AISD elections, is actively recruiting what it calls "superheroes" to run for AISD seats. Echoing Zarifis' description of the election as "a watershed," the group's website says that "we believe a new generation of superheroes will emerge to put us back on the right track."
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