The Austin Chronicle

Austin ISD: Brister Exit Changes the Game

By Richard Whittaker, October 14, 2012, 11:08pm, Newsdesk

Late Wednesday afternoon, I got a phone call: There were big changes in the Austin ISD district 3 election. Briefly before the chamber of commerce forum, I got confirmation: Trustee Christine Brister was suspending her campaign, making challenger Ann Teich the heir apparent for the North-Central seat.

Speaking after her withdrawal, President Mark Williams (who is stepping down this year after eight years) said he was aware that Brister had been dealing with some health issues that were "not life-threatening but life-impacting." It was not until the day of the forum that she confirmed she was dropping out: However, as it is too late to get her name off the ballot, she is simply wrapping up her campaign.

Williams said her decision had been a difficult one, and she had not made her mind up completely because she felt she could still serve: However, the strains of the campaign were simply too great. He said, "It's more difficult to campaign for the job of trustee than to be a trustee."

However, her campaign never really started. When Brister filed her campaign finance reports last week, they showed exactly zero funds raised and zero cash spent.

Brister joined the board in 2008, with experience representing the Lanier Vertical Team on the District Advisory Council under her belt. Over the last four years, she has been noteworthy for being the member of the board least likely to make waves or public comment. She has quickly been tarred as a reliable vote for whatever it is that Superintendent Meria Carstarphen wants, and that has in part powered Teich's campaign against her.

Her departure undoubtedly shakes up the shape of the 2012 election, especially considering the forces that have been marshaling around this election. On one side is a community increasingly furious about how the board has handled Carstarphen with kid gloves, when she has inflicted black eye after black eye – the reduction in force, the facility master plan task force, the threatened closure of neighborhood schools, IDEA Allan – on the district. Her defenders, like Brister and Trustee Sam Guzman, write this off as a communications issue. However, critics like Trustee Robert Schneider have pointedly and publicly criticized Carstarphen for a lack of transparency that goes further than just PR blunders.

Frankly, the board now stand at a 6-3 divide, with Carstarphen supporters in the majority. With four seats up for grabs, that 6-3 stood at 3-2, with the leeway in play. With Teich seemingly guaranteed a win, that looks a lot more like 3-3, so expect the remaining three seats – incumbent Guzman versus Jayme Mathias in District 2, Charlie Jackson versus Amber Elenz in District 5, and the at-large fight between Gina Hinojosa and Mary Ellen Pietruszynski – to gain even more steam. Conceding that a change is coming, Williams said, "The dynamics of the board are going to change. I'm just not sure how they're going to change." He added, "It could be a pretty bumpy time over the next six to twelve months, and it all depends on how the new group comes in."

The forces of gloom and doom, especially some forces in the business community, are spreading the idea that a complete change to what they call the Education Austin slate (Hinojosa, Jackson, Mathias, and Teich) will be so destabilizing that no foundation will want to work in Austin, and we'll never hire another superintendent again. If stability on West Sixth were all that mattered, then the ill-remembered Jim Fox would still be superintendent, and the board purges that took place at the ballot box in 1998 and 2004 would have sent the district hurtling over a cliff. Moreover, unlike the whisper campaign, none of the candidates are calling for Carstarphen's head or the immediate suspension of the IDEA Allan contract. So here's the question: Why are so many big-name and back-room Carstarphen backers so panicked right about now?

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