A Moderate Voice

Despite the four new faces joining the AISD Board of Trustees, the nine-member panel is not expected to stray from its moderate stance on most issues. And for whatever it's worth, the political makeup of the board appears to have shifted from slightly right-of-center to dead-on center as a result of last Saturday's election.

The most clear-cut evidence of such a shift lies in Northwest Austin's District 4, where Ave Wahrmund, a former teacher and owner of a semi-conductor business, edged out attorney William Newberry, who had the support of outgoing conservative Trustee Tom Agnor as well as the Northwest's "old guard" machine that had helped put Agnor and his predecessors on the AISD board. Newberry held a slight lead in the early voting results, but noted that his opponent's strong support from teachers' groups made her a formidable candidate. "This was just truly a grassroots effort," Wahrmund said of her win. "Everyone just worked their little hearts out."

Political analyst David Butts sees Wahrmund's win as especially significant given District 4's conservative bent. "She broke the stranglehold the conservatives had on the board," Butts said. "Ave Wahrmund is much more moderate, more reasonable than her predecessor."

Similarly, newcomer Patricia Whiteside, a CPA, is expected to lend a moderately progressive voice to the board, given her strong support in many of the historically liberal Central and South Central precincts. Whiteside won by 592 votes over Jeff Jack, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, in the most strident of all the school board races. Whiteside supporters, including outgoing District 6 Trustee Geoff Rips - appear to have pulled out all the stops to try and cast Jack in a negative light. Although disappointed in defeat, Jack said he was proud he never retaliated during the campaign. Even after the votes were tallied Saturday night, Jack continued to stress the need for the district to be more global in its views, and more willing to work with the city and county.

The biggest surprise of the evening was in Southwest Austin, where voters gave Olga Garza an outright win over two opponents, despite predictions that the race would end in a run-off between her and attorney Pascual Piedfort. But that wasn't the case at all. Garza got a huge margin from Circle C voters, and Piedfort came in a distant third behind financial advisor Scott Branson. When it became clear that Garza would escape a run-off, the candidate, when asked to sum up her win, shrieked: "Aaaahhh! Write that down!"

With the exception of Loretta Edelen, who was running uncontested in her District 1 re-election bid, Garza, president of the PTA at Kiker Elementary and director of special projects for the Texas Education Agency's Office of Finance and Accountability, seemed to enjoy election night more than anyone else. One of the first people to arrive at Palmer in the early evening, the candidate bubbled with nervous energy as she updated her kids and parents via a high-powered walkie-talkie throughout the night, conducted radio interviews, and joked with outgoing District 7 Trustee Melissa Knippa. "It's not too late if you want to come back," Garza said.

In the president's race, voters opted to keep the status quo, giving Kathy Rider an easy re-election over former AISD trustee Diana Castañeda. But Castañeda appeared jubilant nonetheless, saying her candidacy was about holding Rider's "feet to the fire" and forcing the incumbent to talk about issues such as individualized education plans for every student as early as kindergarten, and the need to address the needs of the district's growing low-income populations. "Sure, there's always disappointment in losing, but my bottom line was to get Kathy and the other candidates to talk about issues, and my job was accomplished. It doesn't feel like a loss," Castañeda said with a smile. Rider called the landslide an indication that voters overwhelmingly approve of the work the Board of Trustees have done over the past four years. "I want to continue that momentum," said Rider."I look forward to building a new board and addressing the challenges ahead."

Doyle Valdez also won handily in the vice president's race, beating Jennifer Gale by about a 2-1 margin. That Gale received even that many votes surprised many, given the perennial candidate's string of unsuccessful races. "When you don't know anything about [either candidate]," one political watcher noted, "voters sometimes pick which name they like better. Jennifer Gale is a nice name." But ultimately, Valdez's AISD experience, business community support, and high-profile campaign outmatched Gale's $45 effort. Gale seemed as surprised as anyone by the number of votes she received: "I didn't do anything; they just voted for me," she said, but added that she was still "heartbroken" over the loss. "In politics," she said, "if you don't win, it doesn't mean anything."

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