Education Doesn't Pay
Wanted: Educational Services Rescinder. Formerly wealthy school district seeking motivated individuals to repossess playscapes, books, and extracurricular activities from schoolchildren. Must love children. Ability to work under bombardment of slings and arrows expected. No compensation. Only serious applicants with dozens of other opportunities need apply.
Candidates vying for seats on the board of the Austin Independent School District may pepper their talk with promises to "restore public confidence" in a district foundering in disorganization, but the duties the winners inherit won't likely feel heroic. With AISD facing a budget shortfall of $55 million this year, massive spending cuts are unavoidable -- and many of them won't just be trimming fat. Superintendent Pat Forgione has already set torches ablaze by decreeing an end to block class schedules, projected to eliminate over 190 staff positions. And the state comptroller's audit of the district, expected to be released next week, could recommend school closures. The district's financial obligations, meanwhile, promise to get even heavier over the next two years, perhaps forcing another tax increase, following on the heels of last year's hike.
Not surprisingly, the field of contenders volunteering to see the district through the forthcoming conflicts is small. Also not surprisingly, most are campaigning on better financial oversight and planning.
The only candidate who has drawn big-name backers is Ingrid Taylor, a former employee in the state comptroller's Texas Performance Review office (the auditing division currently reviewing AISD), who's now an education consultant and PTA president at Casis Elementary. Taylor's campaign for the District 5 seat being vacated by Ted Whatley is well-organized and her PTA position should win her strong support. Even teachers' groups, initially skeptical of Taylor's stance against new taxes, and fearful that she favored privatizing school services, have been won over by her budgeting and planning expertise.
Financial hardship, Taylor says, doesn't have to mean lower standards; as a board member, she promises to prioritize savings in facilities management and administrative costs over reductions in educational programs and course offerings. "I have seen countless examples of districts that achieve better results with fewer resources," Taylor says.
Taylor's opponent, Albert Stowell (who withdrew from the Republican primary for state House District 48 to run for this position), is himself no softie when it comes to fiscal austerity. A residential developer who renovates apartment buildings in rundown neighborhoods, Stowell says his knack for converting neglected properties into gold is a prime qualification for the school board. But Stowell says that entrenched special interests "eating at the public-education trough" -- teachers unions, contractors, and lawyers -- will have to take a back seat to the needs of children if he's elected.
Like Taylor, Stowell, a former PTA president at Casis, believes plenty of AISD budget cuts can be made before crucial educational programs need to be touched. His enthusiastic support for Forgione's recent decision to do away with block scheduling, however, won't make him popular with teachers.
In District 3, longtime school board aspirant Tom Arbuckle is making another run for the seat won by retiring trustee Liz Hartman in 1992. Arbuckle, a former member of the Chamber of Commerce education committee who owns a property-management business, is known as a tough-minded conservative who questions the worthiness of many popular tenets of modern education. "This district has a history of introducing educational programs and then discarding those two or three years down the road without proper evaluation," he says. Principals need to be given more time and latitude to improve their campuses, he adds, and the district's administrative costs should be thoroughly reviewed before other budget cuts are made. School closures are "inevitable," Arbuckle says, adding that if elected he wouldn't vote for a tax increase or additional bond construction.
Arbuckle's opponent, Johna Edwards, has won the endorsement of teachers groups and will likely appeal to parents anxious about the future of high-level academics and magnet schools. A dogged optimist, Edwards says she's keeping her mind open to all options, placing her faith in the capacity of citizens' groups to research the best course of action. But, she adds, school closures are certainly not out of the question. Edwards gained considerable name recognition through her tenure as president of the Austin City Council of PTAs from 1998-99, but her single term was marred by the passage of a controversial no-confidence resolution against AISD administration that PTA members later said they did not agree with. Edwards says the resolution was only meant to get PTA members talking about how they could more effectively contribute to districtwide improvements.
District 2 incumbent Rudy Montoya is being challenged by insurance-policy analyst and cosmetologist Wanda Rogers, a 15-year veteran of school committees whose campaign is off to a late start. Rogers, whose oldest child attended Southeast Austin schools, hopes to raise awareness of the need for more interschool mentoring and site-by-site evaluation of schools' needs. Equity issues, she says, aren't primarily a matter of money, but of community involvement and district unity. Montoya, however, is a fixture in Southeast Austin who has garnered few enemies, and isn't considered vulnerable for an upset this time around.