Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Tales Told Out of School: Why Gus Garcia is running against Austin ISD

Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Illustration By Doug Potter

We've often mentioned that Kirk Watson is the first mayor to do thus-and-so (like, say, resign to seek higher office) since Carole Keeton McClellan (now Rylander). But Gus Garcia, should he be elected on Tuesday, also shares a link to Madam Comptroller: Like Carole and no mayor since, he is a former president of the school board. (In fact, he became president when One Tough Grandma resigned that gig to run for mayor.)

So when Garcia mouths off about the sorry state of Austin's schools, he is speaking from some authority, even though his school board service was 20 years ago. In the intervening two decades, he says, "The district has gone from majority to minority" -- that is, the student body is now predominantly non-white -- "but we've had 20 years to address that issue, and ... Austin is doing the worst job educating kids of any major urban district in Texas. There's really no excuse for that."

Garcia defined the rules of engagement two weeks ago, when he claimed Austin has five low-performing high schools ("Naked City: Garcia Rates AISD 'Unacceptable,'" Oct. 19). As "low performing" is used by the Texas Education Agency, we in fact only have two. But rather than stand corrected, Garcia stood by his assessment ("Gus Fires Again," Oct. 26) and still does, citing the statewide report of Just for the Kids ( that placed Austin behind Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and even Dallas -- where DISD has been through repeated management meltdowns. He also notes the current Texas Monthly ranking (based on the same report) of every school in Texas, where "all our schools are deficient. And there are schools at the top that are heavily minority."

This special election has shaped up not as a dialogue but as a Garcia monologue on Austin's future, and after passing comments early on about Smart Growth, tax breaks, and (after Sept. 11) public safety, Gus has made AISD the text of his sermon, delivered with blistering bluntness that clearly caught AISD President Kathy Rider and Superintendent Pat Forgione off guard. "I'm putting this at the feet of the school board president and the superintendent," he says. "And the real responsibility is with the board. I told Kathy that they haven't spoken out clearly in their policies what they want to do, so the city and community can get behind the district.

"The district needs to tell the community that we do have a big challenge in front of us, and then use the best resources we have and can bring in," Garcia continues. "But the response we get from the district is 'We're improving, and we don't want any criticism because it demoralizes teachers.' We know it's not the teachers' fault. But it's critically important that this most important institution in the city educate our students well. Otherwise, we'll have a major urban ghetto in 20 years."

That is, if we don't already have one.

Duck and Cover

In a city preoccupied with public safety, social equity, and economic competitiveness, Garcia or any other mayor-apparent would be derelict if he didn't pay attention to the public schools. But the "I" -- "independent" -- in "ISD" is there for a reason; we do not live in New York or Boston, where the schools are a city department, and in much of Texas -- though apparently not here -- the school board enjoys more public support than any city council. (Don't try this in Eanes ISD, kids.)

Kirk Watson has been, in the view of the district, more than ordinarily supportive of the schools; on Nov. 6, the AISD board will pass a resolution honoring him. But the prospect of a mayor criticizing the schools from City Hall is about as welcome at 1111 West Sixth as an anthrax-gram. It's especially piquant for Forgione, who Garcia (and not only Garcia) has tagged as a statistician (he came to Austin from the U.S. Dept. of Education) who's been away from the classroom too long.

For the record, although we are told that AISD has communicated privately with Garcia in recent days, Rider, Forgione et al. are reluctant to take him on in public. The Chronicle's request for comment on the dispute has been politely declined.

Now, Garcia was one of the co-chairs of Watson's special task force to help AISD find a new superintendent (after the first candidate to replace the hated-and-fired Jim Fox spurned the district), whence came Forgione. Even that level of city involvement in AISD affairs was welcomed by the district with the praise fire ants get at a picnic, but district folks at least thought Forgione had passed muster with both Garcia and City Hall.

Apparently not.

Bully the Pulpit

And what of it? Even with the short life expectancy of urban school chiefs, given the pain and embarrassment Rider and Company went through last time they needed to hire one, it would likely take serious scandal and outrage to force Forgione out before Garcia's term ends in 2003. By which time citizens would be heartily tired of a pissing match between City Hall and AISD headquarters, if it amounted to naught but ill will.

But Garcia has a goal in mind: Tough love. "The time is right ... to use whatever influence the mayor's office has to spotlight the issue," he says. "Solutions always begin with acknowledgment -- 'Yes, we have a problem, but we are going to solve it, and this is what we need to do.' We haven't got the acknowledgment yet, and -- if I'm elected -- the pressure will keep up from the mayor's office."

The Kirk Watch

At this point, Kirk Watson can’t tie his shoes without cynical observers (what, us?) wondering how the action will help him troll for donations to his attorney general campaign. Consider the mayor’s bullheaded support of well-endowed Hyde Park Baptist church against the Hyde Park neighbors who helped make him Hizzoner in the first place. Do rich Catholics also get the nod? If not, why was Kirk so clearly bitter that the Seton/Brackenridge deal fell apart on his watch?

Watson’s council colleagues, the Brackenridge Hospital Oversight Council, citizens, and public health advocates, and even Seton’s own management all knew that the Catholic hospital’s refusal to provide reproductive health services opened up an industrial-size can of worms that would take a long time to close. Yet staff raced headlong into a deal that was clearly supposed to settle the matter before Kirk left office – and then had to explain the whole mess to annoyed voters on both the left and the right.

All was well until Seton acknowledged that it couldn’t and wouldn’t provide emergency contraception for rape victims who showed up at the Brack ER. That took with it Seton’s – and Watson’s – last, best hope to dispense with the heathen health-care problem without re-opening its entire contract to run the city-owned public hospital. Without Kirk around, look for his nemesis Beverly Griffith to push hard to do exactly that.

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Kirk Watson, Carole Keeton McClellan Rylander, Gus Garcia, Austin Independent School District, Texas Education Agency, AISD, Just for the Kids, Texas Monthly, Kathy Rider, Pat Forgione, Hyde Park Baptist Church, Seton Health Care Network, Brackenridge Hospital, Bracke

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