Accepting the Challenge
School Board Candidates Address the Future of AISD
An enormous job indeed -- one that thrusts the nine members of the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees into the unenviable position of having to answer to seemingly everyone for seemingly everything even remotely related to education in Austin. The job demands an enormous amount of time, energy, and dedication -- all without the benefit of a paycheck. Even folks who have often crossed swords with the board -- like EA's Malfaro, who heads the city's largest teachers' organization, and the Rev. Sterling Lands II of the Eastside Social Action Coalition -- consider the job of school board trustee the peak of volunteerism.
Over the past decade, the AISD board has taken quite a bit of heat. They've weathered a TAAS test scandal, criticisms over underestimated bonds that cost taxpayers far more than promised, mayoral intrusion into the search for a new superintendent, high dropout rates, and battles over the future of the district's magnet schools -- to name only a few of the recent crises.
Then, in October of 2001 came a report from the Texas educational foundation Just for the Kids: a comparative analysis of schools and districts based on their relative success in meeting or surpassing the standards of the TAAS test (the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills). Judging the district's record of educating minority and low-income students, JFTK awarded AISD the dubious distinction of ranking dead last among the 40 Texas school districts studied. The report amplified the anger of groups like ESAC, which argues that the district is failing miserably in its educational mandate.
The trustees also face the dilemma of a booming area economy, marked by rapid growth and increased real estate values but carrying the consequence of the district having to return nearly $167 million to the state next year, under "Chapter 41" provisions (also known as the "Robin Hood" law). The law requires that a "property wealthy" district -- as Austin is defined under the law -- must return monies to the state for redistribution among poorer districts. Unfortunately, the law does not take into account district demographics, such as AISD's, where approximately 52% of district students are low-income. There are certainly "poorer" districts -- but the effect of the funds transfer is to leave already strapped AISD with even fewer resources.
With all these issues on the district's agenda, voters will cast ballots May 4 to fill six of the board's nine seats. Three incumbents are stepping down: Kathy Rider, who has served as the board's president for 10 years; Loretta Edelen, whose District 1 seat covers much of East Austin, the geographical focus of debate over minority student achievement; and Olga Garza, who represents the fast-growing southwest. (The voters will no longer select the president directly: He or she will be elected by the trustees from their elected membership.) Three other incumbents have challengers, and district watchers see this election as a potential turning point for Austin schools.
With these thoughts in mind, the Chronicle asked each candidate to consider the future of AISD. Will a prospective changing-of-the-guard serve up new ways of thinking, or more of the same?
Cheryl Bradley (unopposed)
Bradley, mother of two LBJ high school students, has been volunteering with the district since her kids were in elementary school. She was president of the Pearce Middle School PTA, a vice-president with the Austin Council of PTAs, and is a near fixture at the district's board meetings. To Bradley, the major issues facing the board are nothing new: tightening the budget and closing the performance gap for minority students. Bradley said that when she heard that eight-year board veteran Loretta Edelen would be retiring, she decided to run in an effort to keep moving forward with initiatives started by Edelen. "[Edelen's] been a real stickler on closing the performance gap," Bradley said. "She finally got the district to acknowledge that they have not been successful at educating children of color."
"These are the same issues that we've been fighting for since our kids were in elementary school," she said. "They are the same issues that we are fighting today." Bradley believes the district needs to do a better job of defining "high expectations" for all dis--trict students, and then ensure that the expectations are translated to the classroom, where a standard accountability "rubric" should make it easier to chart student performance on a daily basis. "There needs to be a sense of urgency in the classroom," she said. Bradley says one of her priorities is to raise teacher salaries and provide a mentor teacher for each school. "They're very underpaid, that's one thing that gets to me," she said. "Our expectations for teachers do not cease, we still expect them to give us the moon -- but we don't pay them for our expectations."
While Bradley doesn't want to make any promises about exactly how she would trim the district's budget, she doesn't want instruction to suffer. "People are not going to say, okay, since we have to give an extra $25 million to the state [should the district lose its appeal of its assessment under Chapter 41], then we'll just have to cut programs," she said. "People are not going to go for that. There is going to have to be some community organizing to actually push the Legislature to look at that law."
Wahrmund is the incumbent in District 4 (Northwest Austin), a seat she won in 1998. Wahrmund worked as a teacher for 12 years, five with AISD, before leaving teaching and becoming active in her two kids' middle- and high-school PTAs. Wahrmund said she believes that with Chapter 41 threatening to take a big bite out of the district's budget, her experience on the board will be an asset, "because of the complexity of the issues. It's a whole lot to learn. And, in terms of the budget, we're going to have to watch every dollar we spend." Wahrmund said that she encourages community input, including criticism, to help make the district stronger. "I believe that we all own these schools -- the whole community," she said. "When people are a part of their community, and the solution, then we all win."
Wahrmund said she believes the district should provide a stronger support system for novice teachers and needs to attract more experienced teachers into Austin's low-performing schools, while recruiting quality principals to provide clear and communicative leadership. "Then the really good teachers will follow," she said. "The teachers know who the strong leaders are." Further, Wahrmund said, Austin needs to be looking at other districts with similar demographics that ranked high in the Just for the Kids study, and bring those "best practices" back home.
Wahrmund said she knows administrative support for each campus is needed, but the trustees need to make sure that support is cost-effective. "We have to make sure that whatever is being spent [downtown] is serving the campuses and not just staying downtown."
Wahrmund is opposed by Darlene Yañez, also a former teacher, who has worked for both the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Dept. of Commerce. She is now employed by UT's Charles A. Dana Center for educational research, where she has been for the past six years, and serves as the program coordinator for the "AP equity" program, which seeks to open access to advanced placement classes for all students. "The philosophy here," she said, "is that if AP is the example of rigor, then all curriculum should be held to that standard and all students should be prepared to make it to that level." Yañez said she would bring her professional experience to the board to provide strong advocacy for kids, and would focus on improving the performance of all students.
"We need to do whatever it takes," she said. "Look what we have here at Austin ISD. We have 106 campuses and only 14 that are exemplary -- and none of those are high schools; none of those are middle schools. To me that is a concern." Looking toward the forthcoming Texas Academic Knowledge & Skills test (a more difficult test scheduled to replace the TAAS), Yañez is concerned about how students at the district's 60 schools that are ranked "acceptable" -- not to mention those at the low-performing schools -- are going to fare. "That's a red flag," she said.
Yañez said that her professional experience, at both the state and national level, affords her the perspective and knowledge to understand what works and doesn't work when implementing curriculum and interpreting accountability data. In terms of budgetary concerns, she said, the board will need to look at the success of various programs and assess where to make cuts. "We have no program attrition," she said. "That's one of the things I've seen across the state and the county. We don't want, necessarily, an intervention that once there, is there forever." And she believes the board needs to understand how to use research data to make decisions about instruction. "We've got to start using data to guide instruction," she said. "There's no shame in doing what you need to do. There is shame in doing things the same way over and over and expecting a difference."
Whiteside, a CPA by trade, and the board's central south representative since 1998, says budgetary concerns are going to be the number one issue facing the new board. With the prospect of having to pay the state $167 million under Chapter 41, she said, the board will probably have to raise taxes -- probably to the cap of $1.50 for every $100 of assessed property value. "People are going to be unhappy," she said. "I just hope we can get these people to go talk to the Legislature about it. Right now, taking [money] from Austin isn't taking from the wealthy. ... You're taking from our poor kids, too." Whiteside said the board may have to explore possible partnerships with both the city and the county to help defray costs for some things -- like after-school programs -- for which the district currently pays the lion's share. "I don't know if the education world is maybe just not good at saying, 'Hey, we need some help over here,'" she said. "If we collaborate, we can pool resources."
Whiteside also said that she would like to see the expansion within AISD of programs like the Institute for Learning, developed at the University of Pittsburgh, which teaches teachers to have high expectations for all kids and then to translate those expectations into the classroom. "This helps the teachers teach, and the kids see and pattern their work after the good stuff," she said. Nonetheless, Whiteside does think that cultural differences need to be taken into account when talking about educational inequity. "It's an issue of knowing how different cultures mesh with educational goals," she said. "We need to identify what it is that keeps [some] kids from learning."
Whiteside will face Manuel Zuniga, a business owner who has made two unsuccessful runs for City Council, and says he has the business sense necessary to craft and implement a tight budget. "The school district is not a business; nevertheless, I have started a couple of businesses that have done quite well," he said. "I know how to design a budget and how to impose the discipline to impose [it]." At the same time, he said, Austin's teachers deserve a raise, and Zuniga supports building affordable housing for district teachers. "Maybe we could make deals in advance with home builders in new subdivisions where a percentage [of homes] would be set aside for teachers and, say, also public safety [employees]," he said. "I've talked to some homebuilders about that as a possibility and they seem to like it." Zuniga believes the district should pursue the possibility of building affordable housing on land already owned by the city, like at the old Mueller airport site.
Zuniga thinks the district needs to cut out many costs that are not directly associated with curriculum. "A lot of these programs are just packages to be sold," he said. "They come in pretty colors, wrapped in cellophane, and then we move on to the next pretty package. I would like to see education based on things like instruction." He said he also believes compensation packages for the district's superintendent, area superintendents, and principals should be based on specific campus-based academic goals.
To Donald Abrams, who is running for the District 7 seat being vacated by Olga Garza, the future of Austin's schools is about business -- running the district more like a business, that is. Abrams is a physician's assistant by training who has volunteered with the district for nearly 14 years, as a member of the Bowie High School sports medicine staff and as member of the Kiker Elementary School Campus Advisory Council as well as the District Advisory Council. The board, he said, needs to be more business-minded, an approach that he said will ensure that taxpayers get more value for their dollar. Although he doesn't have any children, Abrams said he sees the failings of the district's "product" everyday. "As a small business owner it is hard to get good employees, especially at the entry level," he said. "When potential employees come in, they are given a basic skills test -- math acuity and things like that. I am shocked at how many people can't do it."
To Abrams the answer is not only in establishing higher expectations for all district students, but also in placing fiscal responsibility for achieving those goals upon the district's "vertical teams." He believes that the vertical teams -- made up of a neighborhood's feeder schools, elementary to middle to high -- are the place to put the district's cash. "Because what works at Anderson High in the northwest area of the city may not work in the southwest area, may not work in the east," he said. "The decisions about how to meet the needs of the students in those various schools is best made through those vertical teams. A corporation, a monolith, shouldn't be deciding that this is the solution for the whole district."
Abrams thinks the district might consider cutting administrative fat downtown by retaining some employees on a contract basis -- to be determined by the needs of each school. "One of the things I've toyed with, I'd say, okay, we've got all this administrative fat sitting downtown with all these Ph.D.'s. I'd say each vertical team gets the money divided between them," he said. "Then, if they need those resources, they can contract directly with those people. There are special parts of the administration that have higher needs within a vertical team."
Abrams will face Robert Schneider, a computer systems development specialist in UT's Dept. of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, who has four children in AISD. Like Abrams, Schneider has been active on his schools' Campus Advisory Councils as well as the District Advisory Council. He has also been a member of the district's budget committee, calendar committee, the recent health and safety bond committee, and is currently serving on the Quality Teaching and Rigorous Learning Task Force.
Schneider believes the two biggest issues facing the board are the district's Chapter 41 status and improving performance, especially at Austin's low-performing campuses. "We've got to look for ways to improve teaching across the district," he said, and to raise expectations for both teachers and students. Low expectations are "definitely part of why we're having some of the problems we've got." Schneider believes the district has to come up with some incentives for teachers not only to go to low-performing schools, but also to stay there. And, he said, he'd like to see a higher standard of accountability for both faculty and administration at low-performing schools. Some schools have remained low-performing for multiple years, a situation that is not acceptable. "For example, for three years now we have had problems in one of our schools with a certain ethnic group that is not doing well with reading and writing," he said. "What's up with that? We need to actively look at what is going on and what resources we can bring to bear on that problem. This needs to be addressed in one or two years, not after two or three."
To address a shrinking budget, he said, the board must be willing to discuss the sale of underutilized properties, and to take a look at what other districts have done to counteract the effects of Chapter 41 -- such as, for example, a city-developed special sales tax that funds local schools.
Schneider also would like to work with the entire city to find ways to ease school overcrowding in southwest Austin. "We would like to be able to work ... to locate facilities for our overcrowded schools in an environmentally sensitive fashion," he said. "Nothing that works as a growth magnet, but something that provides relief for the people already living there."
District 8, At-Large
Doyle Valdez (unopposed)
Current Board Vice-President Valdez won his at-large seat in 1998. Like his fellow candidates, Valdez said he believes that student achievement and budgetary concerns top the list of important AISD issues. As such, he said, a priority in the next budget cycle will be to scrutinize the successes of the district's various programs. "How are we going to facilitate raising the bar for all of our students?" he asked. "Something that might've worked five years ago may not be working today, and something that just started last year [may be working very well]." For example, Valdez points to a new program put in place last year at McCallum High. The program teaches good study habits and note-taking skills, and then applies them to other class work, he said. "It's new, but it has already proven itself."
Further, Valdez said, the board needs to continue to develop partnerships with the city and county to explore funding opportunities for programs that effect the entire community. This past year, he served on a committee with both Pat Whiteside and Kathy Rider that was designed to explore these kinds of partnership opportunities. "It is a chance to see what we are doing on issues that effect both of us," he said. For example, "dropouts are not just AISD's problem. It's a city and a county problem too." So the district has hammered out a partnership with the county to help combat truancy. "It's been a true team effort," he said.
Valdez said the district also needs to look at other districts, to see what kinds of programs have been successful in raising student achievement. "There are schools in this state that are 85% free- and reduced-lunch [i.e., low-income] and they're 'recognized' [schools]. What are they doing? We don't need to reinvent the wheel here." As part of this, he said, the board recently entered into an inter-local agreement with UT to study the district's low-performing schools and to make recommendations to the board. As part of that effort, he would like to see the district beef up its teacher mentoring programs and expand its effort to ensure that each school has effective leaders that will "advance [achievement] forward."
Finally, Valdez said, the board needs to better communicate with the community. "This is going to be a priority of mine," he said. "We need to communicate better what we are doing and why we are doing it."
District 9, At-Large
John Fitzpatrick (unopposed)
To John Fitzpatrick, running for the at-large seat being vacated by Kathy Rider is a natural extension of the kind of educational work he's been doing for the past 15 years. Fitzpatrick spent a year teaching eighth-grade English and history classes in Long Island and is currently the executive director of the Capitol Area Training Foundation, and vice-president of workforce development at the Chamber of Commerce. He said that he believes all children need to be prepared for and encouraged to continue their education past high school. "We have to push all kids" to go on to some form of post-secondary education or training, he said. "You just can't get a good job without it." Fitzgerald wants to sponsor a "school drive" that would create an endowed scholarship fund for district kids, and would provide tuition and expenses for two years of school for any kid who graduates within the top 50% of the class, or who passes the TASP test -- the college entrance exam. "Create it the same way like creating a chair at the University of Texas," he said.
Fitzpatrick also would like to see the business community more involved in the district's schools, and believes his connection to that community could help it happen. "The business community is just not sure how to get involved," he said. He points to the success of the two community technical schools at Travis and Austin High -- which are open in the evening for the larger community -- as positive examples of business partnerships. "Caring for ... public education makes good business sense," he said.
Fitzpatrick agrees that there need to be higher standards and expectations for all students. "We need to be honest about what our challenges are," he said. "The tide is just not lifting all of our students." He'd like to see the district devote extra resources to be able to recruit, compensate, and retain high quality teachers and administrators. And he thinks the district needs to do a better job at recruiting minority teachers and principals. "We need to hold onto and develop that talent in our principals," he said, "especially African-Americans and Hispanics. We need to have a faculty that looks like the population they are serving." n