Chronicle Endorsements, May 4 election
Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees
With three unopposed candidates having already assumed positions on the AISD Board of Trustees, three seats remain contested for this election: Districts 4, 6, and 7. Based on our review of their positions and experience, the Chronicle makes the following endorsements for the AISD Board:
The District 4 race boasts two strong candidates. Incumbent Ave Wahrmund is emphasizing continuity in district leadership, and points to her four years on the board as ones in which AISD management and practices have been stabilized and improved after several years of chaotic and quite arbitrary leadership. These are indeed real achievements, and the district finally appears to be headed in the right direction overall, if at a disappointingly slow pace.
District 4 (Northwest): Darlene Yañez
However, the strength of Yañez's candidacy is her own professional experience in solving precisely the kinds of problems the board expects to face in the next few years: adapting to rising statewide standards in curriculum and accountability, and seeing to it that those standards are effectively installed and applied across a very diverse district with a wide range of neighborhoods and schools. Through her work at UT's Dana Center, Yañez has been actively engaged in working with Texas school districts to ensure that all students can meet the rigorous standards of advanced placement courses designed for college preparation -- a challenge that AISD still needs to meet. We believe that Yañez has the specific professional experience the AISD board sorely needs to hold the administration accountable, and to help re-establish what she calls "coherence and unity of purpose" in district programs.
Both candidates in District 6 emphasize the tight AISD budget, and the pragmatic necessity of the district living within its means. But they also diverge at the same point: Whiteside acknowledges the larger financial bind created by the state's inadequate school finance system, while Manuel Zuniga talks of "budget discipline" as though the local district can address its problems in a vacuum distinct from the state's public school finance policy. Zuniga has an excellent record as a philanthropist and school advocate, and his ideas about developing affordable housing for schoolteachers as an incentive for service bears serious consideration by the board. But we remain skeptical that AISD's budgetary difficulties can be addressed by "businesslike" solutions, and believe Whiteside's more frank approach -- raising the property tax rate while exploring regional and statewide solutions to school finance policy -- is both more realistic and more likely to succeed over the long term.
District 6 (South Central): Pat Whiteside
Both candidates here have extensive volunteer experience in the schools, a virtual prerequisite for the even heavier voluntary service on the board itself. Businessman Donald Abrams believes his role as a sort of "outsider" -- with no children in district schools -- would allow him to be an impartial advocate for taxpayers and businesses to get "more value" for their dollars. UT computer systems specialist Robert Schneider, on the other hand, has four children in AISD schools, and his service ranges from Campus Advisory Councils to numerous district committees and current duty on the Quality Teaching and Rigorous Learning Task Force.
District 7 (Southwest): Robert Schneider
Abrams emphasizes business-oriented approaches, including top-down management accountability, as well as allowing individual "vertical teams" to establish the best curriculum approaches for particular neighborhood schools. Schneider says his district-wide experience suggests that a system-wide approach -- in which all schools and all students are expected to meet precisely articulated standards -- is more likely to succeed in AISD, and encourage the low-performing schools to move forward while holding the bar high at those schools already succeeding.
We believe AISD -- at long last -- is indeed trying to establish strong, district-wide standards and clear goals, to gather all the schools together in a common effort, and that Schneider's broad experience and approach will be a better fit for that crucial work in progress.
Austin Community College Board of Trustees
There are currently three seats open on the nine-member ACC Board of Trustees. Based on our review of the positions and experience of each candidate, the Chronicle makes the following endorsements:
Having served the last six years as a trustee, incumbent Lillian Davis knows the details of ACC board policy quite well. She is educated on the issues and has a plan for ACC's future. Unfortunately, her plan for the future cannot erase the last few months. The college community will not soon forget this year's budget crisis, nor the central role that Davis, as board chair, played in it. Her disregard for the ideals of the college is typified by her decision last month to cast the final vote in favor of a tuition increase. While she acknowledges problems in the current administration's "style" -- especially that of President Richard Fonté -- she may not recognize that there are serious problems of substance as well. As ACC tries to rebuild public confidence and eventually secure additional funding over the next few years, community and cohesiveness at the college will be essential. We fear that Lillian Davis' continued presence on the board threatens these goals.
Place 1: Larry Craighead
Larry Craighead is a chiropractor and former ACC student, with experience on several community boards, and has been endorsed by faculty and staff groups whose support the board must regain. He has set forth a clear program for restoring community support for the college, for improving employee safety and confidence, and creating a single pay scale for teachers. We believe Craighead's commitment to fiscal responsibility and employee morale will help him earn the support of the larger community, and he will come to the board independent of the current management crisis.
This one is a tough call. All three candidates boast impressive qualifications: Paul Sherr as a college counselor and community activist, John Hernandez as a financial auditor with extensive nonprofit board experience, and Buckley as a teacher and researcher. They also share the same basic approach to ACC policy: restoring student and faculty confidence, developing more democratic governance, and seeking additional funding. We believe any one of these candidates would be an asset to ACC's board.
Place 2: Caleb Buckley
In our opinion, however, Buckley's several years of experience as an adjunct professor at ACC give him an intimate understanding of the college that the other candidates lack -- and that a clear picture of day-to-day life at ACC would help the board to make good decisions about the school's future. Also, we believe that Buckley could help bridge the gap between the board and a faculty which has consistently complained that its voice is not being heard.
Paul Geary wants to improve budget scrutiny on the board, and proposes asset sales and privatization of services as alternatives to raising taxes; but he's the only candidate running for any of the seats who believes such a strategy is sufficient to sustain ACC over the long haul. Nan McRaven, a communications and public affairs executive at Motorola, emphasizes communications as the key to restoring the board's credibility, as well as better financial management and increased funding, but she is not specific about how these things should be done.
Place 3: James McGuffee
James McGuffee's enthusiasm for ACC and his past experience as a teacher and an administrator at the college make him stand out. His understanding of the issues facing the board seems more fully developed than that of other candidates, and he has a well-considered plan of action: reforming board policy for shared governance; expanding the tax base with new school districts; steadily working toward an equitable pay and benefits policy for both full- and part-time faculty; and restoring community confidence in the board and the college before asking voters for a tax increase.
Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District
The little-known conservation district -- the regulatory authority charged with protecting the aquifer that feeds Barton Springs -- is managed by a board of directors, with five members elected to serve staggered four-year terms. This year, two precinct seats are up for grabs, and two incumbents have each drawn an opponent. Voters south of Town Lake and west of Manchaca Road will decide the Pct. 5 election, while far south Travis County voters (and a sliver of northern Hays) will pick the Pct. 2 winner.
See "Naked City," p.15 for more on the BSEACD races.)
There was nothing agonizing about this decision, given Smith's record in his first four-year term, and his ability to say "No" to unreasonable requests to pump colossal amounts of water from the Edwards Aquifer. As a former president of the Save Barton Springs Association, Smith was elected to the board with an environmental record already in place. He has further demonstrated his commitment to water quality and availability issues during his tenure as board president. His performance deserves an encore.
Pct. 5 (Southwest): Craig Smith
A newcomer to the political arena, Carpenter is running to unseat 12-year incumbent Don Turner. Carpenter's credentials -- he has degrees in biomechanics and environmental health, and professional experience in environmental safety programs -- would be an asset to other board members, particularly when making decisions based on scientific data. Turner's votes on the board have consistently leaned toward the big water suppliers angling to provide service to expansive new developments. Carpenter is of a different mindset, saying he is more interested in maintaining conservation measures to ensure water availability for existing users. Carpenter sounds like a winner to us.
Pct. 2 (far South): David R. Carpenter
Endorsements are condensed from the April 19 issue. For the full versions, consult our Web site at austinchronicle.com.
City of Austin
The Austin City Council really does only two things: It spends money, and it manages growth. From our perspective, the city is still way behind the curve on both fronts. We need to do better.
So why endorse the three incumbents -- Daryl Slusher, Jackie Goodman, and Beverly Griffith? Well, one reason is that we're not convinced any of their challengers would do any better, and we're firmly convinced that most of them would not. Now, with a groaning city budget deficit and the post-boom hangover not getting any better, is not the time to turn the city over to challengers who'll need on-the-job training. On the other hand, we don't think the citizens can afford to re-elect Slusher, Goodman, and Griffith and say "Y'all do your best," and pay no further attention until the next campaign.
So we endorse the incumbents with every intention of riding herd on them for the next three years like never before, and we encourage all Austinites to do the same. Really, Daryl, Jackie, and Beverly, you only have to do two things. Spend money wisely, and manage growth effectively. We can afford to give you one more chance.
Place 1: Daryl Slusher
Place 3: Jackie Goodman The best alternative to Slusher in the race is Kirk Mitchell, who we feel is (a) a single-issue candidate and (b) a showboater. But Mitchell would be a better council member than Linda Curtis, Goodman's most formidable challenger, who herself says she has no real problem with Jackie. Given the choices, it's a pretty easy call.
Here we have not one but two challengers -- Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken -- who would make decent council members. But we don't think Griffith's stubborn defense of her values and constituents at the cost of "consensus" is entirely a bad thing, and we can't say we have a big problem with the way Griffith has voted on zoning cases, downtown subsidies, and other land-use issues. So while we feel McCracken and Dunkerley still have a lot to offer the city, we don't think it's enough to merit choosing either of them over Griffith.
Place 4: Beverly Griffith
Prop. 1 (Fair Elections Act): No Endorsement
Prop. 2 (Repeal of Contribution Limits): No Endorsement Proposition 1 is the Austin Fair Elections Act, which would institute a public-financing matching-funds system for local candidates to replace the $100-limit scheme adopted by voters in 1997. If Prop. 1 fails, Prop. 2 would simply repeal the 1997 rules, which would leave us with no limits on campaign contributions unless the City Council devises new rules.
The Chronicle editorial board can all agree that there should be some form of public financing. We might be able to agree that candidates who choose to accept public financing should abide by contribution limits. Where we irreconcilably disagree, though, is on mandatory contribution limits for all candidates, and whether they have helped or hurt Austin politics. In the absence of consensus, we issue no endorsement. So we urge voters to choose according to their consciences.
We disagree on single-member districts, but not as a matter of principle. We all support a system that encourages broad representation and citizen participation. We're not convinced this 8-2-1 scheme is the best way to do that.
Prop. 3 (Single-Member Districts): Yes (with reservations) or No (with reservations)
In favor, we argue that: Half the city is non-Anglo, and the current system under which white voters, bound by the "gentleman's agreement," choose who will represent non-white Austin, is untenable. And districts are a necessary first step toward local district councils and district-based service delivery, making council members more accountable to ordinary folks.
In opposition, we argue that: It's just an illusion that districts are somehow more democratic, and more representative of the city's diversity. Districts with a low turnout will elect a council member with the same power as those from high-turnout districts, diluting the votes of some and magnify the votes of others. Citizens have the power if they vote -- single-member districts insist they have it even if they don't vote.
The majority of the Chron editorial board leans toward single-member districts, but our position is not unanimous.