What's at Stake in Austin's Schools?
AISD faces a spring election and a brace of persistent problems
The job of a school board trustee is a little like being a secret agent: Plenty of people want to kill you, and the stress can drive you to martinis. Okay, so maybe nothing stronger than Fanta keeps the nine trustees perky throughout their biweekly, six-hour wonk-a-thons (plus all the other public forums, school events, meetings, and ribbon-cuttings they attend), but the job nonpaying, voluntary is definitely grueling. Trustees set policy on such high-emotion issues as teacher pay and school boundaries, while also trying to close a persistent achievement gap between well-off students and others. High turnover on the board will make things particularly challenging this year. With only two incumbents running in the six races, come June, either four or five of the nine seats on the board will be warmed by a novice tuchus. Add it all up, and the whole experience sounds about as fun as a gunfight on jet skis.
When the new trustees take over in June, their first task will be among the least fun of all: balancing the district's budget. In case you've been sealed in carbonite for the past few years, AISD's budget has essentially been frozen by the state school finance system (known derisively as Robin Hood, although that revenue-sharing program has little to do with the overall and stagnant level of state funding). Nevertheless, the cost of everything from pencils to utilities keeps rising. For the past two years, AISD has bridged the gap between increasing expenditures and flat revenues by dipping into its savings account (aka "fund balance") and by cost-saving moves like restricting teacher raises.
The fund balance is hardly bottomless, and neither is the latter maneuver one the district can afford to repeat. In a January work session, AISD Human Resources director Michael Houser warned that AISD's relatively low salaries were starting to interfere with the district's ability to attract talent; in February, a teacher compensation task force recommended a 5% across-the-board raise. Thanks to your ballooning property taxes and a quirk in the way Robin Hood calculates them, AISD should have an extra $20 million next year that could cover such a raise.
However, the board will also have to decide whether to go beyond across-the-board raises. After berating AISD for letting teacher salaries slip, the teacher compensation task force went on to roast the district for inequitable distribution of the most experienced teachers. In those AISD schools where most of the students are poor or minority, teachers have on average less experience and fewer qualifications; they also express less job satisfaction and quit sooner. During the past five years, 63% of teachers in predominantly minority schools quit teaching or moved to another school, compared to 35% in schools with less than one-quarter minority students. To address this problem, the task force recommended paying financial incentives to teachers in hard-to-staff areas and challenging schools. "One of the primary strategies to close the achievement gap is to provide high-quality teachers to students who need them most, and that's precisely what our recommendations are about," said UT professor Ed Fuller, whose research formed the backbone of the task force report. "Right now those students aren't getting the highest-quality teachers, and until the district addresses that, it will continue to have an achievement gap."
Design and Input
Retaining quality teachers is a key element of another major initiative: high school redesign. The goal of the redesign effort is to develop rigorous, relationship-rich high school programs, which obviously can't happen as long as some high schools keep losing 70% of their teachers over a five-year period. Relationships are only one aspect of the redesign initiative, which is supported by a $1.5 million planning grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and some in the community will be looking for school board candidates who will ensure that the changes it brings aren't akin to putting new wallpaper on termite-infested walls. "We have a window of opportunity that's open to really create significant change," said Amy Averett of Austin Voices for Education and Youth, which received a smaller Gates grant to help AISD solicit public input on the redesign process. "Will it be just tinkering around issues, or will it bring fundamentally different practices in high schools?"
Another topic trustees will have to address is how to better solicit and use input from the community. That's lately been the topic of much public griping, as participants in the calendar committee, boundary committees, high school redesign forums, and others have openly wondered whether their role is to truly help shape the policy, or whether AISD cooks up its plans in some secret district dungeon somewhere and then holds forums to rubber-stamp them. Such complaints were particularly loud regarding a proposal to close three underenrolled schools (Porter, Becker, and Oak Springs). On Monday, the board deadlocked on a vote to close Becker but not Oak Springs, so that debate will continue. (Porter is already slaughterhouse-bound, to be replaced by a girls science academy.) Whatever they finally decide, the imbalance between underenrolled and overenrolled schools is far from being solved. AISD will likely ask future trustees to explore options such as drawing new boundaries or further repurposings, and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in town who doesn't think the district could do a better job involving the community in making those or any other plans.
"I think big issue in campaign is, are you going to be a school board member responsive to the people who elected you, and are you going to lead?" said Louis Malfaro of AISD teachers union Education Austin.
Meet the Candidates
There isn't a candidate in the race who doesn't say he or she wants to do a better job involving the community. And with so many strong candidates in the race Malfaro calls the field an "embarrassment of riches" and said the Central Labor Council had a hard time making endorsement decisions many voters may want to attend forums to get a sense of the people behind the rhetoric. Averett will be watching how they engage the participants in a student-moderated forum Austin Voices is hosting April 11. "That will say a lot about the way they understand 'input,'" said Averett.
Another major forum is the Chamber of Commerce lunch on April 19. According to the Chamber's education vice-president Drew Scheberle, candidates will be asked to weigh in on priorities including increasing math and science requirements, reducing the dropout rate, and working toward the district's strategic plan. "The strategic plan says they want to substantially, if not completely, eliminate the achievement gap by 2010," he said. "If they do that, we're the best urban district in the country."
Scheberle also said he hoped the new board would try to slim down the time involved in being a trustee so that more people would consider running. Does this point to the end of the era of the three-martini board meeting? Perhaps. But it also points to the central tension of the race: whether AISD needs board members willing to trust the superintendent and staff to take care of the details, or whether it needs the ask-the-tough-questions, demand-detailed-answers, listen-listen-listen types who keep everyone up late at night, and who aren't always polite.
Choose your trustees wisely.