School Board Election Preview

Race to fill District 2 spot on AISD board of trustees promises to be highly contested, with four candidates vying for empty seat left by board's longest-serving member, Rudy Montoya

(l-r) Fred McGhee, Gary Johnson, and Sam Guzman
<br><i>Note: photo of Gerald Guerra unavailable</i>
(l-r) Fred McGhee, Gary Johnson, and Sam Guzman
Note: photo of Gerald Guerra unavailable

The May 12 special election to fill the District 2 spot on the Austin Independent School District board of trustees promises to be highly contested, with four candidates vying for the empty seat left by the board's longest-serving member, Rudy Montoya. Montoya left the board in September after a term lasting more than a decade. His successor will inherit a district plagued with high teacher turnover and haunted by the specter of the dreaded achievement gap, where two schools – Johnston High and Webb Middle School – face possible closure for underperformance.

The popular Montoya will be a tough act to follow. For years, he's often been the board's sole Hispanic voice, and residents of the majority Hispanic district have shown that they're none too eager to give that up. The board was set to name a temporary replacement in December, but in response to public outcry over the less-than-transparent selection process, its members decided to hold elections. Not only were district residents angered that most of the interviews and discussions were behind closed doors, there was also uproar in the Hispanic community when it was revealed that the board was likely to select someone other than Gerald Guerra, the only Hispanic candidate at the time.

The board was hesitant to pick Guerra because of his poor attendance record as a member of a district advisory committee, from which he was subsequently removed. Guerra, a single father of four, said he was helping his daughter, who was having some problems at the time. When another round of candidates applied for the election, Guerra was again the only Hispanic until two weeks ago, when semiretired businessman Sam Guzman announced his candidacy. With Guzman in the race, Guerra's getting a run for his money. Guzman, a high-ranking member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has a résumé that reads like a laundry list of task forces, commissions, and blue-ribbon committees. He has also managed to secure some big-name endorsements, including former Mayor Gus Garcia and former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, along with the backing of Education Austin.

But Guerra, who describes himself as a grassroots candidate, says he makes up for his endorsement deficit with a surplus of street cred. "Someone can say they're endorsed by this or endorsed by that, but it doesn't matter," he said. "It hurts me to see that you have people running for office who say they are for us, yet they never come back to the neighborhood to make things work." Guerra has the distinction of being born and raised in 78702, which he refers to with pride as his "'hood."

Both Guerra and Guzman say they want to increase input from the community but by different means. Guzman wants to see a more formal structure for community involvement, such as a district standing advisory committee of parents, students, and teachers. "Education has been important in minority communities, but they have disengaged to a certain extent from the process for various reasons, be they socioeconomic or otherwise," Guzman said. Guerra sees engaging the community as a more informal day-to-day activity. "I want people to say, 'This guy takes time to talk to me,'" Guerra said. "Communication can be a very lethargic process. [Parents] don't see the relevance, sometimes." Guerra has strong personal ties to the district as a former PTA president at Johnston and a parent of four students. He said he is driven by the fact that he feels the district failed two of his daughters, who both dropped out of school. "Truth and passion will prevail, and that is something I have with no doubt," he said. "I'm going to make that difference whether this way or not."

Guzman, whose history of involvement in the district dates back to his arrival in Austin during the Seventies, said having a good track record is important. "In order to judge what a person is going to do, it has to go further than just us saying it," he said. "When they had an opportunity to make a change, what have they done?" He said he has familiarity with formulating policy from his involvement with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and other state entities, along with experience making a budget – both of which are important skills for a board member, he said. Guerra said that while he's "not a politician," he can do the job.

Also in the running are local social-science consultant Fred McGhee and Gary Johnson, host of the Libertarian public-access show Smash the State. McGhee has a Ph.D. in anthropology and has taught at several schools in the district, including Johnston. He said he's been a longtime activist, mainly in the arena of public housing, and will bring his perspective as both an educator and a business person to the board. He downplays the fact that he doesn't have children in the district and insists that he has a stake in it like everyone else. "Everyone pays taxes," he said. "The district is everyone's district, not just those that have children in the district."

He added that he has a soft spot in his heart for Johnston High, where he got his first job teaching. He wants to see the district do everything it can to keep the school open, calling it "an important resource for South Austin that needs to be kept." He said schools like Johnston need to have the flexibility to define their own benchmarks, much like charter schools. He also supports higher teacher pay and collective bargaining rights as a means to deal with high teacher turnover.

Johnson said he wants to hold teachers more accountable. He calls for an end to seniority pay and across-the-board pay raises, in favor of performance pay. This probably won't win him many friends in Education Austin, which Johnson claims is too powerful. The district should not only reward good teachers but should also punish the bad, he said. "There are too many carrots, not enough sticks." Johnson also supports stronger state accountability based on standardized tests.

Early voting for the election starts April 30 and runs through May 8. The elected candidate will serve the remainder of Montoya's term, which lasts until next spring.

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AISD board of trustees, District 2, Rudy Montoya, Gerald Guerra, Sam Guzman, Fred McGhee, Gary Johnson

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