Don't Forget the Children

AISD races and bond proposals

Before Superintendent Pat Forgione retires next year, another longstanding figure in Austin Independent School District will step down: District 3 trustee Johna Edwards. After eight years representing North Central Austin, including a turn as board secretary, Edwards is leaving her seat open to be fought over in the May 10 elections by two local parents: Christine Brister and Jerry Garcia.

Edwards describes District 3 as "a district that really believes in public schools," whose parents are "hard workers – and that can be a good thing and a bad thing, because they don't complain." While much of AISD's attention has understandably been focused on population increases in South Austin and underinvestment in East Austin, District 3's 11 campuses have their own pressures. Ten have majority Hispanic student populations, with 30% to 76% of students at limited English proficiency and 78% to 97% economically disadvantaged. There is a 40% mobility rate, as families often change apartments, and children consequently switch schools, with inevitable disruption to their education. And, as in much of AISD, there's serious overcrowding. "Even though we have placed an undesignated elementary in the area, we don't have a clue where the dirt is," Edwards said, meaning an available tract of land for a new school.

Brister is no stranger to AISD's planning processes. As a parent member of the Lanier Vertical Team, she serves on the District Advisory Council and has recently been appointed to the 2009-10 Calendar Task Force. She was also appointed in 2006 to the Facility Use and Boundary Task Force and has been a member of the campus advisory councils and parent/teacher/student organizations at Cook Elementary and Burnet Middle schools. "Someone called me an education insider, but that's not really true, because it's been at the campus level," Brister said. With three sons who have graduated in District 3 and a fourth about to enter high school there ("We've always tracked Cook, Burnet, Lanier," Brister explains), she added, "The DAC has given me a different perspective."

Garcia, by contrast, has never been a PTA officer. But he argues he's the best fit for the district. He was raised in a blue-collar, bilingual Laredo family that highly valued education, and in 2004, he and his wife made a major decision: With their third child entering Bryker Woods Elementary in neighboring District 5 and two elder sons heading for Burnet, he would leave his job as a human resources manager at the state comptroller's office and become a stay-at-home father. "It's very important to me as a father figure to spend some time with my boys," he said. While he has not held an elected position in the district, he points to his involvement in activities like Little League sports and to his Democratic Party credentials. He was founding member of the Capital Area Progressive Democrats, is a former Travis Co. Democratic Party Precinct 248 chair, and has been endorsed by the Univer­sity Democrats and the Central Austin Democrats.

Brister and Garcia agree on many issues, not least that multilingual community outreach and getting parents out of their cars and into the classrooms are vital for the district. Garcia argues that, while his sons are in school, he will be able to dedicate much of his day to campus visits and community outreach, giving him more time to collect data and get better grounded in the issues from a grassroots level. For Brister, the No. 1 issue is more pressing: the selection of a new superintendent. Forgione "was hired for his specific skill set," she said. She says that with concerns about student attainment and low-performing schools like Johnston High and Pearce Middle potentially facing closure while greater AISD faces constant growth, "We need someone with a track record of turning these issues around and who can communicate really well with the community."

When it comes to improving the district, Garcia has a straightforward approach, saying the trustees need to listen to teachers. "They're the ones we're trusting our children with when we drop them off at school," he said. The trustees' job, he argues, isn't to micromanage but to maximize the dollars that get to the classroom and explain to the community why that money is being spent. "Economic development begins in the classroom," he said.

Brister sees a more comprehensive role for AISD. "We have to look at the whole child. Not just their ability to learn, but what affects their ability to learn," she said. With nine out of 10 students at Burnet on reduced-price or free lunches, she added, "We have children who are hungry, children who are witnesses to domestic abuse or [have] been involved in domestic abuse, children who miss school because they are babysitting their siblings." While she applauds the use of parent support, she suggests there may be more of a role for bilingual support staff and social workers in some cases.

As a parting gift, Edwards had some advice for the eventual winner: "In the middle of a $343 million bond or a $700 million budget or talking about thousands of employees," she said, "you don't forget the child."


Three Uncontested Incumbents

While Brister and Garcia are fighting for the right to represent AISD's District 3, three other seats will be filled by returning, unopposed incumbents. Outgoing trustee Edwards gave some insight into the allure of the board. "When I was elected in May 2000, I got to hand my child his diploma," she said, adding that she will miss the rewards of serving the community. But giving up nearly every Monday night (and often the early hours of Tuesday) – plus the site visits, the mentoring, the wading through the 4-inch stack of paperwork delivered every Thursday – all for no pay, with no staff beyond one board secretary, and often little thanks: Those things she may not miss. So why do incumbents stick around?

District 5 (Central) trustee and current board President Mark Williams is finishing his first term and stresses that he feels a degree of continuity is essential, especially while AISD looks for a new superintendent. At-Large Position 8 trustee Annette LoVoi (also a resident in District 5) escaped a competitive race when District 6 parent Kendrah McDonald filed paperwork in March but withdrew less than a week later because of child-care issues. As for why she's returning, LoVoi said, "There's three issues: Finding a new superintendent, finding a new superintendent, and finding a new superintendent." That replacement, she argues, has to be a fit for the district's visions of diversity and sustainability.

In District 2 (Southeast), Sam Guzman is the new kid on the board, having won the 2007 race to finish off Rudy Montoya Jr.'s unexpired term. Montoya left the board early because, after 11 years as a trustee, he could no longer balance that position and his new job as head of the attorney general's information technology division. Since winning last May's special election with 68% in a four-way race, Guzman feels he's gotten positive feedback from the community. More importantly, pressing issues from last year, like the threatened closure of Johnston High and overcrowding at Linder Elementary, are still issues. "It's just a continuation of what I started when I first ran," he says.


AISD School Bond Propositions

A performing arts center, 100 acres of real estate, and new classrooms and locker rooms for Anderson High. When working out what to include in the May 10 bond election, AISD's board of trustees initially followed the lead of the volunteer Citizens' Bond Advisory Commit­tee, turning the committee's recommendations into what are now Propositions 1 and 2. But those three big-ticket items above, bound together as the $82 million Proposition 3, might best be described as "stuff the board of trustees added." Explaining their inclusion, AISD board Presid­ent Mark Williams said, "Proposition 3 is about thinking about some of the future needs of the district. It's important to act now and to have these facilities in place."

Keen that Proposition 3 not be written off as a list of vanity projects, Williams calls it "a hodgepodge of three very important items": $40 million for a districtwide, 1,200- to 1,500-seat performing arts center, $32 million for land for a future high school in South Austin, and $10 million for fine-arts facilities and classroom additions at Anderson High.

The most controversial and costly item is the PAC. But the debate centers not on whether the district needs one but when to build it. In 2004, voters already approved $8.8 million in partial funding for a $15 million PAC – but that money was dependent on private matching donations that never materialized. The 2008 Citizens' Bond Advisory Commit­tee did not originally include it in its recommendations because, even with wide community support for the idea, the lack of solid plans or a location made it too speculative (as committee member Mark Yznaga said in January, "The PAC is not cooked; it's just not ready to go"). But, in spite of spiraling construction costs and the lack of a site, the board then felt it had to consider the matter again. "Robert's Rules calls for us to deal with unfinished business first," said Williams. "The board took a step back and said, 'We're not going to make a specific recommendation, but the population has convinced us there is a compelling need.'"

Currently, for big performance events, the district often has to use unsuitable facilities like the echoey Delco Center, where it held the All-City Band Festival, or spend money to rent nondistrict facilities, as with last November's Fall String Festival in Zilker Park. The district could also start attracting statewide University Interscholastic League events it previously had to pass on – something Williams says is odd for the city that calls itself the live music capital of the world. For those concerned about money, bringing events in-house could end pricey venue rental and cut the ever-rising cost of transporting kids out of district for events. Plus, if a land donor is found, that could save $5 million allocated for property and potentially be the matching funds that unlock the $8.8 million from 2004. "This is a facility that we can rent out, so it can be a moneymaker," said AISD spokeswoman Kathy Anthony, noting that Georgetown ISD's 1,207-seat Klett Performing Arts Center has hosted the Georgetown Symphony Society and the Elision Saxophone Quartet this year.

In earlier discussions, Proposition 3 almost became a live performance package, with $10 million for auditoriums for Lanier and McCallum high schools. But that cash was moved into Proposition 1 as an essential renovation, making the $10 million for Anderson seem out of place here. Williams says this arrangement reflects the original Citizens' Bond Advisory Commit­tee decisions by not bundling board proposals in with the committee's recommendations, while still highlighting a great need. Anderson currently has 28 traveling teachers, almost three times as many as any other school; this package would pay for 12 new classrooms and four labs to help reach the state's new science graduation requirements. If passed, there will also be renovations for the fine-arts facility, including proper musical-instrument storage. Again, this is just dealing with the school's expansion. "This is an older school, and like an older house, you didn't build enough closet space," said Williams.

But $32 million for land for a new high school (just the land, not the buildings) raises questions about long-term planning. A high school needs 75-100 acres, and there were concerns from both the committee and the board that construction within the district leaves few suitable plots. Buying the land now, the trustees say, hedges against rising property prices and means more site choices. But, Williams argues, this does not mean there is no pressing need. The district faces heavy growth to the south (with Akins, Austin, Bowie, and Travis highs already over capacity), which its demographers predict will continue. "This could become a 100,000-child district," said Williams. "We have to start planning for the future."

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