Point Austin: Board Games

The AISD trustees play superintendent poker – by uneven rules

Point Austin
It's a minor municipal mystery why anybody at all signs up to be a school board member. It's not only an unpaid and largely thankless job, but the bitter truth is that no matter what decisions the board makes – on budget, curriculum, hiring, and most especially on school boundaries – it's a good bet that more people will be mad than happy. And it's definitely the angry ones who show up at citizens communication.

That said, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees seems to have gone out of its way to piss people off this month, as it drags its bureaucratic feet toward hiring a new superintendent to replace the retiring Pat Forgione and attempts to keep the interviewing and hiring process confidential – more or less. That is, even while the announced board policy is to keep the process private, it's clear that at least some members have been leaking like sieves, much to the delight of the Austin American-Statesman. The daily has been simultaneously denouncing the board for secrecy while it cheerfully amplifies and distorts any rumor it can extract from its unnamed favored board members – most specifically and dishonestly, claiming that there is a local conspiracy ("pressure tactics from some Hispanic leaders") to enforce the hiring of a Hispanic superintendent.

The background is reported at length this week by Richard Whittaker ("Looking for a School Chief"). At least the daily can claim a certain amount of consistency. Back in 1999, when the board was looking to replace Jim Fox, the editors thundered, "AISD secrecy breaks trust" (June 4, 1999), and denounced the "callous and contemptuous process," even provoking then-Mayor Kirk Watson to attempt to stick his nose in, unsuccessfully. The editorials featured lots of manufactured high dudgeon over an irreparably broken search – one that eventually yielded a successful superintendent who stayed on for, oh, a measly decade. So here we are again, 10 years later (Statesman, Feb. 13): "The search for Austin's next school superintendent has lost all integrity."

Double-Edged Secrecy

Board President Mark Williams and District 7 trustee Robert Schneider (the two members who returned my calls) conceded that a half-public process (in which some board members have leaked candidate names or backgrounds to the Statesman, for example) is somewhat worse than no public process at all. But both said the board had not made a formal decision to impose secrecy. Rather, as Williams put it, the board had decided "to let the process itself drive it." Schneider said personally he would welcome a more public process and more "public engagement with the candidates," although that might require a change in state law.

On the other hand, Williams said the board found that sitting superintendents – especially currently successful ones in comparable urban districts – would rather not risk creating backlash in their home districts by engaging in a public search process that might well come to nothing and thus are inclined to reject public inquiries. Last fall's public "superintendent profile" feedback strongly recommended hiring an academically and administratively experienced candidate, Williams said, and "if you want a sitting superintendent, then you need to have a confidential process."

Even the Statesman editors (who may have looked for another job once or twice themselves) might understand that, especially after they revealed the name of one potential (uncon­firmed) finalist (St. Paul Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, the Statesman's designated "rock star"), and the St. Paul media/Internet rumor mill went into overdrive with charges of disloyalty, fortune-hunting, etc. (The daily blamed the board for that, too.) Should Carstarphen not get the Austin job, she can look forward to plenty of suspicion and fence-mending back home. The Statesman's self-righteous demands that candidates "face the heat" from stakeholders in Austin should at least acknowledge it's not that simple, if the board indeed wants to consider a range of the most experienced candidates.

Nothing up Our Sleeves

The Statesman's charges of a Hispanic power play are rather more insidious. In addition to the repeated editorial claim that the search has been irretrievably corrupted by secrecy, the paper has referred darkly to an organized e-mail campaign "pressuring board members to select a Latino candidate." Presuming there must therefore be dozens of such sinister e-mails, I filed an open records request and found ... two. Of a couple dozen e-mails (in all) addressing the search, exactly two explicitly requested the board select a Hispanic or Latino candidate. The rest in this vein ask simply that the board strongly consider that, as one writer put it, "The majority of students in AISD are of Latino origin [and the] new Superintendent must be a person who is highly sensitive to the needs of the Latino student." (Most of the same letters join the Statesman in calling for more public input.)

For a school district that is now 58.9% Hispanic (11.7% African-American, 25.7% Caucasian), is it an outrage that some citizens should ask that the new school chief be attuned to those demographics? Only in the Statesman editorial room – where not very subtly flogging the daily's own favorite candidate ("sterling ... accomplished ... impressive") is somehow perfectly legitimate.

For the record, Williams said that although some people obviously have expressed strong feelings, he has not felt "unduly pressured by any constituent to make a decision that I don't think is the best decision for the school district." He added: "We, as a board, totally understand the demographics of our district. We have to hire somebody who can successfully navigate a multicultural student body and a multicultural community and can also meet all the financial, legislative, administrative, and other responsibilities of running a billion-dollar business with 11,000 employees."

If those are the standards the duly elected board is using to review a range of nationally recruited candidates and to select someone up to the job of running this particular urban school district, it's not unduly alarming that they haven't invited us all in for a dog and pony show to add our belated two cents. But it's also a damn shame that not every board member believes in respecting the board's own process or in playing by the same rules.

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Austin ISD, Mark Williams, Robert Schneider, Meria Carstarphen, Pat Forgione

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