Looking for a School Chief

AISD zigzags its way to a new superintendent

Looking for a School Chief
Illustration by Jason Stout

It's been 10 years since the Austin Independent School District last searched for a new superintendent, and to call its hiring process back then "a mess" would be generous. In 1998, the district bought out beleaguered and then disgraced Superintendent Jim Fox's contract, leading to 1) a year under an interim appointee, 2) the embarrassment of having finalist Mark Edwards reject the district's job offer, and 3) the board of trustees finally asking current Superintendent Pat Forgione to take the job after it had previously rejected him. In retrospect, since Forgione proved to be a professional and largely successful choice, the board didn't do too badly; nevertheless, the current board is not eager to risk the district's luck again.

In part to avoid repeating that carnage, on Feb. 19 of last year, Forgione told the current board that he would be retiring, effective June 30 this year, giving it 16 months to appoint a replacement. Yet after a year, the board still had not even released a short list of applicants.

And as we went to press Wednesday night, the board had scheduled another "special-called meeting" – for Thursday, Feb. 26 – at which it may or may not announce a short list of finalists.

What's taking so long?

Keeping It on the Down-Low

Board President Mark Williams explains: "When Pat announced his retirement, [it] was beautiful, because it gave us lots of time. But we got caught last spring in the [Johnston High School] repurposing, and that ate the board up." Then came the May bond election. Then it was the summer, when it's basically impossible to get any district business done. So it took until August even to hire search firm Proact Search Inc. – and then the board still had November's tax rollback election to deal with. "Our public engagement process was really pushed back to September," he said.

If that sounds like an excuse, it's worth remembering that, for all the institutional weight of their decisions, being an AISD trustee is an unpaid, volunteer position, and there is only one dedicated staff member for the whole board. So Williams believes they needed every minute of the 16 months. "Had [Forgione] given us less time, we probably would have had to go to an interim [candidate], because there wouldn't have been time for a full search," he said.

The board also decided to front-load the public consultation process in those opening months of the search. The plan, Williams explained, was to get a clear idea of what parents and stakeholders want from their next superintendent in order to provide a narrowly defined candidate profile. "That's crap," bluntly responds Education Austin President Louis Malfaro, who represents the teacher and staff union. "You could run a truck through that profile. [It] says that it prefers somebody who has teaching, principal, and superintendent experience but that it wasn't required."

The big issue then became candidate confidentiality. Under Texas law, districts are only required to release the names of superintendent search finalists: There is then a 21-day public review period before any contract can be signed. The board took the strategic but controversial decision to sit on the short list until the very last moment possible.

That choice drew fire from stakeholders and the Austin-American Statesman, which accused the board of working in secrecy and creating a level of mistrust about the process and the suitability of the eventual appointee. Williams rejects the idea that openness would attract a higher quality of applicants. Instead, because of the often precarious relationships between superintendents and their boards – and how easy it is to shake public trust in a district, especially if a superintendent is considering a move – the board reasoned that public disclosure would only serve to scare off good candidates. As if to confirm this fear, following news reports that they had applied for the AISD position, El Paso Independent School District Superintendent Lorenzo García and San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Robert Durón issued damage-control denials: Both even went so far as to state that they had been headhunted and had no plans to leave their current districts. (Williams says he can neither confirm nor deny either application while the search is ongoing, only that he has read the same stories.)

There are legislative moves afoot to remove the confidentiality option from district hands. Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, has filed Senate Bill 503, which would force ISDs to release the names of all candidates who reach the final interview round. The Texas Association of School Administrators has traditionally opposed such bills, and Executive Director Johnny Veselka called the confidentiality period "very standard practice – and that environment helps to ensure that you'll get a higher standard of candidates than if it were an open process where all the names were released to the public."

While Malfaro said he's unsure about the "one-size-fits-all-districts" approach of Eltife's bill, he's convinced that AISD should have released its own working short list months ago. "The leadership of the board has been completely hypnotized by the search firm and by some bad advice coming out of the business community," he said. "Who does the search firm work for? The [district] or [its] stable of superintendents?"

Whether it's an inappropriate veil of secrecy or merely acceptable confidentiality, the decision also allowed proliferation of rumors of improper influence from special-interest groups. Drew Scheberle of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce said that he anticipated such allegations but insists that beyond consulting with the board on the integrity of the process, the chamber tried to stay out of the hunt as much as possible – not least, he argued, because this is exactly why trustees are elected. "If they can't do this, they probably shouldn't be on the board, so we trust that they'll do a good job," he said. While he confirmed that he had been approached by potential candidates who asked him about the district, he says he never talked about candidates with the district. Instead, he said, the chamber had taken a more structural approach. "We supported the tax increase last fall to make sure the district had its fiscal house in order," he said, "and to make it attractive for the best candidate."

Rumors and Equivocations

When allegations of undue influence did arise, the environment quickly turned toxic. As a former co-chair of the 2007 Super­in­ten­dent's Task Force on Strategic Plan Review and a father of two children in AISD schools, former Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Com­merce board Chair Paul Saldaña thought he had as much right as anyone to give some input and sent an e-mail to the board on Feb. 4. Then, he said, he got a call from AISD joint counsel Mel Waxler that Statesman editorial writer Alberta Phillips had submitted an open records request asking specifically for Saldaña's e-mail and another one, from former AISD Community Safety Task Force Co-Chair Celia Israel. On Feb. 13, both e-mails were quoted in a Statesman editorial titled "Search for Aus­tin school superintendent is corrupted." The editorial alleged "leaks from trustees that gave Hispanic leaders inside information." (It curiously omitted that the Statesman itself had made repeated references to the number, ethnicity, gender, experience, and home states of candidates. On Feb. 19, the daily even revealed the supposed identity of one of the still-unannounced candidates – Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent in St. Paul, Minn. – citing sources that included unnamed trustees.) The e-mails, the editors concluded, were themselves sufficient to cast doubt on whichever candidate was selected, and so the process should begin again, this time in public.

Saldaña said his e-mail (posted online with this story at austinchronicle.com) was not directly about the candidate selection but responded to an alleged comment by board President Williams "that the Hispanic community would have to get over that the board was not likely to be recommending a Latino candidate for the school superintendent position, just like we had to get over the fact that an African-American [Marc Ott] was selected for city manager." (Williams denies making any such statement and said he's "frustrated" that he can't find out either who started the rumor or who leaked candidate information. "The perception exists that someone on the board is saying something to somebody, and that's a problem," he said.)

So why the stir over these two e-mails? Saldaña noted that, in addition to himself and Israel, the editorial also named two associates in his public affairs firm, Adelánte Solutions: former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and former Travis Co. Commis-sioner Richard Moya – whose daughter Lori is the AISD trustee for District 6 in South Austin. Neither sent e-mails, but Saldaña noted that he, Israel, and Barri­en­tos were part of the group "that had that infamous meeting with [Ott] that [Phillips] wrote about" (see the Chronicle's "City Hall Firestorm: Still Burning?" Aug. 29, 2008). Back then, Phillips accused the group of "stirring a racial pot that is nearing a boiling point." Saldaña noted, "I find it slightly ironic that now she's singling out two members of the Hispanic community, and we're being referred to as a 'special-interest group.'"

Malfaro writes this all off as a distraction from the real issue. "The problem isn't whether we get a Hispanic superintendent or a black superintendent or a white superintendent or male or female," he said. "It's how do we get someone who is qualified who can work well with the community?" Williams also described community buy-in as vital and confirmed that the board is undertaking additional vetting and deep background checks to ensure prefinalist candidates don't come with skeletons in their closets. It isn't just about meeting the criteria in the job description but certain additional intangibles. The candidate, he said, would have to have "the belief system and integrity that we want to have in a leader of this community, because that drives decisions we can't anticipate."

The other criterion, he explained, is finding someone who would have "chemistry with the board. Think about what friends you hang out with. There's somebody that you might say, 'They're really smart, I like them, but I don't want to hang with them.' So that factor, while it shouldn't be a factor, really is. You've got to find someone that can work with the board, because if the board-superintendent relationship is dysfunctional, then everything flows from there."

In Malfaro's judgment, the board has been too busy protecting its relationship with candidates to see the benefit of real community involvement. "Many heads are better than nine," he said. The only real way to approach the search is "to provide us with a list of finalists, give us an opportunity to meet those candidates, interact with them, research their backgrounds, talk to people they work with, and provide the school board with some input for who would be the best person for the job." While he accepts that the school board has the statutory authority to make the hire, it "[sets] the new superintendent up for conflict and confrontation with the community if they provide the community with little or no ability to weigh in."

Waiting for the Smoke to Clear

Without a time machine – or the abrupt hiring of an interim administrator and starting over – the process is where it is, with the board still officially planning to announce a short list by the end of February. With the 21-day public vetting period, it will be mid-March at the earliest before any paperwork is signed, but those 21 days are really 24. Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, the board has to schedule any meeting 72 hours in advance. So the board took the precaution of liberally scheduling a few extra meetings, Williams said, "just in case we decided we're going to do something and then had to wait before we can make an announcement to the public." (Last week, the board scheduled and then canceled a special Thursday meeting when there proved to be nothing to announce or discuss.)

One timing issue remains pivotal. "I do not want a baton handoff on June 30," Williams said. The board wants the new superintendent to get involved in planning as soon as possible and then in the long run to keep him or her around for as long as possible to avoid the revolving-door management that plagues other districts. While most urban superintendents last four to five years, Forgione raised the bar by sticking around for a decade. That gave the district an almost unique ability to address long-term planning, Williams said, and "if we're stuck with one for 10 years, that's a good thing. ... I'm hopeful that, even after this smoke and fire churn around us, that as board members we can filter through all that and still make the best decision in the interests of the community."

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