Point Austin: The Super Looks Back

Retiring Pat Forgione considers a decade mostly well spent

Pat Forgione
Pat Forgione (Photo by John Anderson)

Never let it be said that Pat Forgione left the room quietly.

That's not entirely fair. While it's undeniable that the retiring Austin ISD superintendent could talk the painted mascot off a gymnasium wall, generally his filibusters are neither evasive nor condescending, but full of the detail, energy, and personal engagement he's brought to his 10 years of managing Austin schools. On the whole, it's been a very successful tenure, of which the longevity itself is some testimony. Education Week reports that of big-city superintendents, "only Atlanta's Beverly L. Hall has been on the job longer – she started one month before Mr. Forgione." That's a real accomplishment: Eventual public discontent or just personal burnout are part and parcel of the job.

On Tuesday, Forgione sat down for a lengthy, informal farewell session with local reporters, reviewing his decade of work by recalling the Austin American-Statesman headline that greeted him when he stepped off the plane in 1999: "AISD gets lowest state rating." Asked at the time for his reaction to the district's "unacceptable" accountability ranking by the Texas Education Agency, Forgione responded, "Well, I guess the honeymoon is over." Although he was best known as a "numbers" man and had not run a local district when he took the job, Forgione was brought in as a fixer to a district that had run through a line of unsatisfactory superintendents dismissed not only for academic incompetence and financial malfeasance, but under a cloud of illegal data-tampering.

He did the job he was hired to do, and on those standards, he's certainly been an enormous success. But the work of a big-city school superintendent is never done, and his successor, Meria Carstarphen, who formally assumes office July 1, will have plenty on her plate. She arrives with a four-year contract and the immediate appetizers of potential accountability closings for Pearce Middle School and Reagan High School, as well as annual budget preparation heavily clouded by the national and local recession. While making it clear that he would be happy to hand over the reigns immediately, Forgione also suggested avuncularly that it would take a while for Carstarphen to put her own stamp on the district: "At least five years; you gotta have five years."

Make the Pie Bigger

Forgione said he is most proud of bringing up the districtwide accountability rating (AISD is now the only big urban Texas district rated "acceptable") as well as returning it to a sound financial footing: "AA+ bond rating – that's going to save the taxpayers a lot of money." The district's "fund balance" (reserve fund), come Aug. 1, should be at $106 million, enough to face down an anticipated $15 million to $20 million deficit. And not without an edge, Forgione referred several times to Austin's burden as a "property-rich" district according to the state's "recapture" system, under which it returns 40 cents of every new dollar to the state for redistribution to even poorer districts.

Staff also provided a few eye-popping statistical changes over the last decade. Although total student numbers haven't changed dramatically (79,496 to 82,537), the relative educational context is radically shifting. In 1999, 49% of the students were low-income; in 2009, it's 62.5% (in what Texas calls a "wealthy" district). Ten years ago, 13.5% enrolled with limited English proficiency; now it's 29.1%. While the overall budget has also risen dramatically ($474.8 million to $865.2 million), recapture is claiming $172.4 million (it was zero in 1999). Forgione was quick to point out that the state formulas for additional funding have not responded to those spikes in poor and non-English speaking students.

Financially speaking, only the suburban districts that can directly supplement their children's schools have comfortably weathered the Legislature's starvation of public education, and not surprisingly, the political power at the Capitol is heavily suburban. Asked what he would do to overhaul the state funding system, Forgione was blunt. "You have to put the revenue in. Recapture has been paying the bills for the state, and cutting the pie in a different way only creates different winners and losers. You have to make the pie bigger."

Regrets, He's Had a Few

Forgione is not without regrets, and he said his single biggest mistake was concluding (in February 2007) that Webb Middle School should close before the school and the community had completed their (eventually successful) effort to turn it around. (He also wanted the building for a "boys academy" akin to that of Ann Richards Middle School, and that's still an uncertain gleam in the district's eye.) He learned a lesson there, he said, and while he couldn't similarly save Johnston High outright, he remains confident of a similar turnaround for Pearce and Reagan, pending the current legislation sponsored by Austin's Rep. Dawnna Dukes and Sen. Kirk Watson that would grant troubled schools more time to improve. "Punish me, punish the administration," he said to state regulators. "Don't punish the kids."

There are certainly those friends of the district who have had enough of the garrulous and number-crunching Forgione, who has been criticized as too close to the Chamber of Commerce and too willing to sacrifice central city schools to the broader goal of incorporating the burgeoning children of suburban sprawl. Testing has been his double-edged sword, and (while remaining an Austinite) he's stepping over to a job with the Educational Testing Service, in which he says he'll promote "multiple measurements" as a way to get actual classroom standards into the arid world of high-stakes accountability testing. And he lamented that while he's brought up the new teacher salary level to a respectable $41,000, he has not had a similar effect on the experienced ranks (the overall average remains a dispiriting $45,000). As he said, if that's to improve, the public had better continue to put pressure on its state representatives and also be willing to pay the bill accordingly.

All this said, pro and con, Austin owes Pat Forgione a large debt of thanks for his 10 years of exhausting and successful work – and the request that he stick around to keep his hand in these, our public schools, where we educate kids, maintain a community, and grow engaged citizens.

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Austin ISD, Pat Forgione, recapture, Meria Carstarphen, Dawnna Dukes

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