Throwdown at Travis High

More than test scores in dispute

Rene Garganta
Rene Garganta

Members of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens have entered a war of words with the Austin Independent School District about Travis High School and its leadership under Prin­cipal Rene Garganta. Garganta says he's concerned that the school is being damaged by the politicization of an internal, academic matter. "If the intent is to help," Garganta said, "then this is a poor approach to it."

This is a new skirmish in what has become an old feud. In 2006, some LULAC members opposed Garganta's selection over then-assistant principal (now Paredes Middle School principal) Raul Moreno; previously, they had requested that a master principal be assigned to Travis. But last month, on Sept. 22, representatives of the local LULAC and NAACP chapters held a press conference at district offices to publicly request that Garganta resign. LULAC District VII Director Angel Abit­ua argued that the testing data shows Travis is failing. In the latest state accountability ratings, Travis was classified as "aca­dem­ically unacceptable," because it missed completion rate minimums for African-American students in the class of 2008. In addition, Abitua pointed to cutbacks in the band and the mariachi group, high teacher turnover, and personnel decisions by Gar­gan­ta. "As a community service organization, we decided to take a very assertive stand," Abitua said.

Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder called Garganta "a symptom of a larger problem, that the school has been failing for quite some time." Moreover, recalling the principal's 2006 hiring, Linder said, "I don't think he was the best choice, and I think he's proven that by his treatment of some of the people there that he's not going to turn this school around in the right way."

Nelson Linder
Nelson Linder (Photo by John Anderson)

Both Linder and Abitua are referring specifically to the treatment of Rosalia Cruz, a former Travis High teacher currently employed as a Project Advance facilitator, helping students with college applications and related college preparation. According to an AISD Police Department report dated April 23, Cruz is listed as a "suspect" in an investigation into "tampering with a government record" and is currently suspended with pay. (Because the investigation is ongoing, no further details have been released and district officials would not discuss the matter.) LULAC has been quick to come to Cruz's defense. In a July 27 letter to the school district, Abitua praised Cruz's "long history ... of service, dedication and exemplary performance" and called her "an invaluable member and officer in [LULAC] for 14 years." Cruz has also served as president of LULAC Council 4883 and sponsored the LULAC Youth program at Travis.

While he would not speculate on LULAC's precise motives in calling for his resignation, Garganta called it "puzzling as to why they would come out in the middle of a school year and take this stance." However, he added, "I don't believe it's related to the quality of education or the performance of the students." Since 2007, Travis' TAKS passing rates in all four core subjects have risen by between 12% and 19%, while disciplinary referrals have plummeted. The school has also reached the federal annual yearly progress standards, and it has the highest dual credit (high school and college) enrollment and offers the largest slate of advanced place­ment courses of any AISD Title 1 school.

As for the "academically unacceptable" status, the district has appealed that finding on the basis of a programming anomaly and expects a decision from the Texas Education Agency before the end of October. Linder argued that the appeal is irrelevant and said: "If a school is failing, you need to address the issues. If the district had the same kind of concerns, they would address the specific issues."

Garganta agreed that there are valid concerns about how the district educates economically disadvantaged and minority students, but he called the attacks on the performance of Travis students "unjustified [and] damaging." Climate surveys show that parent and teacher satisfaction is high, and test results have been improving. He put the shrinking band size down to lack of current student interest, and he accused critics of ignoring the success of the dance team ("I have a photo of about 30 girls holding 30 trophies that they won at one event"). As for whether critics are serious about helping his students, he noted, "They've never come to Travis or the district with any questions or suggestions or concerns."

Representatives of LULAC, as well as some Travis High alumni, did attend the AISD board of trustees Sept. 29 meeting, where they defended Cruz and attacked Garganta's record. (Garganta also has his supporters, including Travis High teachers and the Austin Association of Professional School Admin­i­strators.) Ultimately, the board accepted an administration recommendation to terminate Cruz's employment, which begins that process. That gives her 30 days to request the appointment of a TEA hearing examiner, who will then make recommendations to the board before final arguments. That could take up to 120 days, during which time Cruz will remain suspended. Board President Mark Williams said the length of the process is "something that frustrates people in the private sector, but the reality of the education profession is that these things take a little bit of time."

In the interim, the heated rhetoric seems likely to continue. While Louis Malfaro, president of teacher and staff union Educa­tion Austin, said that he has "great respect for [Cruz] as an educator," he added he had been contacted by Travis staff resentful of the ad hominem attacks on their school. As for Garganta, "I won't say he's beloved, but most of the faculty there respect him, and he's doing an adequate job." Malfaro concluded: "The tactic that some of [Cruz's] community allies have taken is to attack and discredit her principal as a means of defending her. That's a really bad strategy in an employment fight."

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LULAC, NAACP, Nelson Linder, AISD, Rene Garganta, Travis High School

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