Communication Breakdown

Rocked by financial crisis, AISD goes to war with itself – and everyone suffers

AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen (center), flanked by the board of trustees
AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen (center), flanked by the board of trustees (Photo by Sandy Carson)

The Austin Independent School District is fractured.

At this point, there is no other way to put it. On the one hand, the district has voted to lay off 1,153 staff members, leaving teachers and staff dispirited and parents worried about next year's classrooms. On the other, those same parents and staff are still smarting over how the Facility Master Plan Task Force threatened to close nine city center schools. Somehow this all happened just when the district needed community support most, as the state threatens to cut a predicted $94 million from the district budget. Instead of leaping to defend AISD before the Legislature, parents have been filling the AISD board room to challenge how the administration is handling the budget crisis. Now community members, stakeholders, and even the board of trustees are asking why the district has become so bad at communicating.

The simple fact is that even parents engaged in the education process are left floundering for information. Sanchez Elementary PTA President Amelia Duron said, "They're not telling us enough." Sanchez was one of the nine schools named for possible closure by the draft Facility Master Plan, and even though that proposal was scuppered, the task force has not ruled out some closures for the 2013-14 school year. Now the task force report is in the hands of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who will use it to make executive recommendations, but all that means to the families at Sanchez is that the report has disappeared into the district's bureaucracy. With fears of closure still looming, simple campus decisions have been deferred. Duron said, "We were going to get a dress code this coming year, but now that's been put on hold because we don't know where we stand." All she knows for sure is that the school to which she sends her grandchildren, the school near the home she bought 22 years ago, the school at the heart of her Central East Austin neighborhood, is losing eight staff members. Seven of those are teachers. Six of those teachers are bilingual specialists or teach English as a second language, and three are less than three years into their teaching careers. Their loss may be a hammer blow. Duron said: "Teachers are saying that right now they have 20 kids in their classrooms, and next year they'll have 25, 30. A bunch of them are saying it's too many to handle."

For teachers, the idea that their schools may be safe from any facility kill list for another two years is little solace. After all, one in 11 of them were on the district's reduction in force, or RIF, list. Walk into any AISD office or school, and the cloud of gloom is obvious. "It is just painful," said Education Austin co-President Ken Zarifis. On March 29, the day after the board approved the RIF, his office was eerily quiet: Now, as the reality sets in, his members have started reaching out to the union. He said: "A lot of people were really putting it off because they were thinking, 'It's going to fix itself.' But it didn't." As far as he's concerned, the real blame for the current crisis still lies with budget-slashing legislators "who think they know what's best for education. They need to go into a classroom and not walk through for 10 minutes." Tough as it is on his members and all district employees, Zarifis understands why AISD and other districts are cutting staff. The problem is how it was handled. When the RIF was first presented, he said, its purpose at the campus level was very simple: "You identify a position that a campus doesn't need because of the staffing formula." However, he sees a big difference between cutting excess or expired positions and cutting jobs to reach budget targets. That means making judgment calls on which staff to keep and dump. He said: "The district is handling this as well as they can considering the policy. The problem with the policy is that, when you put seniority with performance, you get a very vague measurement of an individual." While those choices were supposed to be made by principals working according to specific guidelines, he said, "We have lots of questions, much to the chagrin of the district."

Who's Making Policy?

The board of trustees is asking very similar questions. With so many upset families and teachers, District 1 trustee Cheryl Bradley said, "It's going to be a hot year," and she is already feeling the heat for some of her decisions. She's been the board's strongest voice supporting the superintendent, and she voted for the RIF. She admitted to being conflicted about the decision, but with the financial situation being what it is, she said, "I don't feel there was anything else we could do."

The question is why the RIF became the only major cost-cutting option submitted to the board. The superintendent's office released a draft RIF list naming specific positions on the chopping block on Feb. 11 – more than a month before the board voted on whether it wanted the RIF at all. It is that sense that the names on the list were a fait accompli delivered by Carstarphen's administration that has drawn sharp criticism from at-large trustee Annette LoVoi. "Governor Ann Richards used to say to her staff, 'No surprises,'" said LoVoi, and it seems that too many major requests presented by Carstarphen have an unwelcome urgency. From the 2010 financial exigency vote to the 2011 RIF, LoVoi asked, "How are these things being teed up for the board?" She voted against the RIF not because the district does not need to generate savings, but because she fears that Carstarphen's list means changes in the district's educational priorities – changes the board never discussed. "I think there's a real question of who's making policy," she said. "The board should not be in positions where there's only an up or down vote."

Even board members who backed the RIF have their concerns. District 7 trustee Robert Schneider described the night of the board vote as "a very weird situation. Just as a small example, we recognized the LBJ swimming coach for his accomplishments. He's being RIF'd the same night." Like Zarifis, Schneider has real concerns about who was picked for the axe and who did the swinging. Rather than being given complete latitude to make their own staffing decisions within the guidelines, he said, "I know from talking to campus principals that they were told what to do." What's most frustrating for him is how unresponsive the administration has become on issues like foreign language provision. Schneid­er has wanted more discussion about whether the district should pare back to a handful of languages or try to provide as many as possible at a reduced level. Under the RIF, certain languages have disappeared from some schools completely, such as German at Bowie High School. Looking deeper, he found that the high schools north of the river all kept their language diversity, while the southern high schools lost those departments, choosing to protect sports coaches instead. When he asked Carstarphen about these choices, he said, "She has essentially refused to give me a coherent response."

Meria Carstarphen (l)
Meria Carstarphen (l) (Photo by John Anderson)

As far as Carstarphen is concerned, she is simply implementing existing board policy of "school-based empowerment," and at every step she has the board votes to prove their backing. Take the process of setting a calendar to cut staff. "We did that in the fall," she said. "We were taking actions on everything from board parameters to the board budget timeline in September." Those initial decisions were used to create guidance for principals, and the staffing decisions have been shaped by feedback from campuses. She said, "I surveyed every single parent directly, if they wanted to do it, about what we should cut and how we should do it," and it was all done within the board's schedule. Rather than trustees being blindsided in the run-up to the RIF vote, she said, "we made decisions all along the way to get us where we were on March 28."

Ultimately, while Schneider backed most of the RIF, he voted against terminating midterm contracts because he was not confident that the right staff were being laid off. He said, "People are being told they are being RIF'd for seniority reasons, and it's pretty clear that they should not." He has heard worrying rumors from multiple sources that popular and seasoned teachers had been laid off while younger, less qualified colleagues kept their jobs. "To have teachers say that, and then have the parents have heard the same thing, it tells me that there was something other than performance that was being used."

Zarifis pointed to an underlying problem with the process: Principals had been allowed to reposition staff before working on their RIF requests. He said, "You could theoretically move someone from this grade level to that grade level, or from that class to that class, and then they would have a harder time staying." His concern was that principals could quietly remove employees for reasons other than staffing levels; his fear was that this was no accident, but a deliberate policy. He said, "If that holds on the campuses, I don't see how that doesn't apply to the district." His other concern is over the lack of discussion of what happens if the cuts from the state are not as bad as current forecasts suggest. The House budget proposes a $94 million cut to Austin, but the Senate proposes a marginally less damaging $50 million to $60 million. "We've been asking: 'Where do we go with those dollars? What do we do with that?'" He was particularly worried about board discussions concerning Grad Labs, a dropout prevention program currently being tested in Houston. While he lauds its aims, he would prefer that the district use existing resources to reach the same ends. He said, "To consider bringing in a $5 [million] to $8 million plan at this time is wholly inappropriate when we're laying 1,100 people off."

Not everyone is critical of Carstarphen's handling of the RIF; the Austin Chamber of Commerce has voiced constant support for Carstarphen management style. Drew Scheberle, the chamber's senior vice president of Education and Talent Development, called Carstarphen's staffing plans "a draft" and warned that the changes are essential if the district is serious about sticking to the goals of its 2014 strategic plan. He said, "If we want to get 90 percent graduation for today's eighth grade students, we've clearly got to do things next year, because that's when your highest dropout rate is, when those eighth graders become ninth graders."

Collateral Damage Control

While the board still wrestles with the decision it made to cut staff, the district is moving ahead with slashing 1,153 positions. As of April 4, 369 RIF'd posts had been resolved: 34 were vacant posts, 199 staff members have found employment elsewhere in the district, and 136 have retired or resigned. Some staff may well be back in new jobs: The district is currently advertising for 135 positions, with a particular shortage of bilingual and ESL teachers. There are plans to retrain current employees for posts that open up as other non-RIF'd staff quit or retire. AISD's Chief Human Capital Officer Michael Houser said, "Our greatest amount of success will come over the next six to eight weeks, when we start to see more and more of these positions become vacant for other people to interview for."

In total, the RIF'd positions are worth $42 million in salaries and benefits. However, that doesn't mean the district saves $42 million. The figure is closer to $36 million, because some of that cash is going to create new administrative positions that reflect the new look at campuses and the new teaching priorities. Houser said Carstarphen instructed the district's senior officers to review their offices, "and they decided to cut out 88 additional positions, and then come back through and rewrite job descriptions, blend some departments, move some things around, and come out with a different organizational look." Those 88 positions and the $6 million they freed up, he said, will be used as "collateral" to pay for a reorganization.

Concern about this job swapping has caused a mood shift among some trustees. Through much of the RIF process, the board has seemed more interested in thanking senior staff for coming up with the RIF list than extending condolences to other staff members who are losing their jobs. Now Schneider, LoVoi, and at-large trustee Tam­a­la Barksdale have asked for details on the staffing and shape of the new-look administration, and they have received a one-page outline from Carstarphen. Yet there are frustrating gaps that could have significant consequences for the district. The entire press office has been RIF'd, and while there is no sign of what will replace it, it seems unlikely the district will stop talking to the media at the end of the school year. Similarly, the district's Gifted & Talented program director has been RIF'd. Schneider said: "Is it one of the things that she's doing to reorganize, or is it one of the things that she's doing to eliminate the position? I don't know the answer to that, and it should have been provided before the vote ever came up. But that's not the way it worked."

This lack of clarity from Carstarphen in staffing requests is an old problem. In 2009, two weeks before she became superintendent, she had the board restructure her senior cabinet. While trustees applauded the streamlined management structure, they balked when they noticed her plan to dump the assistant superintendent of diversity and intercultural relations. At the time, District 2 trustee Sam Guzman said, "The fact that it's embedded somewhere rather than highlighted somewhere ... concerns me." (See "AISD Staff Shake-Up," July 3, 2009.) In hindsight, Guzman's words were the first sign of an ongoing issue in the board's working relationship with its top employee. Board Vice President Vince Torres was blunt about the problem. When it comes to holding public conversations, he said, "the board and the superintendent are out of sync by three to six months." Even when the board has been working on an issue for months, the community may know nothing about it. In part, he blamed a clash of management styles, especially about how Carstarphen delivers data. "It's coming on too short a timeline," he said. After two years working with her, he added, "I've come to understand how this superintendent operates, and you have to be listening for every nugget." Take the RIF: Carstarphen first asked the board to declare exigency – the first step to a RIF – in 2010, so Torres knew that layoffs were coming eventually. The challenge was to not get blindsided when they turned up on the board agenda. He said, "If you miss that opportunity to ask questions and slow the train down the first time, the next time you're not going to have the opportunity." That's a change from Carstarphen's predecessor. "Once this train gets going, it's a lot harder to stop than it was with Pat Forgione," Torres said.

Sanchez Elementary was one of nine schools initially targeted for closure. Now its fate is uncertain.
Sanchez Elementary was one of nine schools initially targeted for closure. Now its fate is uncertain. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The speeding-train style of management is unacceptable to LoVoi, who wants clearer communication, better information, and a sharp division of responsibility between trustees and Carstarphen. The law is very clear, she said: "The board makes policy. Period." Because the reorganization and the classroom changes in the RIF list felt like a done deal, she fears that policy was out of their hands. More importantly, she said, "The cuts were made before we asked the community to speak."

Torres agreed that the communication breakdown is not just an internal problem. One huge issue is that everyone suffers from what he called "expert blind spot," where staff and board members presume everyone knows what a RIF is or how the state's baroque tax and school accountability rules work. "They have forgotten how hard it was to learn what they're telling you they're going to do, and they can't stop and think about what it is they need to explain to the lay public." He added, "With this superintendent, who works so quickly, it exacerbates that problem."

Tough as Torres is on the board's communication skills, there are plenty of people outside the board room who would go further. Education Austin co-President Rae Nwosu and board President Mark Williams have clashed publicly over how the trustees run citizens' communication at the board meetings, and parents have been lining up as early as 4am on meeting days to take one of the 30 restricted speaking slots. Or take the budget community conversations: While Education Austin has applauded the district for increased outreach, there are still logistical questions.

Both the March 24 meeting at Reagan High School and the March 31 meeting at Bowie High School were during TAKS-testing season and on school nights. On top of that, the nearest Capital Metro bus stop to Bowie is almost a mile away. Add that all together, and it leaves activists like Amelia Duron wondering how serious the board is about community engagement, or if the board members even understand what it means to be a working parent without a car.

Yet Carstarphen argues that she is far better at communication than Forgione was, "especially when it comes to the budget." Rejecting the idea that the district talks over residents' heads, she described the use of technical jargon such as "tax rollback elections" and "golden pennies" in public discussions as essential. "For the people who don't need the communication breakdown, you have to have those details," she said. "If you use one wrong word or wrong phrase or wrong date, well, you know how it is here." She described her working relationship with the community as "a constructive one," as shown by the number of public meetings she has held. "I go out to a ton of school communities, lots of small meetings in our neighborhoods, lots of meetings at schools specifically about those schools." While the process might be "a little rough-and-tumble," she said, "it's because people care about their kids." For those who have concerns about how it is being handled, she said, "We just need to let the process continue to work through."

There have been efforts to improve some existing routes of communication and add strength to old institutions. Carstarphen has said that she wants to make better use of the District Advisory Council, a committee of parents, students, and business and school representatives. In addition, there are moves to improve links with the city. "It's time for us to get very strategic about new revenue streams," Carstarphen said at the Bowie budget conversation, and that's why she intends to "breathe some new life" into the AISD Public Education Foundation. Several members of City Council, including Laura Morrison, have expressed an interest in reviving the partially defunct fundraising foundation. In addition, on Feb. 17 City Council passed a resolution instructing City Manager Marc Ott to work with Car­star­phen to "identify potential operational efficiencies and partnership opportunities" between the city and the district. However, that process is still in a very early stage and unlikely to produce much fruit before the end of the year. While council is expecting an update from Ott before the end of the month, there may not be much to report. In an April 6 statement, the district said staff "have met once and had an initial discussion to generate possible ideas."

This lack of communication may all have just been a matter of social niceties if not for the fact that the district is on fire and the board faces a series of major decisions in the next few months that may further stretch public confidence. Board discussions on a tax ratification election, or TRE, have already begun, with the big questions being "how much?" and "when?" Education Austin is pushing hard for a property tax increase, and while the board balked at asking voters for a 5-cent increase last fall, trustee Cheryl Bradley said: "I believe it will be hard for us to avoid a TRE. Whether I support it or not, that's definitely something I will have to wrestle on." It's a balancing act. While schools desperately need the revenue, homeowners like Duron are already struggling with their tax bills. Then there's a bond election: While the Facility Master Plan shows some campuses in desperate need of renovation, the consensus among board members is that the storm over the same report has made the bond process harder.

That means the board will have to look at redrawing school attendance zones to make better use of existing campuses. AISD board President Mark Williams has called the act of changing which kid goes to which campus "the holy war of school districts," but Bradley portrayed it as inevitable. So far, she said, "Everyone came up with the idea of redrawing boundaries for everyone else, not so much redrawing boundaries for themselves."

The trustee with the broadest and bloodiest experience of redrawing school attendance zones is Schneider. He first got involved in district politics in 1998 as part of the last boundary shift, then faced real fire during his 2010 re-election over his support for redrawing the attendance zones for Gorzycki Middle School and Baldwin Elemen­tary. If the board is serious about redesigning the whole district, he expects the process to start in earnest this fall, and he expects it to get ugly everywhere. "You're going to be pushing and tugging from every boundary across the district, so I don't see a way that you don't adjust at least minutely all the boundaries at the same time." Brutal as the process can be, Schneider said, "the key to all this is the programs in these schools. If the parents don't have confidence in those programs, they're going to fight you tooth and nail. If they are satisfied with it, you're not going to have as much of a problem."

So the board is left wondering how much confidence the community has in the district. Many campaigners fear the board and the district have missed an opportunity, becoming the target of school advocates rather than their ally against state cuts. At the Bowie meeting, Carstarphen said, "I love the passion of Austin, but I do worry that we'll burn ourselves out early." As far as Duron is concerned, that burnout may have already come. "People can only do so much," she warned. When the current wave of activism started, she said, "all our teachers, so many parents were involved. Now everybody is so stressed out, and they don't want to hear nothing."

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Austin ISD, Meria Carstarphen, budget, Legislature, Annette LoVoi, Vince Torres, Robert Schneider, Cheryl Bradley

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