High School Stakes

Austin ISD election could shape a new direction for the district

With two open and two contested seats on the ballot, next year's AISD board could look much different.
With two open and two contested seats on the ballot, next year's AISD board could look much different. (Photo by Sandy Carson)

On Nov. 6, voters in the Austin Inde­pen­dent School District won't just be selecting new trustees. They will effectively be holding a referendum on district Super­intendent Meria Carstarphen. Currently, the board is balanced 6-3, with pro-Carstarphen members in the majority. The four seats on the November ballot mean that balance of power could switch. Yet being a school board trustee is a thankless task; they're unpaid, unappreciated, held accountable for the district's failings, and rarely complimented on its successes. No one joins a school board (in Travis County at least) if he or she has aspirations for higher political office, and with the amount of time the job requires, it's a minor miracle anyone runs at all. In fact, in many years the incumbent seats are uncontested. (By the way, the board is based on a "hybrid" system, with seven districted seats and two at large.)

But this year is different, with two open and two contested seats on the ballot. Board President Mark Williams is stepping down from his Central and West Austin seat, triggering a fight between District Advisory Coun­cil member Amber Elenz and local activist Charlie Jackson. Williams' exit is as big a surprise as that of at-large member Annette LoVoi, which sparks a contest between civil rights attorney Gina Hinojosa and Sooch Foundation Executive Director Mary Ellen Pietruszynski. And both incumbents face strong challenges, as well. In South­east Austin, Sam Guzmán is being pursued by Jayme Mathias, a Catholic priest, while in North Central, incumbent Chris­tine Brister faces the wrath of educators in the shape of retired teacher Ann Teich.

A loose slate has emerged among the challengers, with Mathias, Teich, Jackson, and Hinojosa all powered by frustration at the board's unwillingness to tackle Carstarphen. Since the last election in 2010, there has been a series of contentious decisions – an 8% cut in staff, the botched facility master plan, the imposition of in-district charter IDEA Allan – that has shattered community faith in the administration. Even some board members have publicly grumbled that Carstarphen and her cabinet are unresponsive to requests and often withhold information.

Guzmán argues that the process is working correctly, and specifically that Car­star­phen is doing her job by bringing administration recommendations to the board. "If she didn't," he said, "I would say she was not doing her job." Yet Jackson charges that the tail is wagging the dog, with the administration subtly setting the agenda to get what it wants. He said, "However you frame the discussion, then it leads to the inevitable conclusion." There's little doubt that this policy process – real or perceived – has put Guzmán and Brister in a difficult position. Then there are the wild cards, Elenz and Pietruszynski. This is the kind of election in which "experience" can be a disadvantage, and both will face questions over how close they are to the administration.

Historically, the AISD elections have been held in May, but in 2011 the board voted to move its elections into the Novem­ber cycle. For the first time, district leadership will be selected at the same time as the U.S. president, and voter turnout for these races is likely to reach record levels. If the new board changes direction and begins seriously challenging the administration, the effects could be tectonic. AISD wields a billion-dollar budget and has a huge influence on Austin's development and population. As one political consultant noted, this is the first time in years that AISD elections have been watercooler talk among the campaign pros.

District 2: Experience and Activism

Sam Guzmán vs. Father Jayme Mathias
Elementaries: Allan, Allison, Brooke, Dawson, Galindo, Govalle, Houston, Langford, Linder, Metz, Palm, Perez, Rodriguez, Sanchez, Widen, Zavala
Middle Schools: Martin, Mendez
High Schools: Eastside Memorial, International High
Guzmán (Photo by John Anderson)

School board elections are normally fairly bloodless affairs. This year the fight for Dis­trict 2 is a lesson in bare-fisted East Austin politics, as incumbent Sam Guzmán faces open warfare over his support for the IDEA Public Schools charter school at Allan.

Mathias (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Guzmán came aboard in 2007, succeeding longtime trustee Rudy Montoya, who stepped down. A year ago, he was politically bulletproof. Now his entire legacy may be judged by one decision: the insistence on creating an in-district charter school run by IDEA Public Schools, taking over Allan Ele­ment­ary and, starting in 2013, Eastside Mem­orial High School. Guzmán's logic was straightforward: AISD had left East Austin to languish, so it would take radical ideas and a radical restructuring to shake things up. If it works, then he'll be vindicated. If it fails, then his legacy will be one of a divided community, furious that AISD took away their neighborhood school.

When Guzmán first ran for re-election in 2008, he argued it had taken him that first year of Montoya's unexpired term to work out how the district operates and how to shape policy. He stands by the IDEA decision, if not how it was made. He said, "Do you sit there and do the same thing over and over again and have the same results, or do you actually try to do something?" He also rejects the idea that there is broad community opposition to IDEA and put the blame for the controversy on protest groups like Occupy Austin and Occupy AISD. He said, "There's a lot of people I talk to that are part of the community, yet they didn't go before the board because they don't do that. Maybe they work, maybe they can't, maybe they have childcare problems."

If Guzmán hadn't pushed for the IDEA project, he probably would not have faced a challenger. Now he faces Jayme Mathias, a young, charismatic, enthusiastic priest who approaches every public meeting like it's a tent revival. "I often joke that I came from the corn fields of Iowa to the corn tortillas of East Austin," Mathias said, but otherwise his campaign is light on humor. While not a native Austinite, he was a graduate student here in 1995 when, he recalled, "Pizza companies would not deliver to East Austin, and we had the roaring of the Holly Power Plant, which sounded like a train in our backyards." He was assigned to Cristo Rey Catholic Church in 2000 and has spent the last 12 years as a pastor and two years as a foreign language teacher at San Juan Diego Catholic High School. "I totally empathize with what teachers go through on a daily basis," he said. "My first semester, I was asked to give two courses simultaneously, in the same classroom, at the same time." He was then promoted to become the school's president. He said, "I branded that place as theschoolthatworks.com and was traveling all over to Central Texas to bring resources."

Like Guzmán, Mathias is not without controversy. He's not averse to stepping on toes: In 2009, when he became pastor at Cristo Rey, he fired staff member and El Concilio activist Gavino Fernandez, and the two fought a war of words among neighborhood factions and in the pages of the Austin American-Statesman. Fernandez has been promoting an online name-calling campaign against Mathias, who has refused to respond to the smear campaign, but with Austin voters that's a tactic as likely to backfire as succeed. Mathias recently broke with the Vatican and now serves as pastor for Holy Family American Catholic Church – part of the American Catholic Church of the United States, which he calls "much more progressive and open-minded." The final decision to leave came after the local diocese barred him from inviting Chicago Congressman Luis Gutiér­rez to his church to discuss immigration issues – because Gutiérrez is considered too pro-choice by Bishop Joe Vásquez. Mathias said, "Here we have a Catholic Hispanic congressman, who is always on the side of the people, who went to prison for advocating for the undocumented, and we cannot have him come and have him speaking."

Despite Mathias' challenge, Guzmán's professional star is in the ascendant. In February, he was elected the 2013 president of the statewide Mexican American School Board Association. He argues that his hard-won experience will make it easier to move more resources to his district, and that the board is a battle of increments. He said, "With time and tenure, you're able to win the trust of the other trustees to be able to move forward with the programs that you feel you need for your particular district."

When Guzmán replaced Montoya, he did it with only 574 votes out of a total turnout of 845 in a four-horse race. No one expects this November affair to be a 500-vote election, and not just because it's a presidential election year. Behind the scenes, Guzmán's supporters have implied that Mathias is a mouthpiece for political consultant David Butts – a charge Mathias denies. "I met David Butts for the first time at Gina Hinojosa's launch," he said. Meanwhile, he accuses Guzmán of being a political opportunist, representing the same East Austin establishment that has let the community languish. He sums the election up as a simple choice: "Do we want this top-down model where we have trustees who believe they know what is best for our students and their families, or do we want a bottom-up model where we as a community are getting together?"

District 3: Engagement and Accountability

Christine Brister vs. Ann Teich
Elementaries: Barrington, T.A. Brown, Cook, McBee, Reilly, Ridgetop, Walnut Creek, Wooldridge, Wooten
Middle Schools: Burnet, Webb
High School: Lanier
Brister (Photo by John Anderson)

Local educators describe North Austin as the new East Austin, and as a consequence, District 3 has many of the same issues as the traditionally troubled and underserved neighborhoods east of I-35. It is the densest and most diversely populated AISD board district, and many of its campuses are overcrowded, but incumbent Christine Brister feels that's definitely one area she can tout as a win for her district: "When I came on the board, they finally designated the undesignated elementary school for North Central." In addition, Dobie and Webb middle schools now have pre-K units, and there's another elementary in the planning stages. But Brister still faces a tough road to re-election after siding with the administration on several controversial decisions.

Teich (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Brister now addresses a District 3 different than the one that first elected her in 2008. Under the latest redistricting, it now reaches across I-35 and takes in the growing Mueller community. Her challenger, retired AISD teacher and neighborhood activist Ann Teich, sees high-needs schools across the district; for her, Burnet Road is just as much a dividing line as I-35. She said: "We have poverty, we have families that are mobile because they can't afford to live or their job takes them somewhere else. We have language issues. We have probably between 40 and 50 different cultures just at Lanier High School alone."

Teich compares Brister's term to her own activism with groups like Save Texas Schools, and her history teaching in low socioeconomic communities around Austin, including time at Martin Middle School. And she comes at many of AISD's problems with a teacher's sensibilities. "There needs to be a true, genuine working relationship between central office and the campuses," she said, adding she has often found that to be lacking. She points to how rarely Brister and her fellow trustees are seen on campuses, as they have taken the administration's line that trustees should try not to disturb the school day. By not traveling to schools around Austin, she said, Brister "does District 3 a disservice. She's making decisions for all schools, not just District 3."

Teich argues that trustees have to find the real troubled campuses for themselves, rather than letting that information be filtered through the administration. That will also make them better informed about, for example, how grant and foundation money has been spent, whether grant money is needed for radical redesign, or whether a campus is doing just fine. After all, she said, campuses like Webb turned scores around without becoming charters. "Magic bullets are not the way to go," Teich said. "It takes time. It takes effort. It takes doing your homework, dealing with community. That's what turns a school around."

Teich is critical of how the board overlooks District 3 in its discussions and notes that while the board has talked a good game about adding schools, so far there's been no sign of construction. Moreover, there's been little action from the board about why everything is taking so long. She said, "There are some of our board members who don't ask those questions, and if they're doing it, they're doing it way behind the scenes. They're not doing it in public."

That criticism could be a dig at Brister. She is the quietest member of the board, rarely likely to comment at length or critically about proposals. Teich said, "I've tried to reach her in the past, just as a constituent. She's not responded." But harsher critics see Brister's silence as passive submission to whatever Superintendent Meria Carstarphen asks for. Brister has heard those criticisms, but argued that silence does not mean she does not care. "Voicing my opinions more loudly from the dais may help," she said. As for the idea that she is not fully briefed, or does not hold the administration sufficiently accountable, she said, "I don't feel like I am disengaged, because I do feel like I get my information before the meetings."

Yet she has often found herself on the wrong side of public protest, and she concedes that there have been problems with the balance between the board and the administration. When it comes to issues of the scale of the Facility Master Plan, she said, "We need to be a little more thoughtful going forward, and a little more forceful with the superintendent." But she stands by her decisions and argues the board must vote its own will, even when the headlines and the signs are against them. She said, "Every time we bring an issue forward and there's an outcry, do we drop it?" Unpopular as that makes her in some quarters, she argues that she deserves a second term because of that voting record: "If I'm going to be held accountable for something, I'd rather be held accountable for its implementation, rather than just a vote that I took."

District 5: Community Relations and Data Analysis

Amber Elenz vs. Charlie Jackson
Elementaries: Barton Hills, Bryker Woods, Casis, Lee, Mathews, Oak Hill, Patton, Pease, Zilker
Middle Schools: O. Henry, Small
High School: Austin
Elenz (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Many Austinites wish they had District 5's problems. Located in arguably AISD's most affluent community, all nine of its elementaries are rated Exemplary or Recognized by the Texas Education Agency. Its outgoing trustee, Mark Williams, has spent the last six years as board president. Now two first-time candidates are hoping to bring the often-unacknowledged district problems to the surface.

Jackson (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Austin Council of Parent-Teachers Assoc­i­ation's ex-president and current District Advisory Council member Amber Elenz probably has as much districtwide experience as any trustee, but her AISD activism began at the ground level. Her daughter entered Bryker Woods Elementary a decade ago, just as the campus was caught in a testing scandal; a campus that had been 50% transfer students was losing students fast. "We were down to two kindergarten classes with 17 kids," said Elenz, so she decided to get involved in the PTA. "We started working together to make it a place to be proud of. Within three years, we'd turned it around – closed to transfers, at capacity." It was a similar story when her son was diagnosed with severe dyslexia – she started working with the campus to build an academic language therapy program. "It was this perfect collaborative effort," she said, "where the teacher won because she got this further certification, my child won, and so did 60 other kids."

Elenz's philosophy is ground-up: The campuses know best what they need and how to make it happen. One of her proudest achievements is expanding the use of roundtable discussions to bring together parents and staff from "vertical teams" (district jargon for a high school and all its feeder schools). "Amazing successes," she said. "Eastside Memorial team was one of our most successful. Crockett, who had never done this before in their life, first time talking to each other." That kind of communication she believes, is her strength: She said, "I know the principals, I know the [parent support specialists], I know the PTAs."

If Elenz emphasizes community relations to fix the district, then Charlie Jackson is the number-cruncher, prepared to extract the data from district staff if the administration is not forthcoming. Not surprising, considering he started his career working for Texas Congressman Bob Eckhardt, "investigating things like Pinto car crashes" before founding anti-conflict activist charity Texans for Peace. More recently, he was a founding member of Austinites for Geo­graph­ic Representation – the group responsible for the 10-1 City Council redistricting proposal (see "Point Austin: The Usual Suspects," July 27). He had stayed out of education politics because his wife was a teacher, but he said, "When I moved Down­town it was purposefully with the intent to become a lot more active – attending school board, keeping up with the issues, and maybe getting into [district] politics."

In recent years, he has concentrated on his IT firm Acceleros. Although he is best known as a peace activist, being perceived as "the business candidate" in an AISD race could be a big negative among liberal and progressive voters. However, even though – or possibly because – he was president of the Cottonwood Chamber of Commerce in Ari­zona in the mid-1990s, Jackson is publicly critical of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which he said reflects only "the Downtown central club." He praised the chamber for making education a high priority, but said, "where it becomes negative is when it tries to set policies in a realm where they don't understand certain things."

In many ways, District 5 provides AISD with one of its proudest boasts – that, unlike many other urban ISDs, middle-class parents still use public schools. But like all of Austin, the district is changing, and Elenz called it "very different than when Mark started." It melds the growing suburban population of Travis County with South Austin and the city center population, and "what a Casis parent wants in terms of how big a school should be is very different to what a Barton Hills or Bryker Woods parent thinks the right answer should be," she said. "Getting them to understand that they're all on the same team is an interesting challenge for whoever's in this seat."

For Jackson, "The primary issue is competing with Eanes and other wealthy surrounding districts and trying to live up to that competition in a way that parents will still choose to live in AISD." But it's a tough balancing act, keeping District 5 schools open without simply pandering to affluent families. The district already has local enrollment problems; three of its elementaries are being threatened with closure under the abortive Facility Master Plan (see "What the Task Force Wrought," May 27, 2011) and are maintained at capacity only because of transfer students. Unfortunately, that situation can generate community tensions about "their" neighborhood school. Yet Jackson argues that the board won't avoid another round of white flight by letting surrounding schools languish in order to lavish more assets on middle-class neighborhoods. For him, it's not about good campuses, but a successful district. He said, "That would be solved if you were looking at the district as a whole, and you were improving all the schools."

Position 8, At-Large: The Shadow of Carstarphen

Gina Hinojosa vs. Mary Ellen Pietruszynski
Hinojosa (Photo by Jana Birchum)

For critics of Superintendent Meria Car­starphen, the most important race of all may be the one to replace Annette LoVoi. Along with her fellow at-large trustee Tamala Barksdale and District 7's Robert Schneider, LoVoi has represented consistent resistance to the administration. Many meetings have ended with her asking Carstarphen and her cabinet for more information or voting against her more radical proposals. At the same time, her exit deprives the superintendent's critics of their closest and most effective standard-bearer. That means Carstarphen's shadow runs longer over this race than any other, and this race will arguably give a clearer vision of what the whole of AISD – not just one district seat – wants from the board.

Pietruszynski (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The battle lines are already drawn. In 2011, Sooch Foundation Executive Director Mary Ellen Pietruszynski co-authored a letter to the Statesman defending Carstar­phen against "misdirected and dangerously shortsighted" criticisms of her style of leadership and imploring the community to "let Meria Carstarphen lead AISD as she sees fit." Civil rights attorney Gina Hinojosa is taking the opposite stance, arguing that the board must represent the core beliefs of the community and either redirect the administration or just say no. While she hears and understands the criticisms of Carstarphen, she said, "The criticisms are misplaced, because ultimately those controversial decisions are being approved by the board, so that's where the buck stops."

So far, Hinojosa has been sweeping the local endorsements. Her supporter list includes the great and the good of Austin politics, including former Mayor Gus Garcia, current Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and even Leffingwell's most recent challenger, Brigid Shea. Being the daughter of Texas Demo­cratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa also carries some political leverage – but then again, Pietruszynski is not short of resources herself, having hired Houston-based communications firm Elite Change to handle her campaign. Yet the single most telling endorsement may be retiring trustee LoVoi herself, who is backing Hinojosa.

An attorney by training, Hinojosa has spent time working on civil rights issues with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Equal Justice Center. She said: "Right now, there's a tremendous opportunity to rally the community behind our public schools in a way that is so necessary, and in a way that is not happening. In fact, I've seen that just the opposite is happening." She points to the chaos caused by the Facility Master Plan and the proposal to close a swath of neighborhood schools as the turning point for her. "It shook confidence for so many in the community," she said, but she found one positive aspect: "For many years, I'd been watching what was going on at the district and attending school board meetings, and I have to say that it was rare that those meetings were full. When this proposal happened, you had to fight to get in." However, she is frustrated by how those meetings are run. "The board can't ask questions of speakers," she said. "You can't speak on issue items, like you can at council. They may be the most inaccessible elected representatives that we have."

Hinojosa has the activist and social justice credentials. Yet in terms of raw educational experience, Pietruszynski should be leading. As the executive director of the Sooch Foundation, she has helped manage donations to schools and needy groups around Austin, and even worked with the district on its (ultimately unsuccessful) application for a federal Promise Neighbor­hoods grant (see "Children's Zone: Can Harlem Come to Austin?", Jan. 29, 2010). Pietruszynski said: "I see one side of Austin through my eight years running this foundation. I am the mother of two children who are products of AISD, so I saw another side of Austin through that experience." Her top priority is the budget. Calling herself "a proponent of alternative sources of funding," she notes that she has "experience looking at outside stakeholders and means of collaboration to bring additional funding sources to the district."

Not everyone is happy about external donor groups. Many education advocates fear that school districts are so cash-starved that they'll chase any dollars that a trust or foundation offers – and accept whatever strings are attached. One symptom of that education foundation involvement is "experimental models," and mixed influence has been seen locally behind the push for charters and single-sex schools. While she calls neighborhood schools the heart of the district, Pietruszynski supports "educational choice." She said: "It's important to me that we encourage diverse educational opportunities across the district. We are not a one-size-fits-all district. If we want that, we can go to our neighboring districts."

Hinojosa says she also supports choice, but argues that it has to be done in a way that doesn't drain other campuses and communities of resources. Many Austinites feel like choice is being forced down their throats – the current case in point is Allan Elementary – and Hinojosa argues the district has done a poor job absorbing those stakeholders' concerns. Consider the neighborhood group PRIDE of the Eastside: When they fought back against turning Allan Elementary into a charter school, they were slammed by IDEA Public Schools CEO Tom Torkelson as "professional protestors." And when the board voted on IDEA Allan, the PRIDE members were literally left out in the rain while seats were held for IDEA staff. For Hinojosa, that kind of behavior is symptomatic of a district that has forgotten how to engage the community. It was the same problem with the Facility Master Plan, where the district somehow found ways to alienate long-term education activists who are normally its biggest supporters. Hinojosa said, "We need to see that energy and that organization as an opportunity, rather than something to fear."

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