AISD Hunts Chief and Trustees
Superintendent search and board campaigns coincide
The two biggest administrative headaches for any school district are picking a superintendent, and managing board elections. The Austin Independent School District faces the conundrum of doing both at the same time.
Last month, search firm Ray and Associates released a candidate profile for the $300,000-per-year superintendency. The end result of dozens of public and invitational consultation meetings with stakeholders and community members, it reads much like the profile trustees constructed before hiring former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen in 2008: Strong leadership and communication skills, experience in education innovation, must play well with others – specifically, the board and the media. If that seems like a lot of effort to find out what the board already knew, former board President Mark Williams describes the consultation period as being as much about ensuring community buy-in to the process as the actual drafting of the job ad.
The job is now posted, but trustees have changed the hiring timeline. The original closing date for applications was Sept. 20, but has since been delayed to Oct. 20. According to Trustee Gina Hinojosa, there were two reasons for the postponement. The first was the recommendation of the recruiting firm, to allow for more applications. That could be essential since, as Williams explained, "The talent pool just isn't that deep." In 2009, the board had only a handful of serious candidates, and two of them subsequently landed in jail – El Paso ISD Superintendent Lorenzo García for a test-fixing scandal, and Jesus Gandara, superintendent of Sweetwater Union High School District in California, for his role in a corruption scandal.
The second reason was a political reality. The plan has been to stretch the selection process across the board election process. On the old timeline, the current board selects the initial shortlist of finalists, but the new board will make the final offer on Dec. 15. But at their Aug. 26 meeting, trustees discussed the very real possibility that the new board may not be in place by then. With four candidates in District 1 and five in At-Large Position 9, December run-offs seem likely, so the board proposed a revised timeline, with a final decision on Jan. 8.
Hinojosa is optimistic the new board will hit that revised target. However, the original Dec. 15 target was set because it would allow a new superintendent to take office before classes start on Jan. 5 and the new legislative session commences on Jan. 13. Shifting the calendar makes it impossible to hit those dates; moreover, the new board may choose to set its own timeline, with a longer time to hire a finalist. However, board president Vince Torres said trustees always knew that, due to existing contracts, there was always "the possibility that whoever we picked would not have the ability to start instantaneously."
That raises the serious question of who will be on the board to make the final decision, and last week saw the first major endorsements of the election cycle. On Aug. 6, Education Austin and the Central Labor Council released their list. The bulk of their endorsements were of little surprise. The teachers' union had been in close communication with both UT Associate Professor Ted Gordon in District 1, and business consultant Kazique J. Prince in Place 9, before either candidate filed, and EA President Ken Zarifis attended PR consultant Paul Saldaña's campaign announcement when Saldaña declared that he's running for District 6. Equally unsurprising was the decision to back incumbent Robert Schneider in District 7.
A few eyebrows might have been raised over the endorsement of Julie Cowan in District 4. When she ran in 2010 against Tamala Barksdale in Position 9, she was attacked as a Republican, even though the election is officially nonpartisan. However, that party rancor mostly took place during the run-off: In the first round, the two were often neck-and-neck as viable candidates. This cycle, Cowan's only potential weak spot, for the teacher and staff union, was her concern over the board's return to three-year contracts for teaching staff.
However, while some old wounds seem to have healed, other new and bitter ones seem to be festering. On Aug. 21, Saldaña's opponent Monica Sanchez sent a testy email to Hinojosa, District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias, and Edna Butts, the district's Director of Intergovernmental Relations and Policy Oversight. In it, Sanchez accused Hinojosa and Mathias of being "hypocrites" because they had "actively sought not one, not two, but three different people to run against me." The point of tension seems to be that Mathias was present, along with Zarifis, at Saldaña's campaign launch. Exactly what Hinojosa did to inspire Sanchez's ire remains unclear.