With all the energy generated by Austin's first City Council election under single-member districts, it's easy to forget that there will be five Austin ISD seats – including the At-Large Place 9 position – on the Nov. 4 ballot. "Keep scrolling – just before the props, there we are," said District Advisory Council member Kendall Pace.
She's one of five candidates hoping to replace incumbent Tamala Barksdale, who is stepping down after one term. The group includes Pace; founder of the Enlightened Warriors afterschool program and mixed martial-arts coach Nael Chavez; PR consultant and Kealing Middle School advocate Kazique Prince; UT Texas Success Initiative program coordinator Hillary Procknow; and retired educator Andy Trimino.
The district is undoubtedly entering an era of major change and, as is traditional in AISD, the at-large members will look beyond individual vertical teams in order to take a more holistic view of the district. As AISD apparently transitions from an east-vs.-west city to one with a north-south divide, the African-American community is shrinking while the Hispanic and Asian populations are rapidly expanding. Prince, who enters the race with endorsements from not just Barksdale, but also her predecessor, Annette LoVoi, presents himself as the candidate of this new Austin. "I want people to really see the commonality of the struggles."
One key issue for AISD is that, while individual campuses like Eastside Memorial High School have seen attendance rise, overall district enrollment is down, as parents choose private and charter schools, and neighboring ISDs. For Procknow, the cure seems straightforward: "We stop the bleeding by creating amazing schools." Pace and Prince argue that AISD already has some amazing schools; it's just not very good at promoting them to students and parents. While Pace supports the idea of a district PR campaign, as seen in Houston and San Antonio, she also wants better information available on campus-specific programs, so kids know what is available within AISD.
But this raises the issue of transfer policies. Prince himself took advantage of transfers for his own kids, but joins the chorus of concern about magnet programs pulling high-performing students away from their home campuses. There's a consensus that, if individual campuses were given better support and provided more options, there would be less or no need for magnets. Trimino even sees this as an opportunity to better integrate campuses into their neighborhoods, and suggests that, if individual campuses collaborated more with neighborhood businesses to provide specialist, professional, and vocational training, then students would not need to spend hours every day riding buses.
The role of private partners on public campuses is one of the few dividing lines between candidates. Procknow voiced extreme concern that the district lets advocates with no experience but deep pockets – "I'm looking at Pearson and the Gates Foundation and any other venture capitalists" – control how schools are run. By contrast, Pace spent the last two years working with parents, AISD trustees, nonprofits, funders, and UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement building the local chapter of Parents for Public Schools. "It's a hard road to get people that you can't pay to coalesce around an idea, but I like big problems with no easy answers."
Whoever wins in November – or, if there's a run-off, December – then top of their to-do list will be selecting a new superintendent. However, before the who, there's the how and when. Currently, the district is under the guidance of Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz, with a plan to select a permanent replacement in mid-January, 2015, in time for the next legislative session. However, there are increasing concerns that the new board won't have enough time to really assess the finalists. Pace suggested the new trustees could set their own timeline, and noted that the search firm originally argued the hiring should take place in February or March, once the new board is firmly settled. She even argues that it would improve the applicant pool since, under the current timeline, the finalist short list will be selected by one board, and the finalist selected by another: "What candidate is going to want to take a job where five out of nine bosses are new?"
That's a concern echoed by Trimino, who said he asked current trustees if the new board will have any real say in the process, and was told, "Well, most of you, probably." With run-offs almost inevitably delaying the final election result until the year's end, he advocates that the hiring could be pushed to March or mid-April: Otherwise, he said, "I think the new people will not be able to do anything about it."
Prince took a slightly more moderate line, not calling for specific changes to the timeline, but adding that nothing should be off the table. However, he called the need for real involvement by the incoming board "critical." Similarly, Procknow said it would be "more prudent" to let the new board take leadership, and that concerns about the upcoming legislative session create artificial pressures. "What we want is a superintendent who is going to stay for two or more years and will build a rapport."
P. Kevin Bryant
David "D" Thompson
Edmund T. Gordon
Robert Schneider (i)
At-Large Position 9
Kazique Jelani Prince
Andy M. Trimino
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