The following are the Chronicle's recommendations for the Austin Independent School District board of trustees, where a dramatic changeover in policy leadership will follow the not unexpected but abrupt departure to Atlanta of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. The district faces increasing pressure from the state's inadequate public school finance system – again ruled unconstitutional even while it continues to "recapture" many millions in resources from the "property wealthy" AISD that yet serves a majority of poor, minority students. The new, mostly freshmen trustees will have to get up to speed very quickly, hire a new superintendent with a more collaborative style, and develop policies that maximize school resources while also working with other districts to reverse the state's historical inequities. It's a tall order, and in making our endorsements, we tried to keep those challenges in mind.
Incumbent Tamala Barksdale's departure from her seat after only one term is a sad loss, especially since she finally seemed to be getting her bearings in this thankless position. In a packed race to replace her, there is a lot of commitment to the principles of public education. However, Pace, with broad experience in both nonprofits and district bodies, shows by far the broadest, deepest, and most nuanced understanding of the nuts and bolts of both AISD, and Texas education in general. We are also impressed, however, with Kazique Prince's obvious intelligence and commitment to equity and inclusion, areas too often overlooked in AISD. Whatever the result of this election, we hope he will stay engaged in district policies and decisions moving forward.
The Northeast area of Austin has historically been AISD's most segregated and institutionally neglected section. However, the district's problems are far from unique citywide.Yet retiring incumbent Cheryl Bradley often promulgated an "Us vs. Them" approach that served to cause further tensions and create reflexive administrative responses – making District 1 almost an island for experimentation, rather than part of an integrated whole. On a slate of candidates that propose fixes for its specific campuses, UT African and African Diaspora Studies Chair Gordon is best poised to make D1 more than just an education reform laboratory. Should he be elected, it will be a test of the nostrum, "If you wish to get something done, ask a busy person" – but he's consulted with predecessors on the trustee workload, and intends to convene a group of collaborators from both the district and the university – where there is indeed plenty of expertise relevant to district needs. His work on the city's African-American Quality of Life Initiative shows broad, out-of-the-box thinking that, if implemented with enough energy and commitment, could result in real social change, and turn D1 into a role model for the rest of AISD.
In 2010, when Cowan opposed Tamala Barksdale for the board's At-Large seat (position 9), we were torn between two highly qualified candidates. In the end, we endorsed Barksdale, but we are pleased to see Cowan return to the ballot. After her loss, her work both within district schools and on the legislative staff of that rarest of birds – a pro-public education Republican – has reinforced our belief that she understands the big policy needs of the district. She has already done much good work for the district, and enjoys a broad range of support for her candidacy. And, much as in 2010, we find ourselves applauding the passion of her opponent, Karen Zern Flanagan. We would suggest that the district call on her expertise and commitment to the often unaddressed health and wellbeing needs of AISD students.
This South-Central zone of AISD has the potential to be a model for the entire school district. For example, community-led projects like the Travis Heights Elementary in-district charter (which builds on public school experience without trying to cherry-pick the most readily teachable students), could help rebuild the public trust largely lost under former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, whose replacement will be a major responsibility of the incoming trustees. Kate Mason-Murphy has a teacher's perspective and instincts – and should be an invited asset on district policies, especially regarding classroom teaching. But Saldaña's experience as an advocate for families, especially the growing Hispanic student body, is broadly based, and his extensive community connections should leverage his presence on the board. His long experience on educational issues and his understanding of both the operations and the legal strictures affecting AISD are strong. Now he must make a personal transition from critical advocate on public education to culpable decision maker – inside the tent, as it were – in a context of making the case for public schools to the whole community. We're confident he can do the job.
Cantankerous. Obstructionist. Critical. And those are his good qualities. Detail-oriented, and willing to take unpopular stances when the facts support it, retired UT computing researcher Schneider was one of the first trustees to demand accountability from former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. As he runs for a fourth term, he is a known quantity on a slate of otherwise new faces. Over the next two years, AISD will select a new superintendent, and traverse the minefield of school finance reform. While his challenger Yasmin Wagner (a second opponent, Theresa Bastian, dropped out after filing) seems committed to increasing outcomes and reducing outflows in the district, Schneider's experience will be vital on a board on which no other member has more than two years tenure.
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