Who Follows Torres?
Cowan vs. Flanagan in AISD District 4
When Vince Torres announced that he would not be running again for the AISD board of trustees, it was a tectonic change. Not only did the board lose its president, but the city's Northwest lost its District 4 representative. The board selects its own president, but area residents first must choose between two district contenders: dietitian Karen Zern Flanagan, and former legislative staffer Julie Cowan.
That makes this the only one of the five board seats on the ballot guaranteed not to go to a December run-off. That's probably a relief to Cowan, who went through the second round agony in 2010, when she lost to Tamala Barksdale for the At-Large Position 9 seat. She says she was initially "reluctant" to run again, but was persuaded by community stakeholders: "It came about a little differently this time around, with people asking me, rather than just me stepping up."
She also returns as a more seasoned candidate. Following her last run, she spent two years working at Anderson High as a school improvement facilitator, educating parents on options and liaising with Austin Community College. She also worked with the Austin Council of PTAs and anti-high-stakes testing organization Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. That's how she became a legislative aide for Rep. Cecil Bell – a Magnolia Republican, but one endorsed as pro-public education by the Texas Parent PAC for the last two election cycles. Cowan suggests that the district has been "too cautious" in engaging with the state, and while outright lobbying would be illegal, she believes that engaging more persistently with lawmakers will give AISD more influence over a redraft the state's school finance system – so Austin doesn't continue, under "recapture," sending hundreds of millions of dollars every year to state coffers.
In contrast to Cowan's policy experience, Flanagan's background is more hands-on. A dietitian with a master's in food science, she works primarily with cancer patients and diabetes sufferers. She even sparked a long-running feud with the district over school meal times. That's seemingly a baroque concern in the age of high-stakes testing, but with some overcrowded schools starting lunch at 10:30am, by early afternoon students are hungry and distracted when they should be concentrating.
With her nuts-and-bolts approach, Flanagan is quite prepared to make unpopular statements when necessary. For example, on the seemingly inviolate concept of neighborhood schools: "They are not a romantic idea to me," she said. "It only benefits a few people. We have a lot of kids that go to Davis that can't walk to school." She argues that people need to be more concerned about retaining staff than individual structures, including better starting pay and raises for teachers. "Have you looked at their salaries? If they stick around for nine years, they only make $600 more." She's also quite prepared to get her hands dirty looking for savings. While she is Trustee Ann Teich's appointee to the Community Bond Oversight Committee, she actually voted against all four of the 2012 bonds, calling them "poorly put together," and has called for a full audit on bond projects and program costs.
Education always seems to come back to money, and while many people may think of District 4 as a wealthy part of town, both Cowan and Flanagan are quick to point out its specific needs. Most AISD schools discuss bilingual education as an English-Spanish question, but in certain District 4 campuses, like Summit Elementary, 25 languages are spoken in the halls. There is also massive overcrowding – Doss Elementary is at almost double its capacity. Cowan points to flawed population prediction models, arguing that city and district demographers are looking too much at new home construction, and not at shifting demographics through home sales. More young families are moving into the area, attracted in part by high-quality schools. Moreover, she says, the district cannot presume that all those incoming families can spend cash on extracurricular programs, or a computer tablet for all their kids. Flanagan said, "Granted, there is a lot of money at Anderson, and a lot of very generous families, but that's not always the case."