AISD on Cruz Control

Interim superintendent becomes sole finalist

Paul Cruz
Paul Cruz (Courtesy of AISD)

A week ago, the Austin Independent School District's board of trustees was poised to hire a new superintendent. The list of applicants was secret, but there was one person everyone knew was not on it: Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz. Fast forward to Dec. 10, and not only is Cruz an applicant, but he is the sole remaining candidate – after both surviving external applicants withdrew.

In April, when then-Chief Schools Officer Cruz replaced former superintendent Meria Carstarphen on an interim basis, AISD trustees followed the recommendations of the Texas Association of School Boards that an interim should be excluded from applying for the permanent position. The logic is that an incumbent would have an unfair advantage over external candidates. However, at the board work session on Dec. 8, after months of public pressure, trustees voted to allow Cruz to apply for the position. Outgoing At-Large Position 9 Trustee Tamala Barksdale said, "We've seen the best of the best that's out there [and] it's my due conclusion that Dr. Cruz is amongst their ranks."

While the board voted unanimously to add Cruz's name to the list, it was clear that this was not an easily reached decision. The splits became more obvious when discussion shifted to a hiring timeline. Trustees Ann Teich and Robert Schneider both argued that, between the lineup change, and the upcoming holidays, rushing with a quick decision could be damaging. Their position was supported by candidates in the current run-off elections, including Dis­trict 6 opponents Paul Saldaña and Kate Mason Murphy, who both said the incoming board should be given a significant role.

By contrast, Barksdale argued that the situation should be resolved "with all due haste," and board VP Gina Hinojosa also wanted a quick resolution, so the district can move to fill other critical vacancies, such as the director of special education. The board adopted a new and still rapid timeline: All finalist names would be announced on Dec. 12, with a public forum/meeting with the short-list candidates at Lanier High School at 10am this Saturday, Dec. 13, and the sole finalist to be announced on Dec. 15. It would then be left to the new board of trustees, taking office in January 2015, to formally sign off on any contract.

While these actions may have made many in Austin happy, the reality for the other applicants was that now there was a new player in the game, with a home-field advantage. Moreover, at a large rally on Dec. 9, speakers from most local chambers of commerce, the Education Austin teachers union, as well as Council Members Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell, applauded the board for adding Cruz's name to the shortlist. So there was little surprise when AISD tweeted around noon on Wednesday, Dec. 10 that all external candidates had withdrawn. The Dec. 13 forum still happens, with only Cruz as the sole contender. Hinojosa said that, while the board was fully aware they could lose the good applicants by inviting him to apply, "my greater fear was losing the opportunity to consider Dr. Cruz."

Education Austin President Ken Zarifis praised the board for being flexible and responsive. He said, "If I'm using a lesson plan and it doesn't work, even if I have the best of intentions, then I have to shift that." And he put a positive spin on the loss of external applicants: "If the other candidates withdrew from the search because of his inclusion, they must have felt they didn't have the same skill set as Dr. Cruz to be successful in Austin."

The union has been the most consistent voice calling for Cruz to be considered, but not the only one – Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President of Education/Talent Development Drew Scheberle noted that "Cruz is qualified for the toughest job in Austin."

A reported 98 candidates had applied, with a smaller pool of serious contenders: Sources close to the AISD process say there were a half-dozen top-tier applicants. That was whittled to a shortlist of two – a Hispanic female and an Anglo male – but behind the scenes, the board was extremely divided. Cruz in some ways represents a compromise candidate, and one with popular public support. If the contract process goes smoothly, this would actually be Cruz's second superintendency, having led Laredo ISD from 1998 to 2002. Board President Vince Torres said, "He certainly has the capabilities to run AISD. Clearly, we wouldn't have selected him to be an interim if he didn't."

Cruz has two major qualifications: He knows AISD, and he knows the Texas education system. He joined AISD under then-superintendent Pat Forgione in 2003 as assistant superintendent for educational services, before becoming a core part of Car­star­phen's cabinet as chief schools officer. Prior to that, he had several stints in senior posts at the Texas Education Agency, including a year as Deputy Com­mis­sioner for Dropout Prevention and Init­ia­tives. His local credentials are a contrast to Car­star­phen's reputation as a national-level superstar. Their temperaments could not be more different: Carstarphen's tenure was marred by conflict, and her management style was described behind the scenes alternatively as combative, autocratic, and tyrannical. By contrast, the backroom criticism of Cruz is that he is too amenable, and has difficulty saying no.

The meet-the-candidate forum is at Lanier High School, 1201 Payton Gin Rd.; 10am, Saturday, Dec. 13

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AISD Board, AISD Superintendent, Paul Cruz, Meria Carstarphen, Tamala Barksdale, Ann Teich, Robert Schneider, Paul Saldaña, Gina Hinojosa, Ken Zarifis, Kate Mason Murphy

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