The Austin Chronicle

School District Preps for Electoral Fight

Challengers start to emerge for two AISD trustee seats

By Richard Whittaker, July 22, 2016, News

With a strained billion-dollar budget, and the futures of over 80,000 students at stake, the position of Austin ISD trustee is a thankless one that rarely draws candidates. With filing for the November election opening on July 25, the district is bracing for two contested elections and – so far – three unchallenged returns.

There are five seats up for grabs this year, but only four incumbents returning. Former board president Gina Hinojosa vacates her At-Large Position 8 to run to replace veteran House District 49 incumbent Elliott Naishtat. However, there are already two declared candidates in the race to replace her.

The first at-large hopeful, Cindy Anderson, already knows AISD's governance intimately. The vice president of the Austin Council of PTAs, she said, "I got to the point where I thought I had done as much work as I could on the outside." She considered running in her home seat of District 6 in 2014, "but the timing wasn't right." However, this time she's planning to file, with many of what she calls "issues that are obvious to folks" (budget, overcrowding, underenrollment, and teacher salaries) on her agenda. However, she's also targeting what she describes as "an enormous differential between workforce needs and what we're producing in terms of a skilled workforce." With a massive growth in IT and biotech vacancies, and a predicted shortfall in suitably skilled applicants (especially from minority and economically disadvantaged households), she argues the district has to get better at providing opportunities and counseling.

She's not in the Position 8 race alone. Attorney David Quintanilla may not have her pedigree within the district but, he said, "I'm running because this is my home. I'm convinced the future of our school district is the future of our great community." He described school boards as "the last line of defense against bad policies emanating from the Legislature," and his top issues are simple: curtailing declining enrollment, tackling inequality in the light of the amplifying national discussion about race and community, and "promoting and fostering innovation. When people say, 'That's just the way it is,' or 'That's just the way it's done,' then those people are part of the problem."

The electoral fight is much more complex in District 2, currently held by Trustee Jayme Mathias. He came in on a wave of goodwill in 2012, as part of the coalition opposed to the district's ill-fated deal with IDEA Public Schools. Four years later, and he has been the cause and subject of tension on the board. He took a hit when his fellow board members voted him out as secretary, and now Andy Anderson – a veteran of several district bodies, including the Boundary Advisory Committee and the Budget & Finance Advisory Committee – has announced a challenge.

Yet Hinojosa's empty seat and the Mathias-Anderson fight may be the only contested races, and that's good news for the other three incumbents up for re-election. In District 3, retired teacher Ann Teich wants her second term (although she has confirmed that she has no ambitions for a third), as does her neighbor to the south, District 5's Amber Elenz. Both are four-year veterans of the dais, but it's a quicker trip back to the ballot box for Yasmin Wagner. She challenged District 7 trustee Robert Schneider in 2014 and lost, but was appointed by the board to fill his empty seat after he died a year ago. While his term was not supposed to expire until 2018, under legal advice the board made her interim appointment temporary, with a new election scheduled for this year.

So far, none of these three have heard word of a challenger. That's particularly good news for Elenz, who had seemed most at risk. Her close alliances with Mathias, in addition to her early controversial vote not to cancel the contract with IDEA Public Schools, had drawn flak. Both Quintanilla and former Annie's List deputy director Piper Nelson had been rumored to be eyeing a challenge, but with Quintanilla going at-large instead, and Nelson seemingly deciding against running, she seems set to return without challenge.

Every incumbent has a degree of unfinished business, and for Elenz the big issue is academic language therapy and dyslexia intervention. The district has put more emphasis into early diagnosis, "and that's huge," she said, "because these kids that were identified as lazy or slow are getting the help they need." There are also concrete financial advantages: Elenz said AISD is losing students to surrounding districts with better ALT provision, and the program could slow enrollment decrease. Moreover, she said, "If we start catching all these struggling readers and getting the tools they need, so much of the remediation that we do in [grades] 3-12 disappears."

For their to-do lists, Teich and Wagner both point to implementing the work of the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee (FABPAC), with specific ramifications for their own districts. For Teich's North Central seat, she's most interested in AISD's impact in two particular areas. First, there's the ever-growing but constantly troubled Rundberg (a topic of special interest for Teich, who also serves as part of the Restore Rundberg program). Second, there's the long-running debate over the district's presence at Mueller, and whether the district should build a campus or other facilities there. Teich said, "We study it to death, but making sure that we actually achieve a plan, that would be exciting."

Wagner has her own long-running local issue with which to contend: the decade-old discussion about the new southwest high school (an issue so protracted that she used the delay against Schneider in the 2014 election, arguing he was ignoring overcrowding in his district). She's also concerned about the possibility her part of town may need a new elementary, but as the board liaison with the FABPAC, she also regards their work as a core part of district finances. As AISD is one of the biggest property owners in Austin, she said, "We can't talk about fiscal responsibility without talking about that."

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