The School Board Shuffle
Geronimo Rodriguez named AISD board prez after Kendall Pace resigns
Twelve hours after Kendall Pace resigned from the Austin Independent School District's Board of Trustees, her former colleagues voted to appoint District 6 Trustee Geronimo Rodriguez as the new board president. D7 Trustee Yasmin Wagner was appointed to the vice president position Rodriguez vacated. D4 Trustee Julie Cowan continues as board secretary. Reached Tuesday, May 22, Rodriguez said he would "serve the will of the board" and that building trust with his colleagues and the community would be key moving forward.
The vote came after a lengthy board meeting marked by a fiery public comment period. Unsurprisingly, the majority of speakers were there to criticize the remarks made by Pace in text messages revealed last week ("Teachers Union to AISD Board President: Resign," May 18), which resulted in her resignation Monday morning. But Pace's resignation didn't do much to tamp the fury of those who showed up to address the underlying implications behind Pace's texts, which appeared to malign dual language programs and the "community schools" model, something that has become a popular antidote among education activists for underperforming schools in the district.
The at-large seat Pace vacated will remain empty for the foreseeable future. Board members cannot discuss what to do with the seat except at a public meeting, and no such item is yet on an agenda. The board could either appoint a trustee to serve the remaining six months in Pace's term or leave the seat open until the November general election.
Pace's texts were sent to Cowan in reference to the Transformation Zone Program, a grant opportunity from the Texas Education Agency which would provide funding primarily to Title I schools (campuses with at least 40% of their population classified as low-income), to allow them greater autonomy in improving student performance. Jacob Reach, special assistant to the superintendent at AISD, explained that campuses with more autonomy could implement strategies that don't necessarily conform to district policy, if they proved effective. Reach said the district is still determining the "readiness" of campuses that could apply for the grant, but he hoped to present more information before the board on June 11. Grant applications are due to TEA at the end of June.
But education activists leery of the TZP were alarmed by Pace's revealed approach to the grant process. Most of the public speakers described feeling "disrespected," "demeaned," and demoralized by her references to "poverty pimps," "crazy ignorant community activists," and "grubbers asking for money" to improve struggling schools. Alan Weeks, executive director of Austin Voices for Education and Youth, said that the texts displayed a backroom dealing approach to board decisions that was detrimental to the district's future. He said it was time to "get this effort to charter-ize the district out in the open," a reference to one of Pace's messages that called for the Transformation Zone schools to be run "charter-like."
Education Austin President Ken Zarifis called for the board to withdraw from the Transformation Zone Program altogether, and took issue with a provision that would require the schools awarded the grant be governed by an appointed board. It's unclear at this point who would appoint members to that board, but Zarifis argued that Pace's message showed a preference for who she wanted on the board, which "undermined our community values." Zarifis sits on the Transformation Zone Planning Committee. "This was supposed to be a teacher and community led process," he said, "but I've seen very few teachers and community [members] that understand" it.
Earlier in the day, at the press conference where Pace announced her resignation, AISD parents Monica Sanchez and Olivia Overturf arrived in homemade, hot pink shirts emblazoned with the two most controversial phrases in Pace's texts. Overturf said she was glad that Pace decided to resign, but was not surprised at the language used by the former board president. She expressed skepticism that Pace's resignation would mark a turning point for the board. "I think Pace's texts were symbolic of the corruption on the board," she said. "And I don't think anything is going to change."