UPDATED: AISD Reassigns Principal After "MAGA" Controversy

Andrews Elementary principal Gabriela Soto said the school's new PTA looks forward to "making Andrews Great Again!"

UPDATED: AISD Reassigns Principal After MAGA Controversy

UPDATED April 11, 1:42 pm: The AISD principal accused of discriminating against immigrant parents at Andrews Elementary will not return to the campus, according to a letter sent to parents of the school late Wednesday afternoon. "It is very important to us as a District that we be transparent and provide information to you in a timely fashion,” the opening of the letter reads.

District officials could not comment on why they decided to remove Gabriela Soto from her position, just three days after publicly confirming an open investigation into her behavior, because the investigation is still ongoing. Diana Vallejo will continue serving as the school’s substitute principal until a permanent leader is instated. During that time, the letter reads, AISD leadership will push for the "safest possible environment for Andrews students, families, and employees” that is "free of insecurity and fear, regardless of immigration status." – A.S.

The passage of House Bill 3 has been celebrated widely as a "historic vote" to help schools across the state, but it will not solve Austin ISD's budget crisis. That's the message AISD's business and operations chief, Nicole Conley Johnson, delivered to the board of trustees Monday, as she acknowledged likely gains in funding should HB 3 become law but also insisted the district must press on with austerity planning.

Under current law, AISD expects to pay about $781 million in recapture payments next school year, but estimates from the Legislative Budget Board indicate that HB 3 could trim about $194 million from that total. The district would also receive an additional $1,759 per student, adding up to about $126 million in new money for operations – some of which is earmarked by the legislation for pay increases.

However, Conley Johnson stressed that the state's school finance system is still in uncertain territory – the Senate has yet to produce, let alone pass, a school finance bill, and if it does, it would need to be reconciled in conference with HB 3. "The tone changes every day," said Conley Johnson, who served on the state's Commission on Public School Finance, whose recommendations formed the foundation of this year's deliberations. "HB 3 is where we need to place our support and put pressure on the Senate. ... But we are advancing the [district's] budget with a lot of uncertainty."

Conley Johnson also noted that school finance reform won't bring kids back into the district: AISD's enrollment has shrunk by about 6,000 students since 2014, with the district expecting further declines. Moreover, other provisions of HB 3 – such as how the state classifies low-income students, who bring additional funding – could cost AISD money. Trustee Kristin Ashy summed up AISD's position in this way: "It seems like really good news for the short term, but we still have a lot of thinking to do long term."...

Also on Monday, AISD officials revealed an investigation into allegations that Andrews Elementary principal Gabriela Soto was hostile toward the school's immigrant population. Parents and teachers allege that Soto, who came from El Paso to lead the Northeast Austin campus a year ago, persistently disrespected them as well as students; a letter written over the weekend said the school was "under attack" by Soto and that the community has "suffered daily from an onslaught of anti-immigrant bias, racial slurs, bullying, threats, intimidations, and retaliations."

AISD leaders opened an investigation into the principal's conduct last fall, but tensions boiled over in recent weeks with more complaints, as Soto allegedly disbanded the school PTA because its (two) parent members were undocumented immigrants. (AISD is required to educate students regardless of immigration status, and its policy does not prevent those in the U.S. without authorization from serving on PTAs or district committees.) As if to twist the knife, a school newsletter purportedly written by Soto announced the new PTA with a cruel caption: "Looking forward to working with our new TEAM and making Andrews Great Again!"

At a press conference organized by the East Austin Schools Manifesto Coalition on Monday, former parents and teachers addressed the allegations against Soto. One former parent, Gina Banda, said the newsletter made her sad and that after seeing it, she felt Soto "should not be around children." She said the message Soto sent by using President Trump's campaign slogan was clear and indicative of the kind of bullying, taunting behavior that Soto exhibited regularly. Banda also said she decided to remove her daughter from Andrews after an incident last year in which Soto "put her hands" on a student, resulting in a call to the police. (Parents at the press conference allege police were called to the school three times due to Soto's "abusive behavior.")

Michelle Cavazos, AISD's chief officer for school leadership, addressed the allegations earlier on Monday, saying the district had "no reason to believe" that the newsletter's appropriation of the phrase was intended to invoke Trump's rhetoric. But Cavazos stressed that AISD took the allegations against Soto seriously and that "any messages that are contrary to our core beliefs are not supported by our board of trustees, our superintendent, and they are not supported by our community." She said that if true, such comments would "not align with our values," succinctly summarized by the district's equality slogan: "Respect for All." Cavazos vowed to complete the investigation "as quickly as possible," with a decision on Soto's future employment to follow. Soto has been on "approved leave" since March 25; Cavazos told the Chronicle Soto would not return until the investigation was completed.

For some faculty, the damage has already been done. Daysi Gordon ended her 24-year career with AISD, all of it spent at Andrews, because she had "never been so disrespected" as she was by Soto. Gordon (who is married to former AISD Trustee Ted Gordon) told the Chronicle it was hard to leave, but "no one should have to go through the kind of abuse [Soto] put us through."

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Austin Independent School District, AISD, HB 3, 86th Texas Legislature, School Finance, Nicole Conley Johnson, Kristin Ashy, Andrews Elementary, Gabriela Soto, East Austin Schools Manifesto Coalition, Ted Gordon, Michelle Cavazos, Daysi Gordon, Gina Banda, Recapture

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