A New Plan for Austin ISD?
School board elections tee up calls for change – and rebuilding broken trust
Everybody running in, and many people observing, the current Austin ISD school board election agrees that things need to change in the district. They just disagree on the scope. Since all four seats up for election are open, for the first time in more than a decade, newcomers will make up nearly half the new board of trustees, working with a superintendent who's been in Austin for less than three months. That makes the question of AISD's new direction – how much to change, and how fast – a big one.
The district has already gone through changes in recent years, and the fallout from those – a $1.1 billion bond program approved in 2017, and then the wildly unpopular closure of four elementary schools last year – has shaped the contours of this year's trustee elections. Eight of the 11 candidates – including all four contenders in the districtwide Place 8 race – were directly involved in those events, either as district volunteers or as prominent opponents. (For a quick rundown of the candidates and their involvement, see below.)
Even those who worked with the district have voiced at least some misgivings about how the outgoing trustees and former administrators handled what AISD dubbed its "School Changes" process. But candidates are nonetheless emphasizing their firsthand experience problem-solving with AISD schools across the district. Notable among these are Place 8's Leticia Caballero and District 5's Jennifer Littlefield, both of whom served on the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee – Caballero as one of its tri-chairs – responsible for the 2017 bond, the largest in the district's history.
In addition to programming the bond, the FABPAC did the first work to establish principles and guidelines for school consolidations; that was followed by a Budget Stabilization Task Force (which included District 2 candidate Adolphus "Andy" Anderson) that recommended the district close schools for fiscal reasons, and a Boundary Advisory Committee (including both Littlefield and Place 8 contender Mike Herschenfeld) that grappled with redrawing attendance zones. Then, once the School Changes process produced a list of "scenarios" that included closing and consolidating 12 schools, parents and supporters of those campuses mobilized in opposition, including Noelita Lugo at Pease Elementary, who co-founded Save Austin Schools and is running in Place 8, and John Mckiernan-González at Dawson Elementary, now running in D2. Kevin Foster (unopposed in D3) and Jared Breckenridge (Place 8) also engaged in opposition to School Changes. The remaining three candidates – Ofelia Maldanado Zapata in D2, and Lynn Boswell and Piper Stege Nelson in D5 – were involved with AISD issues but not directly in FABPAC and School Changes; Boswell, as president of the Austin Council of PTAs, says she was required by that group's rules to remain neutral, but all three raise issues now with how the process was handled.
"There Was a Lot of Talk"
FABPAC, a committee of 18 unpaid citizen volunteers, was created by AISD in 2015 as a response to decades of deferred maintenance and shifting attendance patterns at aging district facilities, and in the wake of a partially failed (two of four propositions) bond vote in 2013. The group committed an eye-popping amount of time to examining facilities, speaking with community members, and meeting at schools across the district for two years, then wrote a report that listed dozens of facilities projects across AISD that could be funded by the $1.1 billion bond, including two completely new schools. The bond passed in 2017 with 72% of the vote.
The following year, as AISD sounded the alarm about its growing budget deficit, the Budget Stabilization Task Force, which included members of the FABPAC, explored campus closures and consolidations as a potential source of savings. Its final report included a list of 21 different criteria for potential closures (with varying support from the task force's members). Then, days after school started in fall 2019, AISD administrators rolled out the School Changes plan with its proposed closures.
"To turn in our report and then in the blink of an eye have the district announce closures, some of us felt kind of betrayed by that," FABPAC tri-chair Roxanne Evans said.
Of the 12 campuses identified in the School Changes "scenarios," seven were east of I-35, and nine served student populations that were predominantly economically disadvantaged. Although community meetings were held throughout the fall, barely two months passed between the public announcement of the scenarios and the trustees' vote to close Pease, Metz, Sims, and Brooke elementaries – a board meeting at which Dr. Stephanie Hawley, AISD's newly hired chief equity officer, called the closure plans "a map of what 21st century racism looks like." Hundreds of parents from different campuses showed up throughout the fall to protest, but many told the Chronicle they felt the district's efforts to "listen" were all for show.
"They had the space and the grace to have ... a more thoughtful process as far as the closures went, and that didn't happen," Evans said. "They talked to the community a lot – I wouldn't call it engagement, but there was a lot of talk – but at the end of the day the decisions they made were unpopular with so many people in the community. And the discussions leading up to them – no one felt like they were really authentic."
Gloria Vera-Bedolla, a parent support specialist at Brooke Elementary, encouraged parents at her school to show up and speak out, even driving some to the meetings. "We poured our hearts into trying to stop the closure and it fell on deaf ears," she said.
Cuitlahuac Tonatiuh Guerra-Mojarro is a high school science teacher and a parent at Pecan Springs Elementary, one of the eight campuses where the trustees put off a closure vote; their status is technically still pending. He felt as though he'd seen the pattern before; in 2011, when he moved to the neighborhood, and again in 2015, Pecan Springs was considered for closure.
"At that point I got pissed because it was obvious that school closure is a cyclical process," he said. "It just seems like any time the school district runs into problems, their solution is to close down the schools that serve predominantly Black and brown children." Tonatiuh Guerra-Mojarro has sustained his activism; this summer, he launched a podcast with fellow activist Candace Hunter, which has conducted equity-focused interviews with all of the trustee candidates for this race.
What Did It All Mean?
The question of school closures has come up in almost all of the (virtual) forums and campaign events in this election cycle, including those hosted by new organizations like AISD for All, led by anti-school-closure activists including Tonatiuh Guerra-Mojarro. All candidates agree that School Changes was at best imperfect, especially on the community engagement front. Candidates tell the Chronicle that popular campaign promises – expanding transparency and input, such as increasing the time allotted for public comment at meetings, and supporting a third-party equity audit – reflect the community's anger and the loud calls among activists.
But a larger question still remains: What did School Changes stand for? Was it a credible, albeit rushed and poorly communicated, effort at necessary fiscal stewardship? Or was it a policy initiative steeped in systemic racism, in the legacy of Austin's past de jure segregation?
Foster, an educational anthropologist and UT-Austin professor who studies the history of segregation in Austin, says School Changes was an extension of the historical prioritization of West Austin perspectives – wealthier, whiter, with more access and influence. He is especially critical of the premise that such efforts are necessary for the greater good of the whole district.
"It's really unfortunate, because [the outgoing board] didn't intend this, but I don't see them as significantly different than the 1928 city council," which adopted the city's first comprehensive plan, in which services for Black Austinites were restricted to the Eastside. "I don't see them as significantly different than the administrators who chose to close Anderson High and Kealing Junior High in 1971," the shuttering of two iconic Black schools in East Austin as Austin slowly, 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education, implemented desegregation plans in its public schools.
Foster is running unopposed to succeed Ann Teich, one of three trustees who opposed the School Changes closures. (The other two, Arati Singh and LaTisha Anderson, remain on the board.) In the three contested races, the outgoing incumbents – Jayme Mathias, Amber Elenz, and Cindy Anderson – all supported the plan. Some connect school closures not only to the departing trustees, but also to anyone involved in the district process at the time, especially FABPAC members.
Tonatiuh Guerra-Mojarro, the Pecan Springs teacher and parent, said, "We can't have anyone who was part of the old guard. So those candidates that represent the status quo, candidates that were on the FABPAC committee that wrote the bond, candidates that have been a part of the inner workings of the district that are supported by those trustees who are not running for reelection ... to me that represents more of the same. And that's why this trustee election is so important, because we can't have more of the same. We can't elect trustees that are going to go back to closing schools."
These tensions, expressed in person and on social media, date back to before the current campaign. In one series of posts on Foster's Reframe the Game Facebook page from October 2019, Littlefield clashed with Mckiernan-González and Tonatiuh Guerra-Mojarro, among others. Littlefield argued in favor of school consolidation, writing that "with rare exception it is not trauma" and that it will help the district to "provide more robust services" to the populations affected by closure.
The FABPAC Legacy
Littlefield told the Chronicle she's been frustrated by comments "rewriting history" by connecting and limiting FABPAC's work to school closures. The intense time commitment demanded of its members, the multiyear scale of its work, and the scope of its bond, which passed by a nearly three-to-one margin, often go overlooked. Though the committee developed target utilization plans, or TUPs, which provided a timeline for underenrolled schools to improve enrollment, they did not recommend any specific school closures.
FABPAC tri-chair Cherylann Campbell said that work was not followed by the district in School Changes. "While some of our work and that of the Budget Stabilization Task Force and other committees clearly informed School Changes decisions, FABPAC's data-driven processes, TUPs, and community outreach approaches were largely ignored," Campbell said in an email. "That frustrated me and I feel that since the Bond was passed, the district has lost a lot of the community trust we built."
School closures, Caballero said, impacted four campuses of the district's 129. And although she said activists have "some good points" about the community engagement and rushed process, the question of future school closures is not off the table for her. She and Littlefield, who have campaigned and planned some events together, say parents are more concerned by issues such as online education and reopening in a pandemic, continued loss of enrollment, the district's financial woes, and academic achievement gaps.
"[At] the time of School Changes, I think there were like 7,000 empty seats in the district, and [with COVID-19's virtual learning] we've lost already 5,000 students; that's already 12,000 empty seats," Caballero said, referring to the mismatch between district enrollment and its identified facilities capacity. "Once we get through COVID, what do we have left of a school district?"
Littlefield and Caballero have both emphasized the need for more community engagement in decision-making and a more nuanced understanding of how to deal with the future of AISD campuses. However, "When I am talking to parents, they are not talking about school consolidations. They're talking about reopening," Littlefield said. "So that's where parents are, outside of the families that were personally impacted. I don't want to take away from that difficulty, or that transition, [but] the school consolidations impacted about 600 to 800 kids, [while] everyone is struggling [with COVID-19] right now, and everyone is grieving the loss of their school community in some form."
So are the bond and school changes additional chapters in the history of a school district's failure to consider "Black and brown people's desires, hopes, dreams, [and] interests," as Foster put it? Or are they about four campuses and under a thousand students who weren't listened to carefully enough? Either way, as it takes on the district's sweeping financial and academic struggles, AISD's next school board will face the need to repair a community's broken trust.
Who Are the School Board Candidates?
Of the 11 candidates running for the four open seats on the Austin ISD board, none are incumbents, but eight (marked with *) were directly involved in the efforts behind the $1.1 billion 2017 bond program and the 2019 School Changes process that led to the closure of four elementary schools. Here's the rundown:
District 2 (Southeast Austin)
Adolphus "Andy" Anderson* - Budget Stabilization Task Force
Ofelia Maldonado Zapata - PTA at Eastside Memorial HS
John Mckiernan-González* - Parent at Dawson Elementary (proposed for closure)
District 3 (North/Northeast Austin)
Kevin Foster* - Formed Reframe the Game opposing School Changes
District 5 (Central/West Austin)
Lynn Boswell - President, Austin Council of PTAs (neutral on School Changes)
Jennifer Littlefield* - Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee
Piper Stege Nelson - Parent and volunteer
At-Large Place 8 (districtwide)
Jared Breckenridge* - "Front-row" opponent of School Changes
Noelita Lugo* - Parent at Pease Elementary (closed 2019); co-founder, Save Austin Schools
Leticia Caballero* - FABPAC tri-chair
Mike Herschenfeld* - Boundary Advisory Committee (opposes closures)