Former AISD Educators Sweep District Trustee Races
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The best qualification for a seat on the Austin ISD Board of Trustees this election cycle? Clearly, being a disenchanted ex-AISD teacher. In District 1 in East Austin, Candace Hunter – who hosts a podcast about AISD and who taught in AISD until 2015 – beat out longtime community advocate and former AISD spokesperson Roxanne Evans. In District 4 in the northwest, Kathryn Whitley Chu, with the most recent AISD teaching experience of any candidate, easily won against Clint Small, whose father and grandfather both served on the board. David Kauffman, a former AISD principal, ran unopposed to replace Yasmin Wagner in Southwest Austin's District 7. And in perhaps the most surprising result of the night, Andrew Gonzales – who was Teacher of the Year at Travis High in 2020 but has since left the profession – won with a grassroots campaign against incumbent board President Geronimo Rodriguez in South Austin's District 6.
Meanwhile, Arati Singh retained her At-Large Place 9 seat against challenger Heather Toolin, an interior designer who was way too comfortable with book banning and Fox News buzzwords but still managed to rake up about 30% of the vote in what may be Texas' most politically progressive school district. Singh has established herself on the board with a focus in her first term on inclusive, comprehensive sex education and equity in student outcomes across racial and socioeconomic groups. The results may yield the most progressive AISD Board of all time, and one that convinced voters they understand the problems that are pushing teachers out of the district at an alarming rate. Notably, Hunter, Chu, and Gonzales all left their teaching positions and cited similar concerns – low pay, exhausting administrative burdens, and beyond-demanding hours. "The board of trustees has not traditionally been a board of professional educators, so they rely on the upper echelon of the district to tell them what's going on," Chu said as her watch party at Taco Flats wound down. "It's how things have always been done. The status quo is over."
Gonzales attributed the progressive wins, in part, to a general feeling in the community that boots-on-the-ground workers should be calling the shots, as evidenced by a surge in unionization efforts. Early in his election night watch party, a nurse involved in the unionization effort at Seton drew a comparison with Gonzales' campaign. "It's about respect for people that have been on the front lines and the perspective we have from being right there as opposed to on the margins."
Heather Merritt, a Travis High teacher and avid supporter of Gonzales from the start, said that he first came onto her radar after subbing in one of her classes. When it came time to select a TA, she asked students what they wanted to see in a teacher and "they said, 'We want Mr. G.'"
"We don't need people from the outside telling us what to do," Merritt said at Gonzales' party Tuesday evening. While Rodriguez's pitch focused on his understanding of the district's finances, Merritt countered that the recapture system that drains property-tax-rich districts to fund lower-taxed districts is outdated, and Gonzales will go to the Legislature to fight it: "If it's gonna come down to finances in this state, it's much bigger than AISD. We have to organize the entire state. The entire system has to change. Why work within the box if the box isn't the right shape? It's time."
Chu sees the exodus of teachers as one of the greatest problems facing the district. She started her teaching career a little over a decade ago at Pearce Middle School, which was then under threat of being shut down as Texas Education Agency monitored performance metrics. In 2009, Pearce was forced to shut down based on a lack of improvement in STAAR test scores (the campus is now the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy). Chu points out that those scores are on a curve – "It's made for half the students to fail" – and the pressures placed on teachers during that time meant she "never worked fewer than 60 hours per week," often more like 80.
Now, teachers nationwide face micromanagement of their classrooms as well, as Republicans push for omitting racist history from lessons and books. "We've seen so many attacks on public education. We're saying no. Not in our community. We're for public education. We're here for teachers and we're here for kids." Chu said serving with Gonzales and Hunter opens up possibilities because they are "public education nerds. This is our jam."
Singh said voters' picks, in combination with the passage of the massive infrastructure bond program that will free up money in the budget normally sunken into repairs to crumbling campuses, gives her hope. "AISD can become a world-class school district," Singh told the Chronicle. "Voters elected candidates that understand all students can achieve at high levels – and that teacher voice is critical to achieving that."