Four Years Ago, Austin School Board Candidates Promised to Build Community Trust. Have They?

Oct 13, 2016

On Election Day four years ago, more than half of the Austin School Board of trustees were replaced.  

The school board had just approved a contract with IDEA public schools to run Allan Elementary. And community members were angry about the decision. They showed it at the ballot box—voting for Trustees Gina Hinojosa, Jayme Mathias and Ann Teich. Those trustees were elected on the promise of restoring community trust in the district—and improving community engagement. 

Has that happened?

Ken Zarifis, president of the teacher's union, Education Austin, says he's seen more intentional engagement almost immediately, when the newly inducted school board members canceled the contract with IDEA.

“Out of that I saw board members not just take action from the dias, but working with that community," Zarifis said. "As I went to meetings and seeing trustees were there, that members of the community were engaging with board members in a way that was different than previous board members, that was relational communication.”

Zarifis led the teacher's union fight against the contract with IDEA, along with the community group, Pride of the Eastside. Vincent Tovar led the group as a parent of a Govalle Elementary student. 

“Four years ago it seemed school board had made its decisions and we were just a to-do item to check off.," Tovar says. "Now board members are authentically listening and citing what they’re hearing in the community in the decisions that they’re making at the board.”

Tovar is currently Trustee Jayme Mathias' campaign manager. Zarifis says he's heartened by the direct community engagement and increased number of public meetings, there’s always room for more informal, direct engagement between trustees and the people they represent.

“We need to set up formal meetings," Zarifis says. "But we have to find ways of trustees being out in the community, being a presence in their community. Trustees, the administration, the union we need to go to the community and then its real and we have to sustain that effort. You don’t just do it once. You do it over and over so they know they can trust you.”

Trustee Ann Teich is running for reelection unopposed and Trustee Hinojosa is running for state office. Cindy Anderson and David Quintanilla are running for her at-large seat.

Trustee Mathias is running against Andy Anderson, who co-chairs the District Advisory Council Committee and Boundary Advisory Committee and also serves on the budget and finance committee. Anderson says he thinks the board has improved relations with the communities over the past four years, but he thinks Mathias hasn’t done enough to engage all of his district—specifically schools in Dove Springs.

“His focus appeared to be simply more so on Martin [Middle School] and Eastside Memorial [High School] than Mendez.," Anderson says. "Now Mendez is in year three needing improvement, which tells me for at least three years Mendez has gone unnoticed.”

Trustee Mathias rejects that assessment of his tenure, citing school tours and community conversations that he's held at all District 2 schools over the past year. Most struggling schools in his district are improving, he said, even if its not enough to meet state standards.

"While I did play a direct and very important role in the turnaround of Eastside Memorial High School, only the most misinformed person could claim that my focus as a trustee has been solely on the two most chronically underperforming schools of District 2," Mathias wrote in an email (His emphasis).

Two additional school board seats are also up for election: Trustee Amber Elenz and Trustee Yasmin Wagner. Both are running unopposed.