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Meet the Groups Backing Candidates in the AISD School Board Campaigns

AISD Headquarters located on 1111 W. 6 street.
Photo by KUT News
While some Austin School Board candidates have decided to run without contributions, others have accepted over $80,000 in total in contributions.

When it comes to fundraising, Austin school board candidates run the gamut. Some have chosen not to fundraise at all, while others have received more than $80,000 in donations.

But who are the organizations giving money to candidates in this year’s AISD school board elections?

Before the 2012 school board elections, the local teacher’s union, Education Austin, was the only major donor in Austin school board elections. But that year, a new group entered the fray – a political action committee called Austin Kids First.

“Back in 2012, AISD elections were being shifted from May to November,” says Austin Kids First Executive Director Stephen de Man. “There was concern amongst individuals that people weren’t going to know school board was going to be on presidential ballot and how do you raise awareness around a really important decision?”

The group includes former Teach for America staff, parents, community members and teachers. De Man says its goal is to endorse good school board candidates, help them get elected and then step back and let them serve.

But he says the group also wants to provide a voice to counter the teachers union.

“We saw previous that groups were putting $10,000 [or] $20,000 behind candidates,” he says. “We realized if we wanted to be a legitimate organization – to support candidates and support candidates that didn’t feel beholden to anyone – we’d have to raise that kind of money.”

This year, Austin Kids First has donated even larger amounts of money to candidates. They gave at-large district candidate Kendall Pace more than $35,000.

The group says it doesn’t have any special interests except to endorse school candidates based on experience, vision and how successful candidates are at achieving their goals.

But Education Austin President Ken Zarifis wants more answers.

“I like organizations that will say what we stand for," Zarifis says.  "What I find troubling is we’re all for kids succeeding, we’re all for good trustees but what does it mean to be a good trustee? What does it mean to be successful in school? What does a good teacher mean? Start defining those things, and then maybe I’ll understand the agenda behind the nice words," says Zarifis.

While Austin Kids First members might attend school board meetings, in between 2012 and 2014, the group has been mostly quiet. Meanwhile, Education Austin has a constant vocal presence at school board meetings and press conferences. Their affect is noticeable. The union endorsed four of the newer school board members, and, since the 2012 election, the union has had some victories: the board approved three-year contracts for teachers and extended a one-time pay increase for the next year, which Zarifis says is part of the job.

“I want that candidate to be aligned with Education Austin philosophically, believe in labor, believe in teachers, school employees, believe in student success and the sanctity of neighborhood schools,” Zarifis says. “And so if we align with that, we can work together. And we’ve had these successes on the board. Individuals who voted against those ideas, we weren’t supportive of.”

Because there are so few financial players in Austin school board races, when Austin Kids First entered school board politics in 2012, de Man says it was contentious.

“We got blindsided because we were grouped into the larger national narrative that’s happening within education debates of the pro-union, labor status quo versus reform, Michelle Rhee, hard-charging pro-charter groups,” he says. “And we understood that we need to transcend all of that.”

Education Austin and Austin Kids First endorsed different candidates in 2012. This year, the groups have endorsed some of the same candidates, but Drew Scheberle with the Austin Chamber of Commerce says this is the state of affairs in AISD politics.

“It’s really Education Austin versus non-education Austin. Because you’ve got teachers,” Scheberle says. “Almost all of the people doing the block walking for [Austin] Kids First are teachers or former teachers. These are idealists who want to see better outcomes for kids in poverty.”

Scheberle gave $500 to Austin Kids First in 2012. 

Meanwhile, Education Austin is focusing on another source of money in this year’s race: donations from charter school supporters outside Austin. In one East Austin district, candidate David “D” Thompson received money from a group called Leadership for Educational Equity. It’s a non-profit that helps former Teach For America alumni.  He also received money from Campbell Brown – a former CNN anchor who’s connected to a group that says teacher tenure makes it hard to get rid of ineffective teachers, as well as other individuals outside Texas who support charter schools in other states. Last week, the teachers union, community groups and some current school board members criticized the group’s donations.

“I can’t help but think these high dollar charter school proponents have chosen Mr. Thompson to help bring charter schools to Austin and have chosen district one as their guinea pig,” said outgoing board member Tamala Barksdale. “This is where I draw the line.”

Thompson helped start a charter called KIPP Academy in East Austin, but he emphasizes his work in the neighborhood and as a teacher.  Plus, he says, most of his money comes from local donors.

Cheryl Bradley currently holds the seat in District 1 – though, she’s not seeking reelection. She questions whether outside money makes it harder for a low-income community like East Austin to have a voice.

“School board politics is the lowest level of politics in the city. So in my opinion, it should be kept local and the monies should be kept local,” Bradley says, who would not endorse any of the four candidates. 

Thompson is running against three other candidates in District 1: Stanton Strickland, P, Kevin Bryant and Ted Gordon.

Both Education Austin and Austin Kids First have endorsed Gordon for that seat.

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