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A 'Divided' Austin School Board Faces An Uncertain Future

The Austin ISD school board meets tonight to discuss a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
KUT News
The Austin School Board

The Austin School Board has its first board meeting tonight with Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz tonight.

The board faces many decisions in the coming months, and some are worried it’s having trouble making decisions – especially as it begins its search for a new superintendent.

Last general board meeting, school board members Cheryl Bradley and Jayme Mathias clashed over the approval of school uniforms for the new single-gender campuses, with Bradley calling Mathias' proposal to postpone a decision "ridiculous."

Compared to the other issues the school board is dealing with – including implementing new graduation plans, and finding a new superintendent – it's a small skirmish. But it reflects sentiments expressed by some observers that the school board can be indecisive.

“The board has not set measure of success for a school year that’s two-thirds of the year over," the Austin Chamber of Commerce's Drew Scheberle said once former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen announced her plans to leave Austin for Atlanta. "They are months behind on a Facility Master Plan. They can’t even agree on a definition on what is successful community engagement. They have a very difficult time making any sort of decisions.” 

Since the school board welcomed four new members in 2012, it's been divided on a variety of issues. School Board President Vincent Torres calls it the elephant in the room – but says that doesn’t mean the board is indecisive.

"We respect the fact that we don’t agree on certain things, but we vote it out, and we keep going," Torres says. But he adds that it doesn’t stop the board from getting things done.

"It simply means that there are some decisions we’re going from one side of the table to the other on," he says. "And at the end of the day where we end up may not be something that is very straightforward and still have some challenges, because there isn’t consistency in the way decisions have been made … consistency in the way of moving forward."

In fact, some board members argue it has made some tough decisions, like ending a contract with IDEA charter schools and extending teacher contracts to three years.

“I think this board has been very proactive in making some bold decisions because we believe it’s the right thing to do. So I don’t really understand that criticism, to be honest," says trustee Gina Hinojosa.

But those decisions haven't been unanimous, revealing that divide between board members. The vote to end the contract with IDEA was 6 to 3, and the vote to extend teacher contracts was 5 to 4.

Ken Zarifis with teachers union Education Austin says the board has made decisions –just not ones the Chamber of Commerce might agree with.

“I think when you don’t get what you want, you’re going to stomp your feet a little bit. And I think that’s what this is," Zarifis says. "The decisions this board is making are more progressive. When your first order of business is to remove an entity that was going to take over an academically acceptable school and displace teachers and students and say, 'No that isn’t our value,' and to terminate the contract that brought them in as their very first action, that was a bold move and a progressive move” – a reference to canceling the in-district charter with IDEA Public Schools at Allan Elementary.

Zaifis also notes the possibility of new school board members joining every two years. This November, the school board could see as many as five new school board members – which could either create more division or bring more unity to the current board.

Before then, the board must start the process to find a new superintendent. Most board members say they want someone who is focused on students and creating high achieving schools. But the members' tendency to disagree is peeking through in more procedural details, including how long it’ll take to hire a new superintendent.

Trustee Ann Teich calls a five to six month window "ideal," while trustee Gina Hinojosa "would like us to choose a leader before school starts." Meanwhile, board president Torres calls that timeline "unrealistic," saying it could be a year before a decision is made.

There’s some disagreement over whether the hiring process should be open to the public. The board has until early June to make that decision.

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