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Long Hours & No Pay Make School Board Hopefuls a Rare Find in Election Season

Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT
Candidates for the Austin School Board face long hours and late-night meetings.

Eighteen candidates are running for the five open seats on the Austin School Board this fall, which is nearly double the average number of people who have run for the school board in every election since 2002.

But, compared to the 78 candidates who have filed to run for the city council and the mayoral races this fall, the Austin school board doesn’t seem like the most popular place to spend your free time.   

That’s because being an Austin School Board Trustee isn’t easy.

The time commitment varies from 20 to 40 hours a week, on top of your day job. It also means giving up your Monday nights for school board meetings that can last way past midnight. And, finally, you don’t get paid.
Vice President of the Austin School Board Gina Hinojosa says that’s why school board elections usually attract few candidates.

“I think there’s no doubt that it helps attract more candidates when the position is paid. I do think that is an obstacle to service on the school board,” she says. “I think we’d probably get more applicants if trustees were paid.”

Austin ISD isn’t alone. School board members aren’t paid anywhere in Texas.  Hinojosa says before she ends her time on the board, she hopes to lobby the legislature to change that.

“It’s a disservice to our school districts to not compensate that kind of time intensive and very intensive work in our school districts,” she says.

Fred McGhee ran for the Austin School Board as a write-in candidate in 2008. Now he’s running for city council in District 3. He says another reason people may not run is politics. A lot of education decisions are made at the state level, where school board members have no control.

“It’s the political environment in which you work and the legislature’s refusal to fully fund public education,” McGhee says. “The fact that our legislature uses public education as a political football – what that does is it places political constraints and difficulties on people downstream of them.”

Robert Thomas is a member of the Austin ISD Citizens Bond Oversight Committee. He says he was encouraged to run for the school board, but decided to run for city council, instead. He says school board politics have gotten petty and partisan.

“It is thankless work and often times, no matter what decision you make, you’re making someone angry,” Thomas says. “And you’re making people verbally and personally angry.”

Because of those issues, sometimes it’s hard to find qualified candidates to run for the board, which concerns Trustee Robert Schneider, especially this year.

“You’ve got usual PTA and campus involvement but I am concerned [about] the knowledge of the district and knowledge of how the district works and funded and given that funding and our maintenance and operations budget is going to be probably the single biggest hurdle that we’re going to have to tackle here,” Schneider says. “It’s a real challenge.”

Schneider is running for his fourth term. If he wins, he’ll have at least a decade more experience than any other board member. While four members have two years of experience, many don’t have more than a few terms of experience. Plus, he says, the district has to hire a new superintendent after Meria Carstarphen’s departure.

“I mean, to me, that would be a point to take pause and consider what’s going on and how the Austin school district is going to come out of this,” Schneider says.

But, Trustee Gina Hinojosa says she isn’t worried about finding qualified candidates.

“Reasonably educated, engaged community members can do a good job. It takes time and it takes dedication but I know plenty of community volunteers who can do that job perfectly well without having the professional expertise in that area.”

But for those who don’t have their finger on the pulse of Austin ISD’s major issues, state and city races will most likely dominate the conversation this election season.  It will also push the school board elections way down the ballot.  And that means candidates will have to work even harder to get their names out in front of voters.

An earlier version of this article stated Robert Thomas is on the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee. It is, in fact, the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee.

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