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Austin School Board Races Face Obscurity on a Long, Crowded Ballot

Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT
The Austin Independent School District board meeting on June 16, 2014.

Early voting continues this week in races ranging from governor to Texas Supreme Court Justice to Austin City Council to school board, a race that some say has been drowned out by some of the big ticket items on the crowded Election Day ballot.

A small patch of grass near a bus stop on Oltorf Street, near Lamar Boulevard, is surrounded by campaign signs –Adler for Mayor, Chris Riley for Council District 9, Dan Buda for District 5, Fred McGhee for District 3 – but one would be hard-pressed to find a school board candidate’s sign.

There are school board candidate posters around town, but with all of the other city and state races this November, races at the bottom of the ballot are often ignored – covered up by bigger signs from campaigns with more money, or in the voting booth, when people cast a ballot before they even get to the school board elections.

This year, AISD’s school board races are as low as you can get on this year’s ballot. Literally, it’s the last race on the ballot.

“It’s hard, I believe, every election year to get people to pay attention to the races that are at the bottom of the ballot,” says AISD School Board Vice President Gina Hinajosa, who was elected two years ago. “When I ran it was an issue because it was during presidential election. [I]t’s always a struggle.”

Stephen de Man is the executive director of Austin Kids First, a local education advocacy group that endorses school board candidates and was founded to raise awareness of the races.

“The biggest challenge that Austin faces with this upcoming election, and how we got started, was just lack of awareness that people were going to be voting for school trustees,” De Man says. “So, we wanted to say, ‘Hey we can be a group that raises awareness of who is voting and help inform voters around who we think are strong candidates.’”

Senior Vice President of the Austin Chamber of Commerce Drew Scheberle says many voters don’t keep up with school board goings-on because they’re either too young or too old to have kids in the public school system.

“Most parents are involved in their kids’ education, and they know what’s happening,” Scheberle says. “Probably half the households don’t have kids in public schools. There’s a number of college kids [and] there’s a number of empty nesters.”

He says most taxpayers don’t have an “intimate” experience with Austin public schools, but many people have an intimate experience with their property tax bill.

If you live in the city of Austin, and you combine the tax rate you pay to the city, Travis County, Austin Community College and the Travis County Health District, it’s still less than what you pay to Austin ISD. This year, the school district actually lowered the tax rate by two cents. But it’s still where the largest portion of your property taxes go each year. And while people get mad about increasing property taxes, that anger hasn’t been directed at the district yet.

Trustee Gina Hinojosa says district-wide, things have been pretty calm.

“There haven’t been, of late, very controversial issues that have come up in school district,” she says. “People start to pay attention to elections, really, when they get angry. People aren’t too angry at the school district right now.”

Hinojosa says that could be because of the board’s focus on community engagement.

Many current school board candidates say if elected, they want to continue to rebuild trust between the school district and the community, which they say has been lost over the years. But first, people have to turn out and actually vote them in to office.

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