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Education

Paul Cruz Named Finalist for Austin ISD Superintendent

Update: The Austin School Board has unanimously named interim Superintendent Paul Cruz as the sole finalist for the position, the last step before offering him a formal contract. The vote was more of a formality—Cruz was the only candidate after two others dropped out.

"I want to say loud and clear, it's not just that Dr. Cruz is the last man standing, but I believe he is absolutely the best person for the job," says School Board Vice President Gina Hinojosa.

Board members publicly said Cruz was the most qualified person for the job. Plus, the community voiced its support for Cruz, too. Everyone from the teacher’s union and minority groups to city lawmakers and the Chamber of Commerce said they supported the decision to consider Cruz for the job.

"With all due respect, there is a straw man out there, this community pressure," says School Board Trustee Tamala Barksdale. "It's a great thing to have a board decision to be so well support across the community." Barksdale says she supports Cruz as the sole finalist because of his "exemplary performance."

Earlier this month, the board reversed an April decision and allowed Cruz to be considered. When the board appointed Cruz interim superintendent, both sides agreed Cruz could not apply for the position. But after a swell of community support and a review of 98 applicants, the board said they wanted to change the process and consider Cruz. 

"I'm very humbled, I'm very honored for this opportunity," Cruz says. "I think we’re at this turning point that will be an even greater level excellence."

Now, the school board must wait 21 days before extending a formal offer. The earliest the board could do that is early January, when four new school board members will be sworn in. It's unclear if the new school board would immediately extend that contract to Cruz or wait until the end of January. But school board trustees have said they want a permanent superintendent in place before the 2015 legislative session begins on January 13.

Original Story (9:55 a.m.): The Austin Independent School District hasn’t had a permanent leader since April, when former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen left for a job in Atlanta. The board appointed Chief of Schools, Paul Cruz, as interim superintendent. Cruz's time as leader of AISD seemed temporary. Cruz and the board agreed he couldn’t apply for the permanent position. But earlier this month that changed and now Paul Cruz will most likely become the permanent leader of the 85,000 student school district. 

Cruz describes himself as a leader who works with people, good times or bad.

“I work with people face to face, big issues, controversial issues, whatever it is, I’m present," Cruz said at a community forum Saturday. "I am there. I’m not just reading a report saying this is what’s going on in our schools.”

His presence is something people notice. Paul Saldana is running for the school board in District 6. He’s also a member of a local group called HABLA, Hispanics Advocates and Business Leaders of Austin. Saldana says for three years the group invited former Superintendent MeriaCarstarphen to attend their meetings but was unsuccessful.

“Paul on his first day as interim superintendent, his very first spot was to our group," Saldana says. "And so from day one he was keenly aware of the expectations and disappointment with not having a superintendent who was inclusive and transparent.”

At a community forum this weekend, Cruz said improving relationships with neighborhoods and education groups is his first priority. 

"I do know that there are some constituencies out there who feel disengaged," Cruz said. "I don't like that. I don't think it's right."

Cruz grew up in Robstown, Texas, a suburb of Corpus Christi. He received a bachelor’s in Education and a doctorate degree in Educational Administration from UT-Austin.

He was a teacher in Corpus Christi, and a superintendent for four years in Laredo before leaving to work as a deputy commissioner for dropout prevention and initiatives at the Texas Education Agency. 

"I’ve known Paul Cruz for 15 years," says Drew Scheberle of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. "Paul Cruz has the knowledge on school finance, a strong team and the relationships with the local community and delegation that an outside candidate would have to take time to develop."

It's been nearly a decade since Cruz came to Austin ISD, where he most recently served as Chief of Schools before he was appointed as interim superintendent.  Within Carstarphen's cabinet, he was involved in a lot of the district’s successes: highest graduation rates ever, increasing attendance. But he also knows the challenges: Money is tight and enrollment is dropping.

Cruz says he wants to improve communication with the community, he’s also a skilled politician, deflecting questions well and sometimes speaking in broad generalizations.  Some people say that should change. 

"When issues come up so they need to clarified so that community can understand what they are," says Roscoe Overton. He runs a non-profit that helps English Language Learner students and attended the community forum over the weekend. "This is a special group [at the forum], so you're not going to have A,B,C community people here. They're the ones who have to understand what the issues are." 

The Austin School Board is expected to name Cruz the sole finalist Monday night. The board then would have to wait 21 days before extending a formal offer, which is expected next month.

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