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Making (Dollars and) Cents of Austin School Board Campaign Contributions

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
AISD Board of Trustees Candidates address students at forum held at East Side Memorial High School on October 6, 2015.

It’s a familiar story that’s now repeated itself for three Austin School Board election cycles. The political action committee, Austin Kids First, and the local teacher’s union, Education Austin, have donated the most money to the campaigns of local school board candidates.

In this year’s at-large race, Education Austin endorsed David Quintanilla, a local businessman and lawyer, and donated $20,000 to his campaign — about a quarter of the total Quintanilla raised in donations and in-kind contributions overall. Quintanilla also loaned himself $16,000.

Meanwhile, the Austin Kids First PAC has endorsed Cindy Anderson, who has spent the last ten years serving on various behind-the-scenes AISD boards and committees. Austin Kids First donated about three quarters of the money Anderson raised throughout the campaign, about $46,000 out of nearly $60,000 in direct and in-kind contributions. Anderson also loaned herself an additional $60,000.

But what does an endorsement from Education Austin or Austin Kids First PAC mean?

Follow the Money

The two groups receive donations from two very different groups of people. According to campaign finance filings, Education Austin PAC mostly receives donations from the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a teacher’s union, and various former and current state Democratic political leaders – including Rep. Eliot Naishtat, Rep. Celia Israel,  Rep. Donna Howard and Sen. Kirk Watson. Texas AFT also gave Quintanilla $12,759 in in-kind contributions during this campaign.

"I don’t really care too much about what people’s ideologies are, but I do care about their competency."

  Austin Kids First’s money comes from a variety of private donors, including many people who have made their money in the business and tech industry. The largest donor is David Welland, who founded Silicon Laboratories. Another large donor, Eric Harslem, is the former CTO of Dell. Another, Rex Gore, is the president of Professional Janitorial Company and founded PelotonU, a non-profit that helps students earn a college degree. 

A review of donors to the Austin Kids First PAC by KUT found eight of the top ten donors are connected to local charter schools, either through direct donation or involvement on a charter school’s board of directors. Many donors are former Teach for America teachers, a non-profit that places recent college graduates in struggling schools to serve as teachers for at least two years.

Issues vs. Leadership

An Austin Kids First PAC endorsement means the candidate scored highest on the PAC’s internal scorecard. The PAC asks candidates to fill out a questionnaire and attend an interview with the board. The board rates each candidate on a scale of "Exceptional" to "Weak" on four issues: experience, awareness of issues, vision and priorities, and ability to set and reach goals.

They also provide candidate surveys to all members who donated less than $250. If a donor gives more than $250 to the PAC, he or she is not allowed to participate in the endorsement process. Rather than taking a stance on issues, the PAC looks for candidates with strong leadership skills. Donor David Welland says that’s one reason he’s given $155,000 to the PAC since 2012.

“[The endorsements] were based on competency more than ideology, and that aligns with my kind of thinking as well,”  said Welland, who donated $50,000 to Austin Kids First PAC this year. “I don’t really care too much about what people’s ideologies are, but I do care about their competency.”

Education Austin’s endorsement means the union feels the candidate aligns with them ideologically on their top issues like teacher contracts and pay, but also social justice issues – including immigration, supporting undocumented students and their families, and creating equitable educational experiences for all students, regardless of family income or neighborhood.

Credit Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / KUT
An October 2016 meeting of the Austin School Board.

Plus, the union board considers whether candidates demonstrate that they support traditional public schools and a community school model, an increasingly popular idea that puts resources into existing neighborhood schools to provide more services and close achievement gaps.

“I think we can all agree that we’d like to all have competent school board members, so let’s put that aside,” said Education Austin President Ken Zarifis. “I want both. I want people that believe in what we believe if we’re going to endorse and support them, but I also want people that have the ability to think and to drive a positive change in the district.”

After Election Day

When Education Austin endorses a candidate, it means the candidate has the support of a strong union that has a remarkable amount of influence. Education Austin is heavily involved in Austin ISD policy decisions, including human resources and budget conversations. For example, the union was involved in a recent decision to require all elementary schools provide 30 minutes of unstructured recess every day.

"This is not just we come around every two years and look to endorse and step way," Zarifis said. "We're invested in this district every single day between those two years and the next two years and the next two years. So really we have a daily vested interest in the success of this district."

The Austin Kids First PAC likes to remain under the radar and candidates probably won’t hear much from them after Election Day. Trustees Julie Cowan, Ted Gordon and Kendall Pace were endorsed by Austin Kids First in 2014. Since then, they say they’ve had little to no contact with members of Austin Kids First. They say they’ve never been asked to support a certain measure or policy, either.

Connections and Questions

The Austin Kids First PAC entered the local education scene in 2012, a tumultuous year in Austin ISD. The school board had recently approved a contract to partner with IDEA public schools and allow them to manage a few AISD schools in East Austin.  Current Trustees Gina Hinojosa, Jayme Mathias and Ann Teich challenged incumbent trustees for their seats, opposing the IDEA contract and charter schools in general. They received Education Austin’s endorsement and won their races, which was seen as a referendum on the IDEA contract and former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.  Meanwhile, Austin Kids First endorsed candidates Amber Elenz (who was elected), Sam Guzman and Mary Ellen Pietruszynski. Guzman and Pietruszynski lost their races.

"[I]f we're putting $50,000 out there, there must be some type of alignment in some basic philosophy."

The PAC was quickly criticized — especially by the teacher’s union — for its links to charter school supporters and education reform groups, like Dallas Kids First and Teach for America. For instance, Austin Kids First donor Eric Harslem’sKLE Foundation donated $16 million to IDEA Public Schools. Harslem has donated $70,840 to Austin Kids First since 2012.

Those connections, paired with the group’s lack of agenda or declared ideology, raised questions among union members and their supporters about the group’s motives. Since then, group leaders have repeatedly emphasized they do not take any stances on issues. They just want to elect good leaders to the board, educate more people about these races and provide an alternate voice to the teacher’s union.

“I feel like no matter what I say I’m going to be pitted against Education Austin, because people have decided were on different sides,” said Amber Welch, director of Austin Kids First. “I’m a former teacher. I care deeply about issues that impact teachers, and I believe and I know that you have great teachers and treat them well and support them and allow them to teach in meaningful ways the outcomes for kids are amazing."

But Education Austin President Ken Zarifis remains skeptical of the group.

“In the world of being able to throw $50,000 here and $50,000 there, it’s naive, at best, to suggest there’s no agenda behind $50,000,” Zarifis said. “We can say there’s [no agenda], but if we’re putting $50,000 out there, there must be some type of alignment in some basic philosophy.”

“Delivery Model Agnostic”

As the only two major monetary players in Austin School Board races, it’s an easy narrative to pit these two groups against each other. AKF leaders say they organized four years ago to involve more people in AISD elections and provide another voice in the conversation besides Education Austin.

But David Welland says his support of AKF isn’t part of a larger agenda to fund pro-charter interests and elect school board trustees who will turn AISD schools into charter schools. Rather, he says he has a genuine desire to see students in the region receive a good education. He’s not as interested in the politics of how that happens.  

In the past, Welland has supported KIPP Austin Charter Schools, where his wife served on the board of directors. Welland says he supported KIPP because the school successfully educated children and saw positive outcomes for children. Still, Welland says, he thinks charter school growth needs to be regulated and cannot undermine the work of traditional public schools.

“I understand the arguments [for and against charter schools] from both sides and have sympathy for arguments on both sides of that issue, and I think there’s a lot of bad charter schools out there, too,” Welland said. “You can’t undermine AISD, but I think you can have charter schools without doing so.”

AISD School Board President Kendall Pace describes this view as “delivery model agnostic."

She says it’s an increasingly popular way people with business and tech backgrounds tend to view education and what programs or schools they want to support – and, Welland says, that’s a good way to describe him. 

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