Five seats on the Austin ISD school board are up for election. These are the candidates.
This fall's election is poised to have a significant impact on Austin ISD’s future. There is a $2.44 billion bond package on the ballot, which is the largest in district history. If voters approve the bond, the district will be able to rebuild and renovate schools, fix critical infrastructure issues, improve athletic facilities and invest in technology.
On top of the bond, voters will decide five of the nine seats on AISD’s Board of Trustees. The election comes at a crucial time for the district, because the school board plans to hire a permanent superintendent next year.
David DeMatthews, an associate professor at UT Austin’s College of Education, said one of the most important responsibilities school board members have is hiring and evaluating a superintendent. He said leadership is key right now as school districts face teacher shortages and the ongoing impacts of the pandemic.
“I think 5, 10 years from now when we look back at what happened in different school districts, I think you’re going to see that districts that had really stable and high-quality superintendent leadership — which is related to school boards — were better able to deal with the challenges that the pandemic brought up,” he said.
Currently AISD has an interim superintendent, Anthony Mays, who replaced former Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde. She left Austin for Dallas ISD earlier this year.
DeMatthews added that school board elections have an immediate impact on local communities.
“It affects our children and our public education system,” he said. “So I think it’s really important to pay attention to who’s running for school board.”
KUT spoke with each of the candidates, except for David Kauffman in District 7, who is running unopposed.
Early voting runs until Friday. Election Day is Tuesday.
Roxanne Evans and Candace Hunter are running to replace Trustee LaTisha Anderson. District 1 in East Austin includes schools such as LBJ Early College High School, Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Pecan Springs Elementary. Education Austin, a union representing AISD employees, has endorsed both Evans and Hunter.
Candace Hunter is a longtime advocate for public education and an Austin ISD parent. She used to work for the district as a U.S. History teacher. She now works at Austin Community College and hosts a podcast about AISD.
She said some of the biggest challenges facing the district include teacher retention and declining student enrollment. She thinks AISD is losing students because the district is not doing enough to engage parents.
“Parents don’t feel like partners," she said. "They don’t feel valued. They don’t feel heard. They don’t feel listened to. And they vote with their feet."
Hunter said hiring a new superintendent is a significant opportunity for AISD.
“We don’t need someone that’s strong in the areas where we are strong," she said. "We need someone who can come and help us in the areas where we are most challenged."
Hunter said if she is not elected to the school board in November, she plans to keep advocating.
Roxanne Evans, who has been endorsed by outgoing District 1 Trustee LaTisha Anderson, is a former Austin American-Statesman reporter and previously worked for Austin ISD as a communications specialist. She has had four children graduate from AISD schools in District 1 and is co-chair of the East Austin Coalition for Quality Education.
Evans said she felt a sense of urgency to run in the face of attacks on public education and the need to recover from pandemic-related learning disruptions.
“I felt I could kind of fill a void in terms of providing some leadership on the board moving forward,” she said.
Evans, like Hunter, also noted that hiring a new superintendent is a big opportunity for the district.
“I think my experience with AISD and just my overall knowledge of the community, and having seen other superintendent searches, puts me in a very good position to be on the dais to help guide that search,” she said.
It’s also important to Evans to improve the school board’s transparency and empower parents.
“Sometimes the district makes decisions without really talking to parents and finding out how their decisions will impact parents,” she said. “So I’m hoping to help strengthen parent voices.”
Clint Small and Kathryn Whitley Chu are running to replace outgoing Trustee Kristin Ashy. District 4 in Northwest Austin includes Anderson High School, Murchison Middle School and Gullett Elementary.
Clint Small is an Austin ISD parent with family ties to the school board. Both his father and grandfather previously served as presidents of the AISD Board of Trustees. Small, who runs Clint Small Custom Homes, said people in his community asked him to run.
“They know my involvement in the community, they know my history in Austin, they know my history with AISD, my service on boards or commissions, my service on the [Long Range Planning Committee], and so they asked and I’m running,” he said.
He said one of the district’s biggest opportunities is hiring a new superintendent.
“That’s the most important item that we’ll be facing,” he said. “Once we hire the best, that’s going to change our culture. That’s going to reinvigorate our teachers. It’s going to reinvigorate the culture at all of our campuses.”
He said one of the most significant challenges the district is facing is teacher retention.
“So if we don’t have the best teachers, then we’re not doing our job and providing opportunities for greater education for our students," he said.
Small said finding a way to better fund programs at all campuses is also key.
Kathryn Whitley Chu started her career as an accountant before becoming a teacher. She has taught within Austin ISD and Round Rock ISD as well as at Austin Community College. Education Austin has endorsed her.
She said she has always wanted to run for the Austin ISD school board.
“I am a teacher, and I have a professional accounting background," she said. "So these are unique qualifications that are really important to being on the school board.”
Whitley Chu added that, as a parent of young children, she is concerned about the nationwide teacher shortage and its impact on Austin ISD. She plans to advocate for better pay and better treatment of teachers if elected.
Similarly to Small, Whitley Chu said finding a new superintendent is a top priority. She wants the hiring process to be more transparent than it’s previously been.
“In the past we’ve had a very opaque process that is behind closed doors,” she said. “I think we need a change, and I think we need to vet this person fully.”
She said that includes giving the community the chance to ask superintendent candidates tough questions.
“We need a process that protects students and puts them first," she said.
School Board President Geronimo Rodriguez is running for reelection. His challenger is former Austin ISD teacher Andrew Gonzales. They are vying to represent District 6 in Central South Austin which includes Akins High School, Bedichek Middle School and Dawson Elementary.
Andrew Gonzales grew up in Austin and graduated from Akins High School. He eventually became a teacher working at Lively Middle School and Travis Early College High School. He was named that campus’ High School Teacher of the Year in 2020. Gonzales, who was endorsed by Education Austin, resigned from Austin ISD after the 2021-2022 school year. He was one of more than 2,100 district employees who left their jobs.
He said his firsthand experience with the challenges that teachers and other school staff are facing prompted him to run to represent District 6.
“I decided to run because I think that my perspective as someone who’s lived that life can serve the board as they try to address the teacher retention crisis, our declining enrollment and all the other overlapping problems,” he said.
Gonzales said, while he was a teacher, sometimes it was frustrating to watch school board meetings.
“I feel like sometimes the board would ask good questions and approach subjects with good intentions, but there was so much information that they were missing from the implementation of the policies they were discussing,” he said.
Gonzales added, if elected, he wants the school board to find a superintendent who can work with the community.
“I think that finding a superintendent that’s, first of all, willing to engage in an open and transparent interview process and selection process — that’s public-facing to a degree that I don’t feel the last one was — is going to be really important,” he said.
Geronimo Rodriguez was appointed to the Austin ISD Board of Trustees in June of 2017 after the District 6 board member vacated the seat before the term was up. Rodriguez was elected in 2018 after running unopposed.
He said he was the first person in his family to graduate from high school, as well as college and law school.
“I’ve always thought of my service on the school district board as paying it forward for what public education has done for me and for my family,” he said. “And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”
Rodriguez thought helping the district navigate the pandemic would be the hardest thing the board ever had to do.
“What I have learned is that the hardest thing is getting us out of COVID," he said. "Whether it’s learning loss, teacher retention, recruitment and meeting the social-emotional needs of our kids — those are the biggest challenges we have."
Rodriguez wants to be reelected to the school board to keep working on those challenges. There are also opportunities ahead, he said, like selecting a new superintendent and implementing the 2022 bond package if voters approve it.
“And then last, but not least, I think is ensuring that we continue to focus on teacher recruitment and retention,” he said.
David Kauffman is running unopposed for District 7 in South and Southwest Austin. He will replace Yasmin Wagner, who has served on the board since 2015 and is currently its vice president.
Kauffman worked for Austin ISD for 17 years. First he was a principal at two elementary schools, before becoming the district's executive director of multilingual education for five years. He currently has an educational consulting firm and teaches at the UT Austin Texas Principal Leadership Academy.
Earlier this year, he applied to be Austin ISD's interim superintendent — a job that went to Anthony Mays who was then AISD's chief of schools.
At-Large Place 9
Board Secretary Arati Singh is running for reelection. Voters throughout Austin will have the opportunity to select who fills the Place 9 at-large seat. Her challenger is Heather Toolin. While the school board election is nonpartisan, Singh has been endorsed by the Travis County Democratic Party, and Toolin has been endorsed by the Travis County Republican Party.
Arati Singh was elected to the Austin ISD school board in December 2018 and is the first Indian-American trustee. She has worked in education for decades, designing and evaluating STEM programs. One of her children has graduated from AISD schools, and another is still in the district. She is running for reelection because she wants to help the district rebound from the pandemic.
“We have really got to focus on ensuring that our students are having their mental health needs met, their physical safety needs met, and, of course, have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom,” she said.
Singh thinks in order to achieve these goals it is important to understand where the district has been and where it needs to go.
“I want to carry this through and just help our community into this next phase as we come out of COVID,” she said.
Other top priorities for Singh include advocating for the district’s needs during the upcoming legislative session and improving teacher recruitment and retention.
“Other opportunities we have coming up is to hire our permanent superintendent," she said. "So that’s going to be a really interesting and exciting moment for this new board to really come together."
The goal, according to Singh, is to find someone who can make sure Austin ISD is moving in a direction that makes it one of the best school districts in the country.
Heather Toolin is an interior designer with two kids in Austin ISD. She said she has not been happy with the district, so she decided to throw her hat in the ring.
Toolin said one of the biggest challenges facing the district is money. She said AISD needs more money to improve facilities and increase teacher pay.
“The teachers are tired, they’re leaving the teaching positions, and we need to pay them what they’re worth,” she said.
A top priority for Toolin is choosing a permanent superintendent.
“I want to select a wonderful superintendent who is excited about Austin and wants to be here for the long-term. And, somebody who the staff looks up to,” she said.
Toolin recognizes some have labeled her as an extremist who supports book bans, but she refutes that claim.
“I am anything but an extremist,” she said.
Toolin added that, if elected, she would advocate for parents.
“I’m here to listen to every side," she said. "I’m not just going to listen to one group of people. I will listen to them all."