Former teachers and educators swept the Austin ISD school board races
All five candidates elected to the Austin ISD board of trustees on Tuesday have worked in public education, and four are former district employees.
The head of a union that represents AISD employees said the value of having trustees who used to be teachers and school employees cannot be overstated.
“School boards are to give guidance to the administration and to set policy around school issues," Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, said. "There’s no better way of knowing how that works than having worked within the system itself.”
His group endorsed all five of the candidates who scored resounding wins in the election. He expects the newly elected trustees’ firsthand experience in the classroom to shape how they develop policy, especially as the district continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you have a teacher that came out of the pandemic like Andrew [Gonzales] that understands the present-day pressures of teaching right now at this time, there is no greater value that we could have on the board than that experience helping to inform decision-making and policy development,” he said.
Gonzales, a former Austin ISD teacher, defeated current School Board President Geronimo Rodriguez with 66% of the vote to represent District 6 in Central South Austin. He is one of roughly 2,100 employees who resigned from the district after the last school year.
Ahead of the election, Gonzales told KUT that one of the reasons he decided to run is that he saw a disconnect between what the board was trying to do and how that played out in the classroom.
“As a teacher, in the classroom recently, I would watch board meetings sometimes and it would be frustrating to me,” he said. “I feel like sometimes the board would ask good questions and approach subjects with good intentions but that there was much information they were missing from the implementation of the policies they were discussing.”
“We’ve got skin in the game. That’s amazing. We don’t want to just make it better because it’s a good idea; we want to make it better selfishly for our own children."Candace Hunter, Austin ISD trustee-elect
Candace Hunter, another former Austin ISD teacher, won the election to represent District 1 in East Austin with 64% of the vote. She said she thinks the district now has a board that knows what teachers are going through.
“And because so many of us are parents and actually have children enrolled in AISD — we know what parents are going through," she said. "So we actually get to look at this from both sides."
Hunter added that it gives new trustees a major stake in how Austin ISD is doing.
“We’ve got skin in the game. That’s amazing. We don’t want to just make it better because it’s a good idea; we want to make it better selfishly for our own children,” she said.
Similar to Gonzales and Hunter, Board Secretary Arati Singh sees the newly elected trustees’ experience in public education as a significant strength.
“One of the big things that AISD talks about in our social emotional learning curriculum is empathy, and it applies not only to students and teachers, but to the board as well,” said Singh, who holds the at-large seat in Place 9. “And I think having so many teachers on our board … is going to provide the empathy to create policy that is truly going to be impactful for our teachers and our staff.”
Singh defeated challenger Heather Toolin to win reelection with 67% of the vote.
The other winners on Tuesday were Kathryn Whitley Chu in District 4 and David Kauffman in District 7. Kauffman, who ran unopposed, used to be an Austin ISD principal and the executive director of multilingual education.
Whitley Chu has taught in Austin ISD and Round Rock ISD schools. With nearly 71% of the vote, she defeated Clint Small, whose father and grandfather had been presidents of the Austin ISD school board. Whitley Chu also used to be a member of Education Austin, as were Hunter and Gonzales.
The new school board members are expected to be sworn in next month. One of their first jobs will be hiring a new interim superintendent to replace Anthony Mays. He is leaving at the end of the semester to become superintendent of Alief ISD in Houston. They will then start the search for the district’s next permanent superintendent.
Zarifis said once again, the trustees’ experience in public education will play a key role in who they hire to lead Austin ISD.
“I believe this new board will make labor and how a potential superintendent works with employees throughout the district an absolute priority in the hiring process,” he said. “Not a supplemental issue, not a marginal issue, but one of the core issues.”