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Austin ISD is looking for a new superintendent. The school board says community input is key.

Three people look down while seated at a dais
Renee Dominguez
Austin ISD Board of Trustees members Arati Singh, Ofelia Zapata and Noelita Lugo during a board meeting in August. The board is searching for a new permanent superintendent.

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The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees is hammering out the details for its superintendent search. Trustees held a board retreat Monday with GR Recruiting, the search firm it hired last month to help find the district’s next leader. The meeting was open to the public, and the district plans to make it available online.

The big question trustees are considering is: How open should the superintendent search be?

Superintendent searches in Texas are normally closed, which means none of the candidates for the job are disclosed publicly except for the lone finalist. That is the fancy name for the person the school board intends to hire as superintendent. Once the lone finalist is announced, Texas law requires a 21-day waiting period before the board can vote to formally hire the candidate.

The search for Austin ISD’s last superintendent, Stephanie Elizade, was closed. She left the district to lead Dallas ISD last June, and there have since been two interim superintendents.

Austin ISD school board members, as a whole, do not want to conduct a closed search. David Kauffman, who represents District 7, pointed out that he and other trustees elected last November called for a more transparent hiring process while campaigning.

“I feel like we’re in a unique moment because we committed to it in our candidacy,” he said.

Trustee Candace Hunter, who was elected last year to represent District 1, said she did not want to present only one finalist to the Austin ISD community.

“That is not on the table for me,” she said.

But GR Recruiting President Gary Ray told trustees that open searches come with pitfalls.

“An open search will diminish your pool of candidates,” he said.

Ray said that is especially true when it comes to recruiting sitting superintendents because they may not want their districts to know they’re looking for another job. But District 4 Trustee Kathryn Whitley Chu said she was less interested in protecting “a high-powered adult’s job” than she was in protecting kids’ interests by holding an open search that gives the public the chance to vet candidates.

Ray ultimately recommended a partially open search that maintains the privacy of candidates while including opportunities for community input. But what would that look like?

Robert Alfaro, also with GR Recruiting, outlined one way to include community representatives. He said the board could choose five to six people from the community, who after signing confidentiality agreements, would sit in on the candidate interviews with the board.

Trustees threw out other ideas for how to involve the public and district staff in the hiring process. They said repeatedly that one of the things that is special about Austin is how much the community cares.

“We really are 100% committed to our community to have them trust this process and be part of the process.”

School Board President Arati Singh

“I don’t like cedar fever, but I like community engagement,” said Trustee Noelita Lugo. Lugo noted that during the board’s last superintendent search in 2020, community groups worked together to come up with a list of questions for candidates to answer. She said the top candidates could answer those questions while potentially still remaining anonymous.

Trustees also discussed the possibility of holding some kind of community forum with candidates. Ofelia Zapata, who represents District 2, pointed out that Central Health — Travis County’s public hospital district — has previously invited the community to meet the two finalists it was considering for president and CEO.

The board ultimately decided to spend the next month talking with constituents about the best way to give the community insight into who it is considering for the job while still attracting strong candidates. Ray said GR Recruiting needs a definitive answer by March 21 so the firm can tell applicants what the hiring process is going to look like.

But before the hiring process even begins, GR Recruiting will be seeking community feedback on what people are looking for in Austin ISD’s next superintendent. One way the firm will do this is through a survey that will likely launch this weekend. There will also be a series of community meetings in March, the dates of which are forthcoming.

“We actually have doubled the amount of community engagement that was initially proposed to us by the recruiting company,” School Board President Arati Singh said, “because we really are 100% committed to our community to have them trust this process and be part of the process.”

After collecting data from the survey and community meetings, GR Recruiting plans to present the results to the school board in late March. Then the firm will open up the application period until April 20, with the goal of conducting interviews in May. The board hopes to find someone who can start July 1, since most superintendent contracts end on June 30. Ray said a competitive base salary for the superintendent position would be at least $335,000.

Singh said the bottom line is that the board wants to find someone who will prioritize students’ needs, create a positive work environment for staff and stay with Austin ISD for a long time.

“We want to find the best person for this job and we feel like we’re going to do that,” she said.

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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