Austin ISD school board delays superintendent search and extends interim leader's contract
The Austin ISD Board of Trustees decided Thursday to delay the search for a new permanent superintendent, voting unanimously to extend the interim leader's contract instead.
Originally, the board was aiming to hire someone by the end of May. Now, Interim Superintendent Matias Segura's contract will last until June 30, 2024. His contract initially was up this summer.
The vote came less than a week after the school board finalized the superintendent profile for the search. The profile outlines the characteristics trustees would like to see in the district's next leader. The list of qualities was informed, in large part, by feedback collected through an online survey as well as meetings with AISD families, staff and community members. Trustees said that feedback influenced their decision to keep Segura in the interim superintendent role a while longer.
A need for stability
The school board announced in a letter earlier this week that it was considering slowing down the search for a new superintendent, citing the need for stable leadership as the district faces time-sensitive challenges.
One is the district's backlog of special education evaluations. Evaluations are the first step students go through in order to get access to the services they're legally entitled to. Austin ISD is facing a lawsuit from the nonprofit Disability Rights Texas and an investigation from the Texas Education Agency over the backlog.
"Our students deserve to be evaluated in a timely manner," Board President Arati Singh said.
She pointed out that since Segura became the interim superintendent in January, he has spearheaded efforts to create a new system to track evaluations and referrals.
Another top priority for the board is improving the reading proficiency of elementary school students, especially historically marginalized students.
Trustees said they were outraged earlier this month when they learned most Hispanic and Black third-graders in the district were not reading on grade level. Austin ISD officials shared the midyear data collected through MAP Growth, a standardized test at a March 9 board meeting. Fifteen percent of Black third-graders were reading at grade level or above; that figure was 29% for Hispanic students. Trustees urged Segura to develop a plan to improve early literacy during the 2023-2024 school year.
The board is also hoping consistent leadership will help improve staff retention and recruitment amid a statewide teacher shortage.
"We've lost about a third of our teachers in the last two years. That's an unprecedented exodus," Singh said. "And so we've got to focus on that, too, and we're starting to finally see some really good and creative ideas to that."
Austin ISD has also struggled to keep someone in the top position. The district has had three leaders in the last year alone. Segura, who used to be AISD’s chief of operations, replaced the previous interim superintendent, Anthony Mays. He left at the end of last year to take the helm of Alief ISD in Houston. Before Mays, Stephanie Elizalde announced she was leaving for Dallas ISD in June.
Reaction to the decision
Members of a union representing AISD employees praised the school board for being flexible and keeping Segura in the interim role.
"With a legislative session, staffing issues, special ed concerns, overworked and underpaid employees, we have plenty to deal with right now. The search can wait," Education Austin President Ken Zarifis told trustees.
He added that Segura is the right leader for the district right now.
"Interim Superintendent Segura has brought stability, calm and a systematic thinking that kids, workers and this community deserve," he said.
While most of the speakers during public comment expressed support for Segura, several raised concerns about the fact that Segura does not have a superintendent certificate or a background as an educator.
"At a time when regular education is in crisis, especially the performance of Black students and special education is in crisis and under an investigation, any thoughts of putting a non-educator in the superintendent seat is particularly disturbing," Roxanne Evans with the East Austin Coalition for Quality Education said in the recorded comment played Thursday night. Evans lost a race for a school board seat last fall.
Former AISD Trustee Cheryl Bradley told board members she did not necessarily agree with their decision to extend Segura's contract, but she understood why they wanted to take that step. She urged trustees to ensure Segura has the resources to be successful in the role because it will ultimately benefit students.
"Make sure that he has access to talent — and I'm not saying he is not talented because he is," she said. "But there are some things that he is lacking because he does not have that experience."
Trustee Noelita Lugo noted recent AISD superintendents had experience as educators and did not get good results.
"You can have an academic background and still struggle to manage and lead an organization of this size," she said.
She and other trustees repeatedly emphasized Segura's systematic approach to problems within the district was sorely needed. They also expect his approach to lead to better academic outcomes for students.
Trustee David Kauffman said his previous misgivings about the fact that Segura was not an educator have been alleviated.
"We need education, we don't necessarily need an educator," he said. "And what we've seen that our district is most in need of right now is to strengthen the systems we have for running this district."
After the board voted to extend his contract, Segura, who attended AISD schools, said while he does not have a traditional education background, he brings skills to Austin ISD that can help improve student achievement.
"I think over the last several years we've been really good at saying where we want to be in two years but not necessarily proving how we're going to get there," he said.
Segura added that developing strong systems within the district will create continuity, whoever is in charge.
"It needs to be the core of what we're doing so that no matter who is here in this seat, our students are fully supported," he said.
The Austin ISD school board is going to continue working with GR Recruiting, the search firm it hired to find a new superintendent.
The contract with the firm totaled $42,000, but Singh said the board may incur more costs because GR Recruiting will likely need to do more community engagement.
"There might be some additional costs, but it's not like we're losing this contract and we have to start all over," she said.
Trustees also thanked the AISD community for their involvement in the search and urged them to stay involved.
"Don't disengage. Don't not tell us what you think," said Trustee Candace Hunter. "It is important. We have to know what is happening in our community."
The board does not yet have an updated timeline for the permanent superintendent search, but Singh pointed out it normally takes four to six months to find someone.