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Austin-area school board president abruptly resigns and leaves meeting

Dozens of people are seated in a Del Valle ISD administrative building where the school board is meeting. School board members are seated at the front of the room.
Becky Fogel
KUT News
Rebecca Birch announced from the dais she was stepping down as Del Valle ISD school board president, effective immediately, at a meeting on Tuesday.

Del Valle ISD’s school board meeting kicked off with a major announcement on Tuesday: Board President Rebecca Birch said she was resigning, effective immediately. She had served on the board for nearly 12 years and spent more than half of that tenure as president.

Birch’s decision came the same night the Del Valle ISD board swore in former Trustee Damián Pantoja. The board voted 5 to 3 last week to reappoint Pantoja to represent Single Member District 2, which includes part of the Montopolis neighborhood. Pantoja had to vacate the seat last summer after he claimed a homestead exemption within Austin ISD’s boundaries that violated residency requirements to serve on the DVISD board.

Birch said the reappointment of Pantoja was a tipping point for her.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do the work that we’re doing with board members who are trying to undermine the progress that we’ve worked so hard for,” Birch told KUT. “Recently, they placed somebody on the board who, in my opinion, should not be back on the board due to some of the actions they took by filing a homestead exemption in another district.”

Pantoja declined to comment on Birch's remarks and referred KUT to the district. Del Valle ISD has not yet responded to a request for comment.

To claim a homestead exemption, a taxpayer must own and reside at the property as of Jan. 1 of the year they are applying. They also need to submit a driver’s license or state ID with their application that has the same address as the property they’re seeking an exemption for.

Del Valle ISD announced on June 21, 2023, that Pantoja had to step down from his seat over this issue.

“Mr. Pantoja immediately and automatically ceased holding office in Del Valle ISD when he swore his primary residence was now in Austin ISD,” the emailed statement said.

At the time, Pantoja said in a Facebook post he claimed the homestead exemption without seeking professional advice but believed in accepting the consequences of his actions.

“I completed paperwork that is being used by opponents on the Board to claim I vacated the Single Member District 2 seat on the Del Valle ISD School Board of Trustees," he wrote. "That was never my intent, but my error has given my opponents the opportunity to have me removed."

The Del Valle ISD school board had the option to call a special election or appoint someone to fill the vacancy within 180 days. Trustees did not call a special election and exceeded the timeline to choose someone for the seat because they could not agree on an applicant to fill the vacancy for about eight months.

That changed last Thursday when a majority of the board voted to reappoint Pantoja after his third time applying to fill the vacancy. The Del Valle ISD graduate said he looks forward to representing his constituents again.

“Some of them believe that their voice was missing, now they have their voice on the dais,” he told KUT on Tuesday before the board meeting.

Several people urged trustees to reappoint Pantoja during a special board meeting on Jan. 8. But, at that meeting, he did not get enough votes to rejoin the board. Neither did the only other applicant, David Albert, who lost to Pantoja in the 2020 election.

One of the people who spoke in support of Pantoja at last month’s meeting was Asher, a senior at Del Valle High School. He also attended Tuesday’s board meeting where Pantoja was sworn in. Asher said he was happy to see Pantoja back on the board because he is a strong advocate for students.

“Being an alumni, he has that connection to our school district and he feels the effects of what actually happens to our students,” Asher said.

Pantoja, for his part, said student achievement is top of mind as he rejoins the board.

“I want to focus on celebrating the students — graduation is coming up — I want to start there,” he said.

Pantoja has also regained his seat at a crucial moment for Del Valle ISD as trustees prepare to begin a search for a new top leader ahead of Superintendent Annette Tielle's departure in December. Tielle announced last Friday that she will retire after seven years with the district and 32 years in public education.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Tielle had served as Del Valle ISD superintendent for seven years. She has been in the role since 2020.

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