Austin ISD Is Looking For A New Leader During A Pandemic. Some Parents Find That Worrisome.

Jun 4, 2020

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There’s a lot we don’t know about the future for Austin’s students: Will Austin ISD's school buildings be open in August? Will online learning still be happening? Will there be sporting events or gatherings of any kind?

The AISD community also doesn't know who will be leading the district when the next school year starts. 

In February, Superintendent Paul Cruz announced he was leaving to take a job at UT Austin. His contract is valid through December 2021, but the school board has said it wants to hire a new superintendent by August.

It's a very different superintendent search, though. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed every step of the process, making many question whether now is the right time to find a new leader.

An Altered Search

AISD’s school board president, Geronimo Rodriguez, said hiring a superintendent is one of the most important jobs a school board does.

“The superintendent is the leader of the entire organization,” he said. “In this case, a $1.6 billion entity, with over 130 locations and 12,500 employees. The largest landowner in Travis County and we’re the largest employer in Travis County.” 

The superintendent is also the highest paid employee in the district. Cruz currently makes more than $300,000 a year. 

"Just the idea that it's moving forward when people are dealing with more pressing issues really excludes a lot of people."

This importance of the position means those making the hire usually spend time with community members in person to discuss what they want from a new superintendent. COVID-19 has taken away that opportunity. 

The president and CEO of the search firm scouting candidates, JG Consulting, said it has been conducting Zoom calls to hear from people in Austin. 

James Guerra said community feedback – from parents, students and school staff – is crucial. Because of the pandemic, it hasn't closed the public comment period and people can send feedback throughout the entire search.

“It’s critically important for us to engage the community," Guerra said. "The leadership profile that we are developing now incorporates the voices of those that we’ve heard from.”

The "leadership profile" is basically a job description that JG Consulting will use to choose which applicants become finalists. 

During a press conference via Zoom in May, parents and community members expressed concern that the process is happening during a pandemic. 

“I feel very uncomfortable with the community engagement going on around the superintendent search, because it feels very elitist to me,” Roxanne Evans, a long-time Austin resident, said. “Just the idea that it’s moving forward when people are dealing with more pressing issues really excludes a lot of people.” 

She and many others brought up that many AISD families don’t have WiFi in their homes or devices, so participating in Zoom calls and filling out online surveys isn’t inclusive. 

'So Many Unknowns'

Some people on the call also expressed concern about the timeline for hiring Cruz's replacement.

“[Cruz] was hired at the end of a nine-month process,” Cuitlahuac Guerra-Mojarro, an AISD parent, said. “So the district is asking the community to go through a process at half the amount of time, during the pandemic, with its legacy of not engaging the community, not prioritizing equity and not being transparent. It’s all just too much.”

Guerra, the consultant doing the hire, said four to five months is not unique and that’s the timeline his firm usually works with. He said in terms of recruiting another superintendent, it’s important to work within the school calendar. His firm is trying to hire someone to start at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. 

Kevin Foster, a parent who lives in North Austin, said he worries the pandemic and the timeline could change the consulting firm's priorities.

“How can you define what a good superintendent is even going to be when there are this many unknowns?” Foster said. “It is the reality that we hire different people for different seasons. COVID leaves us at the point where – Are you hiring a superintendent for the crisis moment, or are you hiring a superintendent for immediate post-crisis when we are dealing with bigger learning gaps than ever before?” 

Guerra said being able to manage the district during the pandemic is one of the criteria the firm is using to find candidates, in addition to academic needs the community has expressed. 

'Conversation Circles'

The board will go over JG Consulting’s proposed “leadership profile” at its June 22 meeting. According to its timeline, the firm will begin interviews at the end of July. 

Parents can still fill out a survey on AISD’s website, letting the firm know what they want from a new superintendent. 

Guerra said people can also email him feedback at james@jgconsulting.us.

The district is hosting what it's calling “conversation circles” via Zoom later this month. Here is the schedule and additional information: 

June 8: 12-1:30 p.m. (Intended audience is teachers and staff, conducted in English)

June 9: 12:00-1:30 p.m. (Intended audience is parents and families, conducted in English)

June 9: 6-7:30 p.m. (Intended audience is parents and families, conducted in Spanish)

June 10: 10-11:30 a.m. (Intended audience is parents and families, conducted in Spanish)

June 10: 6-7:30 p.m. (Intended audience is teachers and staff, conducted in Spanish)

June 11: 2-3:30 p.m. (Intended audience is students, conducted in English with Spanish interpretation)

June 11: 6-7:30 p.m. (Intended audience is parents and families of special education students, English with Spanish interpretation)

June 13: 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. (Intended audience is parents and families, conducted in Spanish with multiple languages available for interpretation.)