Two potential candidates withdraw before mid-December forum; board of trustees to take vote on hiring superintendent in 2015
By Kelli Weldon
Paul Cruz, who became interim superintendent of Austin ISD in April, could be dropping the "interim" from his title in 2015. After an eight-month search that began when former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen left the district, AISD narrowed down a list of 98 applicants to three.
Two candidates withdrew from consideration for the job Dec. 10, making Cruz the only candidate still in the running.
"We're now down to one. We didn't expect it to turn out that way, but we certainly feel that Dr. Cruz is capable of being the superintendent," board of trustees President Vincent Torres told Community Impact Newspaper.
In previous meetings, Torres and other trustees had advocated for presenting at least two candidates to the community rather than announcing a single candidate.
"We as a board did make that decision. We had three candidates," Torres said. "The fact that two of them decided to not continue on is something that is out of our control, and at this point it's unfortunate that the community will not have an opportunity to hear from those candidates, because I think the community would have come to the same conclusion that we had—that they were all excellent candidates."
Seeking a superintendent
Carstarphen left the district in mid-April. In May, AISD hired executive search firm Ray & Associates to help recruit and narrow down a list of candidates—a process that cost the district $41,650, according to the agreement posted on the district's website.
The district tentatively planned a public forum with finalists for the job but canceled that event. Then the board voted unanimously Dec. 8 to change its timeline and process to include Cruz as a candidate after hearing community support for him.
During the Dec. 8 meeting, trustee Gina Hinojosa said she was pleasantly surprised by Cruz's work in his interim role.
"I was one who at the beginning was afraid that while we had an interim [superintendent] we'd be a rudderless ship. Well, those fears were unfounded, and I didn't know what a great leader we had in [Cruz]," she said.
After hearing from members of the community about canceling the forum, trustees voted to invite the three candidates to answer community members' questions as part of a new public forum Dec. 13. AISD did not identify the other two candidates. At press time, the district was slated to announce its lone finalist Dec. 15.
Parent Vincent Tovar said during public comment he thought holding the forum would show the board is committed to being transparent. He noted some people have questioned whether to name a finalist before newly elected trustees are slated to take their places at the dais Jan. 6.
"I don't hear a lot of outcry from school board candidates saying that they don't trust your decision-making; if anything, I feel like they do trust the work that you're doing to prepare for them as they're coming to the school board," he told trustees.
Parents and community members expressed concern about the board's decision to change a board-approved, publicly vetted formal process without community engagement, said Lorie Barzano, chairwoman of the Coalition to Strengthen Austin Urban Schools. The coalition objected to canceling the first public forum and eliminating a community interview team, she said during public comment.
"After committing to these actions, canceling them constitutes a textbook violation of the public trust, fails to hold trustees accountable to stakeholders and disregards public demand for transparency in board actions," Barzano said.
AISD parent Toni Rayner said she viewed the process change as trustees listening to broad public support for Cruz.
Trustee Robert Schneider proposed delaying naming a finalist until January and said holding a forum was a must.
"I also believe that Dr. Cruz has done a very good job of running the district in the interim position," Schneider said. " I believe that we owe it to our community to at least be able to show what the comparison is that this board is facing."
Ken Zarifis, president of employees union Education Austin, told Community Impact Newspaper the organization
supports Cruz as superintendent.
"The superintendent is the face and the voice of the district. The board is the superintendent's boss," he said. "The superintendent has to be attentive to the community ... yet at the same time a leader."
The district said it would still hold a community forum Dec. 13 with Cruz as the only candidate.
The board is slated to take a formal vote to hire a superintendent in January.