The Austin ISD board of trustees named Paul Cruz superintendent at its Jan. 26 meeting. Cruz, the first Latino superintendent of AISD, said he is humbled by the opportunity to serve district families after working for the district for the past nine years.
What have you learned about AISD in your time working for the district, and how do you think that knowledge will help you to serve families?
There are so many individuals who come into the district, who step up to the plate to help us make sure that all students are graduating from high school. That’s really important. And I’ve worked in several school districts, but we take it up a notch on those types of supports, which I think is positive. As far as [being]interim superintendent, in that role I was able to work with the board and our community members and staff at a deeper level, particularly our board members, [for]a better understanding of where we were and where we wanted to be as a district and where we are today.
What are some of your goals?
It’s always about increasing the graduation rate [and]making sure more students are ready for college and career. So, bottom line, that’s always going to be the ultimate measure for us. One [goal]is around addressing the level of rigor that we have in every single classroom, [making]sure that we continue to increase the level of rigor, and so we have all kids graduating, or enrolling, in the Distinguished Level of Achievement plan, which is the highest graduation plan offered in the state. As far as staff, [the goal is]around compensation and that we compensate our staff members, particularly our teachers, for the good work that they are doing. We have the highest graduation rates we have ever had in the history of the district, and we have gotten there because of our teachers and our principals and support staff who really have supported our kids and our families. There are community members and constituents who feel that they have been left out of the decision-making process and want to be much more engaged, and so that’s another goal … reaching out and extending the hand to all of our constituency so that they are also part of the school improvement process. There has to be a strong level of trust.
The district is in the process of planning its budget for fiscal year 2015-16 and beyond. What kind of changes will the district be making and what can taxpayers expect to see as part of the budget, especially around staff compensation?
We are looking at different scenarios of what would a 3 percent or what would a 5 percent [increase]cost? Where are we as far as employee pay for different job classifications?
But what we do know is a 5 percent increase is $25 million. And of the $25 million for the 5 percent increase, for teachers it is a little around $15 million. … But we are creating different scenarios for the board as to what is it going to take to move into the direction to balance the budget.
The district has experienced two consecutive years of enrollment declines, and it is projected that the student population will continue to decrease during the next 10 years. What are some of the key factors contributing to that and what is AISD doing to respond to those declines?
That’s attributed to lower birth rates and affordability, but I think we have to address that through better programming. Really, when we look at enrollment its really pre-K and [kindergarten], that’s where really were not seeing the numbers come in, but that also was the same for other districts in the entire area.
We still have schools that are overenrolled; we have schools that are underenrolled. And so there are going to be different solutions based on whats best in that area and that community. What we have done this year for next year is we are actually moving some grade levels to different schools or [changing]some boundaries. Our board approved a policy for students who live outside AISD to enroll in Austin ISD and we get funding for those students, and that’s something that is different.
What is the status of planning for a new south high school?
The purchase of the land, that’s really where the board is right now. What was authorized by the voters is for the district to purchase land. Anything beyond that would still then take additional conversation about then building a school. But we are not there yet. Even though its south, it impacts Travis [High School]; it will impact potentially Eastside [Memorial and] McCallum [high schools].
What is the likelihood that the district could call for a tax ratification election in the next few years, and what would that mean for taxpayers and the district?
That’s being discussed as we build out our budget; we are looking at our budget in a multiyear plan. $175 million this year is going to go to the state [from AISD]under recapture. The way it impacts us as far as a TRE, [if we raise]a penny of tax effort for us on the maintenance and operations side only 50 percent or less is actually going to stay here. We don’t feel very property-wealthy because 62 percent of the kids are in poverty; 27 percent are English language learners. We are a large, urban school system, it does take money to transport students around to different programs and we get no money because we are Chapter 41 we don’t get any money for transportation.