Austinites could have the opportunity to question three Austin ISD superintendent candidates, including Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz, at a public forum Dec. 13 at Lanier High School as a result of votes at an Austin ISD board of trustees meeting Dec. 8.
The district had tentatively planned a public forum for Dec. 9. The district cancelled the forum and voted unanimously Dec. 8 to change its superintendent search timeline and process to be able to include Cruz as a candidate after hearing widespread community support for him taking on the role.
Trustees including Jayme Mathias supported holding the forum.
"[A public forum] would give the community an opportunity to meet those who are interested, so it seems that it's a win-win situation," Mathias said.
The board unanimously voted to invite top candidates to participate in the forum, announce their names Dec. 12, hold the public forum Dec. 13 and potentially take action to identify a sole finalist at its Dec. 15 meeting. Board President Vincent Torres did not identify the other two candidates.
"When we release their names we'll also release bios on each of the candidates that will provide information about them [such as] their academic background and where they are currently employed. That information will be provided starting Friday and then at the public forum as well," Torres said.
Torres said the board is slated to take a formal vote on hiring a superintendent in January following runoff elections Dec. 16 for three of the five trustee seats up for election this fall.
AISD has been seeking a new superintendent since April, when Meria Carstarphen left to lead Atlanta Public Schools.
AISD hired Ray & Associates, an executive search firm, to help recruit and narrow down a list of potential candidates—a process that would cost the district about $41,650, not including advertising and candidate expenses, according to the agreement posted on the district's board website. The district received 98 job applications, Torres said.
Parent Vincent Tovar said he thought holding a public forum on Dec. 13 would show the board is committed to being transparent. He said he heard concerns about whether to name a finalist before new trustees have joined the board.
"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," Tovar told trustees during public comment.
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 the district's cancellation of the Dec. 9 public forum and elimination of a community interview team, she said.
"After committing to these actions, cancelling 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 the turn of events follows the coalition's repeated requests that AISD implement a transparent, community-based process with "a reasonable timeline" for major changes such as closing schools.
AISD parent Toni Rayner said she supports the board's decision to change its superintendent search process.
"While unusual, I also [view the process change] as the board listening to the broad public support for Dr. Cruz to be a candidate for the permanent superintendent position, and I appreciate that," she said.
Timing and next steps
Trustee Robert Schneider, who was re-elected in November to his fourth term on the board, proposed the board delay naming a lone finalist until after the new board members take their places at the dais in January.
"I also believe that Dr. Cruz has done a very good job of running the district in the interim position," Schneider said. " I know from the interviews, though, that we also have [more] candidates that I consider to be excellent candidates, and 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."
Mathias and trustee Ann Teich said they would support delaying the decision to name a finalist.
Trustee Gina Hinojosa said the board's process has always stated that the current board would identify a finalist, thus "bridging the decision from this board to the next board."
Overall, Hinojosa said she has been pleasantly surprised by Cruz's performance 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.
AISD posts superintendent search updates to www.austinisd.org/superintendent-search.