Updated May 16, 12:08 p.m. to include an email from President Kendall Pace to district administration.
On Wednesday morning, Education Austin, the labor union for Austin ISD employees, held a press conference asking AISD board President Kendall Pace to resign her position on the board of trustees.
Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said that Pace “needs to step down from the board, not tomorrow, not next month, but today,” after the union learned of a “disturbing” text message exchange between Pace and AISD trustee Julie Cowan.
According to Zarifis, in a text message discussing the Texas Education Agency’s Transformation Zone Program, Pace said “[grants will]only get approved if we set up a real, charter-like [zone],” and “ignore the special interest groups, crazy ignorant community activists and poverty pimps.”
The text continued to say that a “transformation zone plan has to have [Austin ISD executive director Betty Jenkins] to run it or it won’t get approved. Joe from the TEA largely set this up for us,” according to Zarifis.
A transformation zone is a group of campuses given autonomy to make decisions concerning staff, funding and academic programming, according to the district. Austin ISD began planning to form a zone in Northeast Austin in January.
“These types of meddlings and backroom deals have been a product of this district for too long, and they must stop,” Zarifis said. “Kendall Pace is leading a charge that I don’t even think some in this administration are aware of. Instead of respecting those who have elected her, she chooses to demean them, and all the while, creating a course of action behind closed doors. Last night Trustee Pace reached out to the media. Trustee Pace at no point in her comments apologized for these horrific statements. Actually, she justified them, saying it was a rant, that she’s frustrated.”
He also said Education Austin is concerned about a possible conflict of interest between Jenkins and The New Three R’s, a school resources company that the district has worked with in the past.
In an email to AISD administration, Pace, who is currently out of town, said “A private text to a Board colleague was shared publicly. I will not make excuses for it, and I do acknowledge that it was unpolished. It was written in a passionate haste born out of frustration that we are not doing enough to close our equity gaps. I know it will create the appearance that is not representative of who I am as a leader in this community. If I could do it over again I would choose my words differently.
“HOWEVER, it was from the heart and that stays true,” she continued. “I have been consistent on the dias, in social media, in public and in private meetings speaking about my driving passion around academic excellence, and specifically how we can eliminate the achievement gaps that plague primarily our students of color from low income families. I have enough of a track record that my record speaks for itself. I understand my comments will come under scrutiny. I want to be judged by my leadership and my work, my inquisitiveness, my pushiness to get results and better outcomes. I have devoted my years on the Board and in my leadership role to this unwaveringly. I realize my willingness to push for this meets resistance in many areas, but also gives a voice to many who go unheard and have long been ignored.
Representatives from the Austin Justice Coalition, Austin Voices and AISD parents also spoke at the press conference.
“The Austin Justice Coalition stands in complete solidarity with Education Austin,” Austin Justice Coalition Executive Director Chas Moore said. “I think this text message shows that [Pace] really doesn’t have faith in the district itself, which is sad, and I think reflects why the majority of the schools that are failing happen to be on the east side of [I-35] and not the west side. When you’re using language like poverty pimps and crazy activists, it shows that you don’t really respect the community’s input and opinions when I comes to the outcomes we want to see in the school district.”
When asked by members of the media at the press conference, Zarifis did not say how Education Austin obtained the text message.
“We live in a community with many different interests, and [the district needs to figure out]how do we align those interests in a common goal in helping our kids succeed,” Zarifis said. “You don’t demonize the community. You don’t vilify parents and students and teachers that are working hard every day.”