In a unanimous vote Dec. 15, the Austin ISD board of trustees named interim Superintendent Paul Cruz the sole finalist in the district's search for a new superintendent.
Cruz beat out 98 other applicants and answered questions at a community forum Dec. 13 but has not officially been hired; the board of trustees is slated to take a formal vote in January to hire a superintendent.
Some community members expressed concerns during public comment—not with Cruz as a candidate, but with the way the board changed its process to include Cruz without more public input. Trustee Amber Elenz said the district built its profile for a new superintendent based on extensive community input, and while the process did change—multiple times—it was only as a means to an end.
"When our previous superintendent announced plans to leave last spring, we set out on a process to find a replacement, and since that time we have adapted that process multiple times to ensure that we had the best pool of candidates possible," she said. " I struggle to understand how anyone can think that we broke any promises during this effort because the promise that I believe we made as a board is that we will work to the best of our abilities to find the person most suited to serve as superintendent of Austin ISD right here and right now."
Process and community feedback
A few parents and teachers thanked Cruz for listening to the community and supporting initiatives, including the district's dual-language program and leadership concerning LGBTQ acceptance.
During public comment, Jill Ramirez, director of community programs for the Latino HealthCare Forum, said Cruz has worked closely with many student groups to support implementation of a pipeline for students to the new University of Texas medical school and teaching hospital.
"He really understands the relationship between health, health care and education," she said. " We are very happy that he is being considered."
Trustees who did not seek re-election when their terms expired in November—Cheryl Bradley, Tamala Barksdale, Lori Moya and Vincent Torres—said they supported Cruz as superintendent.
Trustee Robert Schneider, who was re-elected in November to serve a fourth term, said that although he also supported the finalist designation, he had concerns about the process. The district invited its top three candidates to participate in a public forum, but the other two finalists dropped out before the forum took place.
"We had excellent candidates," Schneider said. "Dr. Cruz is an excellent candidate, but for the board to commit to something that was supposed to be an open, transparent process and then change the rules without first engaging the community in some way is just one of those things I think is extremely unfortunate."
Narda Lopez-Mata, a teaching assistant at Pickle Elementary School, said there was much confusion during the search.
"I congratulate you, Dr. Cruz. I guess by default, you win," she said. "But what of the other two candidates that put in their time? Do we have anything to compare you against? All I'm asking is for clarity and transparency."
Lorie Barzano, chairwoman of the Coalition to Strengthen Austin Urban Schools, said since the board changed its process Dec. 8 she has fielded calls from irate community members who also had concerns about the process but were afraid to speak about them to the district.
Cruz, who has been in AISD for nine years, has knowledge of both the unique culture of Austin and the Texas Legislature, trustee Gina Hinojosa said. She said his expertise will help the board make difficult decisions as it faces tough issues such as budget planning and staff compensation.
"It's not just that Dr. Cruz is the last man standing, but I believe that he is absolutely the best person for the job," Hinojosa said.
Cruz, 49, said he was humbled and honored by the board naming him the sole finalist.
"We really are focused on the future," Cruz said. "I think we're at this turning point that is just going to be even a greater level of excellence."
During the meeting trustees also approved facility master plan implementation recommendations, including extending the district's dual-language program to two middle schools, exploring expanding access to Liberal Arts and Science Academy programming, and addressing overcrowding. Trustees also approved an amendment to add "gender expression" to the district's anti-discrimination policies, having already added "gender identity."