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AISD forgoes special election

Wednesday, August 12, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

In a dramatic, down-to-the-wire 4-4 decision late Monday night, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees opted to appoint a replacement for Southwest Austin’s open seat rather than dish out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a special election.

The District 7 position was vacated July 28 after veteran board member Robert Schneider passed away. Schneider, whose 13-year stint as a trustee made him the most experienced of the current board members, avidly spearheaded causes for his region, including the ongoing, drawn-out fight for a South Austin high school.

At Monday’s special-called meeting, board members found themselves between a rock and hard place when considering how to fill the open seat. They could either appoint a South Austin candidate until the November 2016 general election or allow voters to designate a representative to serve the remainder of Schneider’s term, which ends in November 2018.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir informed board members that a November 2015 special election would cost AISD about $123,400 after total election costs were split among 17 other entities. Travis County also needed to know by Tuesday night if AISD would appear on the ballot, and candidates needed to be named by Sept.3, she said.

“For an open seat, you are very likely to have multiple candidates,” DeBeauvoir added. “So, I think when you are thinking about your budget numbers, go ahead and include a runoff election.”

A December runoff election would add an estimated $236,600 because AISD would most likely be the lone governmental entity on the ballot, DeBeauvoir said.

“I’m imagining Trustee Schneider is smiling down on us this evening as we are talking about possibly spending $360,000 to fill his seat,” Secretary and District 2 Board Member Jayme Mathias said. “Certainly based on the emails that we’ve been receiving during these hours, it leads a person like myself to conclude the community is saying push for an appointment as soon as possible.”

During the discussion, Mathias along with District 6 Board Member Paul Saldaña repeatedly pointed to 29 emails board members received from District 7 constituents pleading for quick representation in light of several looming decisions involving South Austin, including the potential purchase of land for the new South Austin high school, creation of an additional magnet program in the area and looming transfer policy changes that would affect Bowie High School. Schneider had been off the dais since April.

Saldaña and Mathias also emphasized the likelihood of low voter turnout for the proposed 2015 special and runoff elections, and pointed to the more participatory and cheaper November 2016 presidential election as a better option.

“We’ve never debated (voter turnout) in the past,” At-Large Board Member Kendall Pace countered. Referring to the election of a past board member, she added that “400 people came out in a May election to vote. She was unopposed in that race. No one talked about that being a detriment.”

Turnout concerns, a rushed timeline, emailed opinions and high election costs amid AISD’s financial woes proved too much for special election supporters – which included Vice President Amber Elenz, Board President Gina Hinojosa, District 3 Board Member Ann Teich and Pace – despite their arguments for a longer-sitting, thus more knowledgeable and accountable, board representative.

It was revealed at the meeting as well that AISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley budgets $450,000 for election costs annually.

“I hear Trustee Mathias in terms of we got 29 emails, but 29 emails out of 29,000 registered voters (in District 7) … I’m not sure that’s necessarily a democratic process, either,” Pace added after Elenz pointed out to other board members that an appointment process would not be likely to fill the seat as quickly as they thought.

While Saldaña’s first motion to appoint a representative stalled on a 4-4 vote, Pace’s motion to call a special election also yielded the same split, with District 1 Board Member Edmund Gordon, District 4 Board Member Julie Cowan, Saldaña and Mathias voting against it. Without majority board approval, and given Travis County’s impending Tuesday night ballot deadline, the motion to move forward with a special election failed.

Going forward, board members may adopt an appointment process as early as next Monday at a potential special-called meeting. Gordon asked the board to consider appointing Yasmin Wagner, who lost against Schneider last year with 48 percent of the vote. Gordon asked staff to reach out to see if she is still interested in the position. Another appointment process might include engaging the District 7 community and gathering applications from those interested in filling the seat.

During the meeting, Elenz made it clear to her other board members that several deadlines for District 7 projects, such as the land purchase for the additional South Austin high school, were self-imposed and could be postponed.

Photo by Alex Lee (originally posted to Flickr as Voting in Hackney) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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