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AISD seat open to applicants

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

Austin Independent School District board members achieved another small step in the ever-evolving process to replace longtime Board Member Robert Schneider. At Monday’s workshop meeting, trustees decided to open Southwest Austin’s District 7 seat to all qualified applicants instead of appointing the area’s runner-up from the November 2014 election. Trustees hope to have the recently emptied seat filled by the end of September.

Monday’s decision to solicit applications, however, came after more than an hour of debate with board members in disagreement on significant details nearly the entire time.

According to staff and trustees, Schneider’s death from cancer on July 28 left a vacuum of experience and a nervous constituency who are awaiting board decisions on longstanding issues regarding the creation of a South Austin high school, overcrowding relief at Bowie High School and potential new magnet programs in the area.

At AISD’s Aug. 10 meeting, board members decided to forgo a special election for the empty seat because of financial constraints and a potential runoff that would delay Southwest Austin representation. In choosing to appoint Schneider’s successor, they narrowed their options to two: either creating an open-application process that would fill the seat until the November 2016 general election, or placing Yasmin Wagner in the position for the same amount of time. Wagner gained 48 percent of the votes in District 7 in the 2014 election, but she ultimately lost the seat to Schneider.

Much like the option to pursue an election, the decision to appoint a candidate has its own set of pitfalls that left trustees pondering how to incorporate community feedback, determine the best candidate and fill the seat quickly.

On Monday, District 1 Board Member Edmund Gordon argued that appointing Wagner was the cheapest, most cost-effective, most objective and fastest way to fill the position. Gordon, who initially suggested the appointment option, said it was the most democratic, unbiased way sans election as well.

“It’s going to be very difficult for us to create what seems to us, and to the people of District 7, objective criteria for electing a candidate,” he added.

In the past two meetings, Vice President Amber Elenz and District 6 Board Member Paul Saldaña also voiced concern about a potential community backlash. Both trustees pointed to the failure of a previous open-application attempt to fill a vacant seat, after Vice President Rudy Montoya Jr. announced his resignation in September 2006.

Like Schneider, Montoya was the longest-serving trustee on the board at the time. But Montoya stayed on until the next general election in May, after attempts to fill his seat caused discord among community members.

“You can fool yourself, or in some sense fool the public, that they’ve had some say and input as a community, but none of us are part of this (District 7) community,” Gordon told trustees Monday, continuing to advocate against the potentially lengthy open-application process. “In the time that we have and the resources that we have, we cannot possibly poll the entire community. … I just see too many issues in trying to turn this into what it’s not. It’s not a democratic process.”

Still, Secretary and District 2 Board Member Jayme Mathias, District 3 Board Member Ann Teich and District 4 Board Member Julie Cowan all said they believed an open-application process to be the fairest way forward. Teich, who is president of the board’s Community Engagement Committee, continually insisted on the importance of soliciting Southwest Austin residents’ feedback regarding applicants.

“We have received numerous proposed timelines, ways to do (an open-application process), and what I consider thoughtful input from the residents,” said Teich. “I would feel better if we move forward with the application process, understanding that I’ll probably get hate emails, and that’s OK.”

As things began to get heated, Board President Gina Hinojosa reminded trustees that there was no “perfect solution” to the situation. Mathias added that trustees had a duty to “step up to the plate” and make a decision quickly because urgency was one of the main reasons they decided to skip a special election earlier.

While the majority of board members ultimately agreed to place a simplified application on AISD’s website within the week, some details of the appointment process remain unclear. There was no consensus on whether community engagement will be part of the process or which qualities board members are looking for in a candidate. Potential requirements such as the addition of a resume or a completed questionnaire spurred continual debate.

It was eventually decided that AISD staff should draft a timeline and questionnaire for trustees to look over at their next meeting, on Aug. 25. It is then that board members have pledged to set the nitty-gritty details of the process in stone.

Legally, the board has until Jan. 25 to fill the position.

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