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AISD District 7 candidate forums conclude

Monday, September 21, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

Two Austin Independent School District trustees and about 40 residents packed Baranoff Elementary School’s cafeteria this weekend to hear District 7 candidates Yasmin Wagner and Jonathan “Dale” Sump field questions.

Saturday’s meeting was the third and final in-district forum. Now AISD trustees will interview the two candidates on Sept. 24 and give district-wide residents a final chance to ask questions at a Sept. 28 meeting when trustees will make their final selection. After being appointed, the chosen District 7 candidate will hold the seat until the November 2016 election.

Representatives from the Austin League of Women Voters asked the two candidates a total of nine questions at the forum. The questions were submitted online or in-person by District 7 residents. Below are three of the major questions and responses.

1) “There is significant overcrowding in several elementary schools across the district, including Kiker (Middle School) and Baranoff (Elementary School) in District 7. There are also elementary schools across AISD that operate well below capacity. How would you decide between transporting children from overcrowded schools to ones with extra capacity versus building new schools?”

Wagner: “I think currently what we are looking at right now is not an environment where we are exploring building new schools. … We are looking at really a regional issue in the Southwest with overcrowding. We’ve got Baldwin (Elementary School) that’s short 112 seats this year. Baranoff (Elementary School) is short 183 seats this year. We’ve got Kiker (Elementary School) that’s short 262 seats this year. So, there’s some significant shortfalls in terms of available space at the elementary level across Southwest Austin. Those numbers don’t appear to be declining, so I think we have to be proactive in making sure that we are getting ahead of the demographic predictions. … But at the same time, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we do have schools in District 7 that are under-enrolled. … (We need to be) empowering those schools to be able to implement some programming options that make those schools a destination.”

Sump: “So, the question is around transporting or transfers, and I think what you’re going to find in the stats – which you just heard from Ms. Wagner – for the schools in District 7 are accurate. … So, when you look at the patterns of boundary lines, that’s the big question: How do you create the school attendance boundaries for the elementary schools? There are other things that go on at middle schools and high schools that track students to go from one school to another, track them in specialized programs, but typically in an elementary school you aren’t looking at that. … So for now, the questions would probably be around where are the school attendance zones for each elementary school, and that process is done by the Boundary Advisory Committee and is also handled by (the Department of) Facilities within AISD.”

2) “South Austin does not have any magnet or specialty programs. All said programs are located north of the river. How do you plan to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) or other specialty magnet programs available in our district?”

Sump: “The issue is if you are in South Austin, we have some schools with some specialized programs. And, I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m understanding that not all are open for enrollment for (all) students. They are open for enrollment if you are in that attendance zone. … So, understand that, in and of itself, the district is already taking a look at what students might be interested in here in South Austin. And, I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out of this and taking a look at the survey they just had. Hopefully, everyone has had a chance to fill out that survey.”

Wagner: “I’m hearing a lot from the community that the South Austin neighborhoods would very much like to see a geographically central option for kids here who are currently spending a great deal of time on buses getting across town for magnet options. I think there are lot of things we need to consider in that, though. One of the things is that the reason we’ve had such a success at (the Liberal Arts and Science Academy) is because we’ve built a critical mass of 1,000 students to access those options and build that curriculum. So, we need to be very mindful that if we start to duplicate (LASA), are we inadvertently splitting that program up and reducing that critical mass of options? … What I would like to see is that we expand our options – perhaps create a magnet that is much more STEM intensive … but that we certainly place it in South Austin.”

3) “At this last community forum, do you think there is an important issue that you have not been asked previously? If so, what is it?”

Wagner: “There was one thing that we really haven’t discussed, and that is teacher compensation. … I think it is one of the most glaring issues we have as a district. The reality for our children in this district is that if we don’t retain strong teachers by being able to pay them solid, competitive wages – which we are not currently doing – we are going to lose good teachers. There’s a financial impact that comes with that as well, because every time we have to approve a new teacher, that has a hard cost associated with it. … So (we need to make) sure we have good teachers in place, we are doing the right things to retain them, doing the right things to make sure they have professional development in place, doing the right things to ensure they have solid benefits, and also making sure we are doing that for our administration and staff as well. We are not going to have healthy, strong schools without making that a priority.”

Sump: “I’m going to talk about a district-wide issue, so we’re going to talk about the student achievement gap. I don’t know how hard we feel that in District 7, but I can tell you at schools in AISD, there is an achievement gap. It is one that needs additional resources and support, and that comes in the form of dollars and educational understanding. We have an operating budget that we are maxing out right now. So, it is incumbent on us to present those students with as many options to be successful, just like the students here at District 7. No student, just because of their ZIP code, should have any difference in what is offered for their education.”

At the meeting, the candidates also had the opportunity to explain their backgrounds.

Wagner, a 44-year-old communications and marketing manager, summarized her involvement with AISD prior to last November’s run against former District 7 Trustee Robert Schneider, which she lost with 48 percent of the vote. Wagner said she also served on the parent-teacher association boards of Gorzycki Middle School and Kiker Elementary School. In addition, Wagner acted as a delegate to the Austin Council of PTAs, a district-wide PTA, and sat on the AISD Boundary Advisory Committee, which addresses over- and under-enrollment on campuses.

Sump, a 53-year-old accountant and risk management specialist, was Schneider’s appointee to the Community Bond Oversight Committee for the 2008, 2010 and 2013 bonds. He also chaired that committee’s Bond Project Agenda Review Subcommittee, and in 2008, he served as a District 7 representative on the Performing Arts Center Task Force, which helped determine the details for the now-completed AISD Performing Arts Center.

To read more of Wagner and Sump’s positions on AISD issues, their written answers to AISD’s questionnaire are available on the district website.

Photo: District 7 candidates Yasmin Wagner and Jonathan “Dale” Sump talk to residents at Saturday’s forum.

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