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Superintendent’s evaluation sparks heated testimony on district’s working conditions

Tuesday, November 2, 2021 by Kali Bramble

The AISD Board of Trustees faced a grueling round of public testimony at their meeting this past Thursday, with more than a dozen teachers calling in to express intolerable levels of stress. Citing administrative micromanagement, understaffing, excessive hours and poor compensation, speakers illustrated a district reaching a fever pitch of low morale.

With Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde up for evaluation, speakers used the opportunity to provide input on criteria such as staff retention and teacher and student satisfaction. After conducting the evaluation in a closed executive session, the board unanimously voted to extend Elizalde’s contract until 2024.

“I have never seen my colleagues so tired and frustrated,” said Traci Dunlap, who teaches at Maplewood Elementary School. “Almost every teacher I know is considering leaving.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges faced by the notoriously underfunded school district, with teachers and staff facing the brunt of the impact. Teacher resignations have left AISD with 105 position vacancies, forcing remaining faculty to assume extra classes and responsibilities. The staffing crisis extends to a shortage of substitutes, leaving some teachers unable to take time off.

“We are being told that we have to find our own substitutes if we want to have a day off,” said Lena Powell, a special education teacher at Martin Middle School.

Faculty described an environment of bureaucratic micromanagement that has left them overworked and exhausted, with unclear benefits to students’ education. Grievances over mandates included poorly designed district-enforced curriculum, long and uncompensated training requirements and excessive meetings.

“After a horrendous year, we are being penalized with more walk-throughs than we’ve ever had before,” speaker Kelly Griffin said.

Many of us have to complete a 60-hour reading academy on our own time, uncompensated,” Dunlap added.

“Unfunded mandates are not helping us. We need resources and support,” Ryan Thomas of Akins High School said.

Elizalde began her response to the round of testimony with an assurance that she would be contacting all those who made statements. “We will begin working immediately at all the identified locations … clearly, they are not feeling supported.”

The superintendent went on to clarify that some of the mandates burdening faculty are state-enforced by House Bill 4545, which requires 30 hours of accelerated instruction for students who did not take or pass the STAAR test last year.

Leslie Stephens, the district’s chief officer of human capital, provided an alternative perspective, noting that “in 2019, which was a normal pre-pandemic school year, the district had 107 teacher vacancies … so it appears we are somewhat consistent.”

Still, the board acknowledged that the resounding mood was of a teaching staff reaching its breaking point. Several speakers announced their plans to leave the teaching profession, some after careers of over a decade.

“I work for a school on a district plan because of low test scores. The sheer amount of micromanagement has me filling out enough data sheets and goal outlines to keep me up until midnight almost every single night, and I work through most of my weekends,” Megan Barrett said. “In 11 years I have never felt this degree of burnout … this will have to be my last year teaching.”

Trustee Noelita Lugo asked board members to acknowledge this crisis as part of a greater national trend: “We are seeing this in every industry … the pandemic has impacted how people think about how they earn a living. Health care workers and teachers are especially worn and drained.”

An open letter organized by labor union Education Austin has amassed over 700 signatures to date, in a bid to improve working conditions. As the district’s leader for the next two years, Superintendent Elizalde will face the challenge of addressing these grievances.

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