New AISD board leadership has plenty of challenges ahead

Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees members: (from left) Ann Teich, District 3; Edmund T. Gordon, District 1; Julie Cowan, District 4; Amber Elenz, VICE-PRESIDENT, District 5; Gina Hinojosa, PRESIDENT, At Large 8; Jayme Mathias, SECRETARY, District 2; Kendall Pace, At Large 9; Paul Saldaña, District 6; Yasmin Wagner, District 7.

Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees members: (from left) Ann Teich, District 3; Edmund T. Gordon, District 1; Julie Cowan, SECRETARY, District 4; Amber Elenz, District 5; Gina Hinojosa, At Large 8; Jayme Mathias, District 2; Kendall Pace, PRESIDENT, At Large 9; Paul Saldaña, VICE PRESIDENT, District 6; Yasmin Wagner, District 7.

The Austin ISD Board of trustees has new leadership. On Wednesday evening, Kendall Pace was elected as board president, Paul Saldaña was named vice president and Julie Cowan as board secretary.

The election was prompted by the resignation of board president Gina Hinojosa who has filed as a candidate for the Texas House of Representatives District 49 seat. Hinojosa will continue to represent the At-Large Position 8 seat on the AISD board of trustees.

If their experiences are any indication, this could prove to be a very effective team. Collectively, the three new board officers have worked with local business, city, county and state leaders – equipping the board with skill sets that could prove to be crucial for the district.

Pace is a management and financial consultant and has served on the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s education and talent development council and the district advisory council. Saldaña is a public relations consultant and longtime activist widely known for his work as chief of staff for former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia. Saldaña has more than 20 years in local municipal government and public policy. And Cowan has for nearly 20 years volunteered on various school district advisory committees – including budget and bond committees as well as serving as vice president on the Austin Council of PTAs. I should point out that the American-Statesman’s editorial board endorsed Pace, Saldaña and Cowan in their respective races last November.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead,” Saldana told me. But to borrow from a colleague, he said, “this is a shared leadership. We need to come together to get the work done.”

And, boy, is the workload heavy.

Facing the district are curbing declining enrollments and dealing with affordability challenges that are driving families and teachers out of the district. The district must also address academic performance of lower- and higher-achievers and finding a source of financing for annual pay raises for the district’s nearly 6,000 teachers. It will be a difficult task as long as the legislature continues to force the Austin school district to annually surrender tens of millions of dollars of its local revenue to the state, which distributes the money to poorer school districts.

What the new trustee leadership brings to the table will be vital to how much the needle moves in favor of Austin students.

In just under a year as one of the newest board members, Pace already has helped refocus the district’s public education foundation, which raises money from the private sector, just as she vowed to do during her campaign for her At-Large Position 9 seat. The Austin Ed Fund has raised more than $200,000 this year and already awarded nearly $50,000 for innovative classroom projects that enrich instruction in science, technology, reading and ecology, as well as skills in leadership and resolving conflicts or problems constructively.

Aside from the strong advocacy work she’ll need to keep, Pace now has the additional burden of keeping the entire board focused and forward-moving. She will be wise to learn from Hinojosa for finessed coalitions building and artful, deliberate compromise. Pace will have to learn to lead eight other personalities with varied communication and work ethic styles – all which may change by this time next year. The board, after all, could end up with five new trustees as terms expire in November for Jayme Mathias, District 2; Ann Teich, District 3; Amber Elenz, District 5; Yasmin Wagner, District 7 and Gina Hinojosa, At-Large Position 8.

It will be interesting to see how Pace and the rest of the board work together. For now, congratulations to the new leaders and good luck to the entire board.