Elections 2016: AISD trustee candidates answer our questions

Only two of five Austin Independent School District Board of Trustee seats up for election this year are being contested. In the at-large District 8 race, Cindy Anderson, vice president of the Austin Council of PTAs, and David Quintanilla, Serranos Tex-Mex Restaurants CEO, are vying for the seat being vacated by Gina Hinojosa. In the District 2 race, incumbent Jayme Mathias faces Andy Anderson, an IRS tech manager.

Below are the full responses the candidates emailed us.

RELATED EDITORIAL: AISD trustees must be culturally competent to face district challenges

Editorial board: Incumbents in three of the five seats up for election this year have filed for another term and do not have opposition, and two candidates are making a bid for the at-large seat being vacated by Gina Hinojosa, the Democratic nominee for state House District 49.

Many Austin schools are segregated by both race/ethnicity and poverty and have been for some time. What, if anything, would you do about that, given research that shows such social factors hinder student performance?

Andy Anderson: I would ensure that all students continue to have access to those resources and services in order for them to be successful once they leave AISD. This is for those who are going to college, those who choose to go in the workforce for a career, or those who are ready for life outside of AISD in general.

Austin school district Trustee Jayme Mathias: Student outcomes vary by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, resulting in an “achievement gap.” One of my four priorities for the next biennium is to close this gap. To do this more quickly, our Board recently approved a new policy on teaching and learning. We have assigned additional funding to historically under-resourced schools and approved targeted improvement plans for struggling schools. We have also included various “gap indicators” in our superintendent’s evaluation. Because so many social factors impede student performance, I have advocated for increased funding of education at the state and national levels, as well as for continued funding from the city of Austin for our parent support specialists and after-school programs. Perhaps most significantly, the results of a district equity study, recently approved by our Board, will direct future efforts and resource allocation to address disparities in student achievement throughout the district.

Cindy Anderson: AISD now has about 79 Title 1 schools (out of 130) and even more campuses that would qualify under the federal threshold. We have high needs students in every classroom, on every campus. Neighborhoods are also inherently segregated by affordability and Austin is becoming less affordable every day exacerbating the issue. Racial and economic segregation is unfortunately a long-running historical problem, and understanding history is key to developing aggressive policies that can tackle the multiple contributing factors. AISD has the responsibility to look for opportunities to address segregation in attendance zone boundaries, the geographical distribution of existing choice/magnet programs as well as their future expansion and our admissions processes for these programs. Additional solutions require collaboration with multiple entities to address zoning, availability and geographical location of affordable housing., and creating policies that will prohibit landlord discrimination, racial and economic exclusion as well as a strict accountability system.

David Quintanilla: Segregation doesn’t just hinder student performance, it holds back the entire community. Austin is at a crossroads with regard to opportunity, equality, and diversity. The primary tool at our disposal to tackle these issues head-on is our public school system, and I am prepared to make the hard choices (and face the predictable backlash) to make a real difference. Additionally, there are those that suggest that we should not allow poverty to be an excuse for underperforming schools. While I understand we don’t want to allow excuses to replace action, I think it is minimizes the impact of the problem. Poverty is not an excuse; it’s a harsh reality that permeates all facets of life. We must be honest about the challenges that so many of our kids face and accept that we have a responsibility to do something about it.

Cultural competence is expected of educators. Should it be expected of school board members? Why or why not?

Andy Anderson: Yes, it should be expected of school board members because they all may come from different backgrounds but as a board member they all bring something to the position to contribute to the greater good which is the success of our students. Furthermore, this also extends to Staff and Administrators to ensure we continue to have the best people for our children.

Mathias: Ahora, ¡sí! The attitudes, behaviors and policies of our local school board must reflect our awareness and sensitivity to students, families and employees of various cultural backgrounds. Trustees, like all other people, are shaped by their experiences, and they bring to their work their own cultural awareness, knowledge and skills. Regardless of our backgrounds, we must be aware of our biases and beliefs about those who are different from us. We must continually examine our beliefs and values about cultural differences, grow in our knowledge of different cultures, and work toward behaviors that improve cross-cultural effectiveness. As trustees, we must also lead our district in wrestling with issues of cultural competence and sensitivity. I have served our Spanish-speaking community for more than 25 years. My husband is from China. These experiences have shaped me in profound ways, greatly contributing to my own cultural competence.

Cindy Anderson: Yes! It is imperative that AISD trustees value and support the diversity of our students, staff and community. Trustees must be able to effectively work and collaborate in cross-cultural situations. One of the Board’s primary responsibilities is to adopt and evaluate policies. It is therefore incumbent upon this Board to identify a set of values, behaviors and processes that outline our expectations in delivering the same high quality education to a diverse population and ultimately reflect it in policy. These policies must also be evaluated regularly and updated as needed. Cultural competency isn’t something you can learn from a single training, it is developed over time and requires an ongoing commitment. Annual training should be a requirement.

Quintanilla: Absolutely, but we cannot expect people to fully understand another culture. That’s why diversity must always accompany cultural competence. The AISD board needs to look more like an AISD classroom., and that is one reason I decided to run. For an at-large trustee, it is especially important that we give voice to all parts of Austin, not just one particular area, or one particular perspective. I am running to ensure that all families in our city feel they have a connection to our school board.

How would you define equity in education as it pertains to Austin district schools?

Andy Anderson: I would define equity in education as it relates to Austin schools as all students having access to resources that allow them to be successful.

Mathias: I believe achieving equity in education presumes the creation of systems that ensure that the personal and social circumstances of students don’t inhibit them from achieving their potential. During these four years in which I’ve served on our local school board, our district has shifted from a focus on “equity of inputs” — equal per-student funding of our schools — to a focus on “equity of outcomes.” Our board recently mandated a districtwide equity study that will help us to identify and eliminate inequities through funding strategies that are responsive to student and school needs. In this way, disadvantaged students will benefit, without hindering the progress of others. In the meantime, we must work together to eliminate barriers to equity throughout our city — since these inequities profoundly impact our students and their families.

Cindy Anderson: Equity means each student receives the resources and support that they need to be successful, including high expectations, access and opportunity to the same high quality public education. The challenge in application is to accurately assess the individual needs of an increasingly diverse population and allocating the appropriate resources despite ongoing fiscal challenges. We still have challenges in assessing needs and resource allocation. Some of our focus areas include retooling the Austin Ed Fund to create and allocate additional funding streams to achieve greater equity, completing a disparity study, improving funding transparency and accountability, continuing to adopt more effective community engagement practices/policies, and the expansion of Restorative Justice Models for campuses to address discipline. I would like to see us also specifically address overidentification of minority students in behavioral programs and special education and underidentification in Gifted & Talented, Advanced Placement, and advanced academics with aggressive targets for improvement.

Quintanilla: Equity either means every child has an opportunity to realize her potential, or the word has no meaning at all. We cannot stop working until we make the promise of public education a reality for every kid, rather than for just a privileged few. Recently, when this issue was brought before the board, my opponent worked against a civil rights dialogue, telling trustees, “I am genuinely perplexed as to why you would continue to suggest that AISD partner with the [Texas Civil Right Project].” I believe that was the wrong approach. I am committed to ensuring that we have these challenging conversations, and that we work to desegregate our schools.

What kind of policies would you craft to make the district more competitive in attracting and retaining teachers?

Andy Anderson: I would have to look at the policies and their contracts to see what can be done. I believe that the current salary package that the district offers already makes them competitive. Furthermore, the district is also looking at affordable housing which can be a plus if it is able to be worked out between the District and City and County.

Mathias: When I came to office in 2012, the Austin ISD ranked 10th of 10 Central Texas districts with respect to teacher pay. We have since raised teacher salaries by 12 percent, and we raised the minimum wage twice — all while lowering our AISD tax rate by 5 cents and balancing the district’s budget for the first time in years. I continue to advocate for affordable housing for teachers and civil servants so that they can live among our students and their schools. I also champion the necessary policies and allocation of resources to attract and retain experienced, quality teachers and administrators at historically under-resourced schools.

Cindy Anderson: Teachers are our greatest resource. Competitive compensation is an ongoing priority. The lack of affordable housing is an ongoing challenge. We are currently evaluating how we can partner with other entities to expand affordable housing such as the use, sale or lease of undeveloped parcels of land. We might also explore offering housing stipends/incentives or expanding mileage reimbursements currently only available to principals to include teachers. While we do offer a reduction in pre-K tuition to teachers, it may be possible to waive it altogether. I would like to see compensation for class time, not just the tuition cost, of achieving certifications such as in bilingual education or for National Board Certified teachers. We might also create incentive partnership programs with the University of Texas, Huston Tillotson, etc. that could even be leveraged to recruit an even more diverse population of teachers such as internships, sign on bonuses, etc.

Quintanilla: I am endorsed by Education Austin, the largest teacher organization in AISD, because I understand that recruiting and retaining the best people is one of the controllable things we can do to improve outcomes for kids. We need to remain competitive with regard to salary, but as a business owner I have often found that professional development, support and allowing talented people the freedom to find what works is often more valuable than money. The reality is that some policies are more feasible than others, and it matters how you vote on proposals that can make things better for teachers. My opponent was a strong opponent of the current teacher protections until she decided to run for office. Now she says she is in favor of them. We have to send a very clear signal to all our employees that we are behind them, not just when you need votes.

Is there value in dual language education? Who, if anyone, benefits from this type of education program?

Andy Anderson: There is value in Dual language because it provides a skillset to students that will continue to help them compete in the global economy. Dual Language allows for understanding and adaptability in an ever changing environment. Everyone benefits from Dual Language from the Community as a whole to even the Business community in establishing a viable workforce.

Mathias: Multiple studies confirm the value of dual-language programs, and I am extremely proud of our district’s expansion of dual-language programs during my tenure as a trustee. Over 23,000 AISD students are English Language Learners; though counterintuitive, these students learn English best while continuing to learn their native languages as well. Our district’s “one-way” dual language programs benefit English Language Learners by producing students who are fluent in English, as well as in their native languages. Our “two-way” dual language programs possess a different mix of students, bringing together native English speakers and speakers of other languages — currently Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese in the AISD — so that all students are learning language from one another and are helping one another to increase fluency in both languages. Dual language programs increase the cultural competence of our students and those with whom they interact. They also benefit our local, state and national economy.

Cindy Anderson: The purpose of dual language education is to develop bilingualism, biculturalism and biliteracy. In AISD we have both one-way and two-way dual language. One -way supports students learning English as a Second language and two-way allows combined cohorts of both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers to learn to read, write and speak in both languages. While AISD has struggled in the past with implementing dual language with fidelity, we are committed to this research-based model and are moving in the right direction. Dual language allows native Spanish-speaking students to maintain cultural and family connections and as an academic model for ESL is proven to close the academic achievement gap in English Language Learners. Both native and non-native English speakers benefit from being bilingual, bicultural and biliterate, highly valuable skill sets in today’s job market.

Quintanilla: Yes, but our priority should be to our students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and that they have the necessary tools to succeed in school. Dual language education can benefit all students, but given that 28 percent of our AISD students are LEP, we must ensure fidelity to giving those students the proper foundation needed for future success. A culturally competent student body is important, but we have to make sure that our students who come to us without a strong English foundation have the requisite skills needed to even the playing field — that is their right and our obligation.

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