Halfway through his first term, Austin district Trustee Paul Saldaña plans to announce his resignation from the school board on Friday morning.
Saldaña, elected in December 2014, notified Superintendent Paul Cruz and board President Kendall Pace on Wednesday morning and notified the remaining board members late Wednesday.
In an interview with the American-Statesman, he said there is not just one reason for his decision.
“It’s reprioritizing and putting the focus back on my family and myself,” Saldaña said. “There are no hidden agendas.”
Saldaña said he has spent more time on work for the school board — which is an unpaid elected position — than on his own work as a public relations consultant, which at times has hurt his business, and that needs to change.
Saldaña’s resignation comes just days after the board approved a $4.6 billion facilities master plan to modernize the district and all of its campuses. Saldaña voted against it, citing equity issues and concern over underutilized campuses that could be closed under the plan.
Saldaña’s departure leaves the district — with a majority of low-income, Hispanic students — without a Latino representative, and only one other person of color, Trustee Ted Gordon, who is black, on the board.
Saldaña said that fact gave him pause.
“Honestly, I’m going to struggle with that,” Saldaña said in an interview Thursday. “It was one thing that held me back. If all of us are supposed to represent all the students of the district, it should matter, what gender or race or ethnicity you are. That just means that the board members who are left are going to have to work that much harder to walk the walk and represent all the kids. And I have confidence that they will.”
Trustees can either call for an election to fill Saldaña’s post, or appoint someone to the seat. The board is expected to take up the issue at Monday night’s meeting.
Saldaña is best known for his advocacy for equity in the district, and was among those trustees who pushed the district for a resolution to support immigrant students earlier this year.
During his tenure, the board hired Cruz, the district’s first Latino superintendent.
Saldaña advocated for: an equity assessment of the school district; the creation of board oversight on education excellence through diversity, inclusion and equity; and a new program to award district contracts to more female- and minority-owned businesses. He also helped spearhead a new ethnic and cultural studies course that will roll out this fall.
He and Trustee Yasmin Wagner helped create a plan that resolved the years-long battle over which side of south Austin would get a new high school. The Austin district recently purchased the land for the new high school in Southeast Austin, but also bought two smaller tracts for the immediate expansion and modernization of the over-capacity Bowie High School.
Saldaña worked to build stronger partnerships with the city of Austin and Travis County, serving as the vice chairman of the regional affordability committee and a member of a subcommittee with representatives from each government agency. He pushed for affordable housing for district employees, which led the entities to take the first steps in creating affordable housing on public land for civil servants, including teachers and low-wage government workers. He also pushed to raise the minimum pay for district employees to $13.
As word spread of his upcoming departure, city and community leaders lamented his decision.
“I’m disappointed,” said Gina Hinojosa, a freshman Democratic state representative who previously served as president of the school board. “He’s been a great leader and advocate for our most vulnerable kids. It’s a big loss to our district.”
Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the district’s largest labor group, said the district is “losing a trustee who has championed equity, public education, and teachers and school employees unflinchingly in his time on the board. Paul has been willing to be brave and step forward on issues many avoid: issues of equity, of race. He was willing to hold up a mirror to the less attractive part of ourselves as a district. We are disappointed to lose him.”
School board President Pace called Saldaña “a tireless advocate for all, especially our immigrant, underserved and Hispanic communities. … He will be gravely missed.”
Saldaña pointed to the remaining challenges facing the district: “In 2017, we still have segregated schools — in Austin, Texas, that professes to be very progressive and liberal.”
Saldaña’s last day on the board will be April 24, which coincides with his 100th board meeting. In the more than two years he has served on the board, he never missed a meeting.