Austin school board President Kendall Pace resigned from the board Monday, less than a week after the teachers union demanded she step down over inflammatory texts she traded with another trustee.
Whether the remaining school board members will appoint a replacement to Pace’s at-large seat or leave it vacant until her term expires in November remains unclear. The district faces a $30 million deficit, which makes it unlikely the board would call for an expensive special election to fill the seat.
Trustees on Monday night already were slated to name new board officers and were expected to name Geronimo Rodriguez, the current vice president and newest member of the board, as president.
Pace came under fire from Education Austin and other critics last week when they learned of derogatory language used in text messages she had sent to Trustee Julie Cowan about the Texas Education Agency’s Transformation Zone Program, which would help struggling schools in Northeast Austin if district plans are approved.
In the texts, obtained by the American-Statesman through an open records request, Pace said the district would only be considered for the program if its schools were set up like charters, “i.e. one with balls to ignore the special interest groups and crazy ignorant community activists and poverty pimps,” Pace wrote, acknowledging the program did come with additional funding.
Pace apologized for the texts on Monday, saying she was “sorry for the crudeness of the discourse.”
“It was a stream of conscious rant born out of frustration over the lack of urgency by many adults to address the inequities in student outcomes,” she said.
Before getting elected to the school board, Pace had served on the district advisory council, various campus advisory councils and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s education and talent development council. After serving as a longtime district trustee, Pace won a runoff for the at-large seat in December 2014. Pace’s campaign had deep pockets, bringing in more than $90,000 from community members and foundations, including $35,000 from Austin Kids First.
While on the board, Pace pushed to close equity gaps between low-income black and Hispanic students and their more affluent white peers, and sought improve student outcomes. At times, she was sharp-tongued toward district administrators during board meetings, saying they didn’t have a plan to close achievement gaps, and she pointed to strong principals as the most influential factor in improving schools.
But others, including some fellow board members, disapproved of Pace’s style, particularly when she called out the district on social media for its performance on the Nation’s Report Card, even while Superintendent Paul Cruz was praising the district for being among the top urban performers on the national exams. As board president, critics said her voice carried more weight and said she should refrain from public comments that put the district in a negative light.
Education Austin union President Ken Zarifis, who demanded Pace step down last week, said he was “pleased that she stepped down.”
“I believe it’s the right choice. It’s the right decision to hear,” Zarifis said.
Austin district parent Olivia Overturf, wearing a bright pink shirt with “poverty pimps” emblazoned on the front, attended Pace’s resignation announcement as an advocate for her 16-year-old son, who attends Crockett High School.
“I think the first three minutes were full of a ‘woe is me’ account of how things unfolded for her as though she’s sort of superior to what the actual students go through,” Overturf said, adding it was unacceptable for someone who uses language like “crazy ignorant community activists” to vote on programs for students.
Trustee Ted Gordon on Monday said he did not support the disparaging things Pace said about the community, but he pointed out that the district has been segregated between an affluent group and a less affluent one since the 1970s. He said Pace had always worked to confront the disparity.
“Unfortunately, this whole brouhaha is a distraction that changes nothing of substance,” he said. “The achievement disparities remain unchanged. Charter schools, despite their mediocre results, continue to gain students. Our teachers and staff remain disastrously underpaid. We are engaged in a process of closing schools.”
Sandy Kress, an Austin-based policy consultant who was a senior education adviser to then-President George W. Bush, echoed Gordon, saying that while the language Pace used in the text was inappropriate, the focus should be on the issues she raised concerning achievement gaps.
“She wasn’t just a critic; she had positive constructive ideas” on how to improve student achievement, Kress said.
“Why is it that the one member of the board who raises concerns and has ideas to do something about it is somehow the pariah?” he said. “The measure of a community is the measure of how they treat people who demand for the least. To beat up the critic, the person who says the community has a problem, is a disease.”