The Austin Independent School District recently introduced the firm hired to search for the district’s new superintendent. Now may seem like the conventional time for conducting a search for new leadership, but I disagree. We need to be thoughtful about this.
Prior to COVID-19, AISD was facing a crisis. On the one hand, how to address a $30 million structural budget deficit. On the other hand, how to actually incorporate community feedback on the proposed consolidations and closures of 12 schools, all of them on the east side of the city. East Austin represents an area that has undergone rapid displacement and gentrification due to policy processes that continually place the same populations in vulnerable predicaments.
The tensions between the district and the community equate to an issue of leadership. Traditionally, AISD, like many districts across the country, operates as large corporations do, with a director and a board that sets policy and makes decisions regarding the operations of the organization. The problem is that schools are not primarily fiscal mediums. They work in service to the students, teachers, staffers and communities in which they exist. We are not describing a system of goods and services set for a price that operates independently of relational values, but an ecosystem of people.
Relationships matter, as such school districts are meant to place people, their needs and values at the center of decision-making. When they don’t, we are left with top-down approaches under the guise of what’s best for the community. School districts across the country desperately need leaders who operate with that value as the core of their decision-making. A superintendent is needed who fearlessly engages community input into the operational framework of a school. For AISD, the decision to close schools primarily due to low enrollment and facility underuse reflects a narrow emphasis on financial return, but local communities of the affected schools argue that smaller student-teacher ratios and open-door ties to the neighborhood have a positive effect on students and parents alike.
Considering recent findings by US News & World Report that show that the most successful districts consist of a mix of school options, AISD should be looking at the benefits that smaller schools offer and enact policies that support such operations.
And it can be done. The crippling of traditional school operations has forced school districts into a partnership that relies on parents, caregivers and teachers in online formats. The district once supported the notion of engaged relationships in learning through its adoption of the Smaller Learning Communities initiative. It was a move in the right direction that was short-lived due to No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on academic rigor through an overabundance of standardized testing. Ironically, the funding for the initiative came under No Child Left Behind’s legislation.
The legislation’s adoption was interpreted in a way that left no room for the very things that smaller school settings proport, like relational development. Alternatively, the district’s current plan of action operates on a premise that views closures as a way to recover lost revenue. The value is on equality over equity, a premise that has never worked in education, hence renewed efforts to integrate schools. Though communities of color would say that while we have engaged in an outward show of desegregation, school integration remains elusive.
Where do we begin? Start by supporting the community’s questions, asking how the district’s lost revenue came to be in the first place. Superintendents must deliver across a spectrum of areas, finances being just one. AISD must rethink its closure and consolidation plans and take seriously the efforts by communities to demonstrate the values that their schools hold.
A skilled superintendent will be able to address fiscal concern in a way that does not disregard what the parents have articulated as working for their children. As the district searches to replace its current outgoing leader, measures for ensuring the next leader’s accountability to the community must be front and center.
Danielle C.H. Wright is an associate professor of practice in the College of Education and associate director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin Chronicle.