What does a school board do? An Austin ISD trustee explains.

Long before she was elected to serve as the District 1 Trustee, Candace Hunter understood the ins and outs of the school board. The former Austin ISD teacher has spent a lot of time trying to help other people understand it too.

By Becky Fogel, KUT NewsMay 22, 2024 10:00 am, ,

From KUT News:

Even before Candace Hunter was elected to serve on the Austin ISD school board, she was no stranger to the meetings. The former Austin ISD history teacher had long been involved in the district. Her kids attended AISD schools. She even participated in a podcast to try to help people understand how the school board works.

“It was so funny, I had a friend say you’re kind of already on the school board, you just can’t vote,” she said.

That changed in November 2022 when Hunter won the election to serve on the board herself. She represents District 1 in East Austin — the district she grew up in.

“And so I’m just home. And I’m just doing what I’ve always done, which is try to be the voice of people who don’t have the voice or social capital,” she said.

Since joining the board, Hunter has found some misconceptions about what trustees do.

“I don’t observe teachers. I don’t go through libraries and pull books out. That’s not what I’m set up to do,” she said. “The majority of our job is looking at recommendations from the [Austin ISD] administration and deciding whether or not they follow our policies.”

Renee Dominguez / KUT News

Part of the work school board members, like Candace Hunter and Kevin Foster, do is creating a budget for the school district.

Trustees hire and fire the superintendent

Even though Hunter knew before she was elected that the main function of the school board was to provide oversight and guidance to the district administration, there was still a surprise or two about how things worked.

“When I was an advocate I could pick up the phone and I could call anybody I wanted to and… tell them what I thought and demand what I needed,” she said. “However now that you’re on the board, you have one employee and that is the superintendent. Therefore everything funnels through the superintendent, so it moves quite slow.”

The relationship between a school board and a superintendent is key, said Robert Long, division director of Board Development Services for the Texas Association of School Boards. In that role, he works with and provides training for more than 7,000 school board members throughout the state. He said hiring and, at times, firing the superintendent is one of a board’s main responsibilities.

“The relationship between the superintendent and the board is critical,” he said. “There’s no other contract in the school system that’s like the superintendent. It’s the one that can be as unique as the board chooses to make it.”

Long said a school board also sets policies that govern the direction and goals of a district.

“The role of the board is really to be at that 30,000-foot view and say ‘Hey, here’s our mission, here’s what we’re about, here’s our vision.’ And our superintendent, as our educational leader, is going to put the pieces in place to make sure it’s operationalized and it’s realized,” he said.

The Austin ISD school board, for example, is revamping its “Scorecard” to determine what goals the district should be working toward over the next five years.

School boards make big financial decisions

Trustees play a crucial role in making decisions about school district finances. For one thing, they are responsible for approving the budget, which in the case of Austin ISD, affects thousands of employees and more than 73,000 students.

“This district is a $2 billion organization,” said Hunter.

The Austin ISD school board will make tough financial decisions for the 2024-2025 fiscal year in the face of a $59 million budget deficit.

Trustees can also call school bond and tax rate elections. The Austin ISD school board put a historic $2.44 billion bond package on the ballot in 2022. Voters overwhelmingly approved it, giving the district the green light to borrow money to renovate and build schools, improve school security and even purchase musical instruments for students.

Trustees work for free

From hiring a superintendent to approving the annual budget, school boards make hugely consequential decisions for districts. And, they do all of this for free.

“Usually they’re community leaders or business owners or they’re folks who are already vested and involved in the community that step up and say ‘hey, I want to make sure I’m protecting and supporting the future of my community,’” he said.

To that end, Long said the fact that school boards are elected by their communities is critical because Texas is so vast.

“It’s important to have folks who are locally elected because they really understand the struggles, the needs, the opportunities, they know the industry, they know the religious beliefs, they know what binds their community together — they know all those things,” he said.

Long added that serving on a school board is like having a full-time job, and that’s how Hunter treats it. She said she and some other Austin ISD trustees don’t have regular full-time jobs so their schedules can be flexible.

“I have chosen the monastic life because I was actually elected to do a job, and I cannot do that job well if I’m on a 9 to 5,” she said.

Even though Hunter is not paid for her work as a trustee, she spends about 30 hours per week on board-related activities from pouring over documents to preparing for meetings to talking with community members and constituents. She also attends a lot of events hosted by the city, county — and of course — schools.

“I may go to a third-grade Black History program,” she said. “And I may go to an after-school program.”

Last month, for example, Hunter spent a weeknight celebrating the annual Trustee Awards at Eastside Early College High School. She stood on a stage in the school’s gym to congratulate students honored for their high grades, scholarships they’d received and their standout work in subjects such as science and English.

Renee Dominguez / KUT News

School board members often attend school award ceremonies and events in the community as part of their role.

Single-member districts vs. at-large seats

Eastside ECHS is just one of the 28 campuses in Hunter’s district. On some school boards, all trustees are at-large, which means they are elected by and represent the entire district. However, Austin ISD’s school board has seven single-member districts and two at-large seats.

The positions are technically nonpartisan and voters won’t find a “D” or an “R” by candidate names on the ballot. That being said, school boards have increasingly become political battlegrounds which is why, Hunter said, it’s important for people to figure out if a candidate shares their values.

“It’s really important to know those candidates and to know what they stand for because it’s going to impact you whether you have kids in school, whether you’re a property taxpayer, whether you’re just a community member that volunteers in the school,” she said. “They’re going to decide a lot of what happens in the school.”

Patricia Lim / KUT News

Hunter said the decisions school board members make affect more than just students.

Hunter said the decisions that trustees make have a ripple effect on the entire community.

“If you go to the grocery store, if you get your car fixed, if you go to the computer shop, if you purchase a phone — those are our students. And what we want are well-rounded people who are literate, who have numeracy, and who can function in our society,” she said.

Hunter said she encourages anyone interested in serving on a school board to learn more about it. She also said people need to be ready for the commitment.

“You need to be prepared to do what is best for children, because that is what it is about. Yes, adults are involved but it’s really about those academic, social-emotional and really positive outcomes for our kids,” she said.

This fall, Austin ISD voters will decide who is on the school board. Single-member Trustee Districts 2, 3, 5 and At-Large Position 8 will be on the November ballot.

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