Q&A with Outgoing Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde

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Austin School District Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde is expected to step down on June 30 to become Dallas School District Superintendent after nearly two years in her current position.

She sat down with an American statesman for an interview about his departure, his tenure, and the issues facing Austin and other school districts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Why are you leaving Austin for Dallas?

I had certainly spent a significant portion of my career in Dallas and had been on the ground floor of some of the reform initiatives that Dallas ISD is known for and led the way in many cases – not just in state, but even nationally, when you think about performance pay for teachers and principals. Part of that was that I honestly never thought this superintendent would ever be available for the rest of my career.

My intention was to retire from Austin ISD. Honestly, I never dreamed that the position would actually be open for five years. And it happened, and then it became an internal struggle to have conversations with my family, conversations with members of our team, some of whom moved here to work with me, days of crying, days of frustration and finally, remembering a quote, ‘You won’t regret what you’ve done. You will regret what you did not do. And so sincerely, I thought, “I won’t get the job if I don’t apply.”

I thought Dallas ISD, the second largest district in the state, is the perfect career move for me, and it gives me a place to reconnect with some of the initiatives and reforms I’ve been involved in and connect with those which are new which are ongoing.

Less than half of Austin ISD third graders read at the grade level. What needs to be done, and why isn’t there more attention to it?

When you look at the Austin ISD data as a whole and compare Austin to Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio, Austin looks awesome. When we start peeling the layers of the onion and looking at groups of students, like economically disadvantaged students, students receiving special education, Latino or Hispanic students, African American students, when you start to looking at student performance in this light, we didn’t look so good.

If these kids who are performing at these higher levels, who aren’t typically kids of color or in poverty, can perform here, my passion is to make sure all other students can. So one of the things that I think this advice has done with me is to start having these conversations, and I don’t think these conversations should stop. I don’t think our board will allow the conversations to stop.

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Austin School Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde speaks to the press Aug. 17, 2021, on the first day of school.

Your tenure as superintendent was entirely during the pandemic, when you needed masks despite Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order. How has the district responded to COVID-19 and what lessons have you learned?

I learned that when you make decisions that are in the best interests of individuals, you will be fine. You will sleep well at night.

I’ve learned that if we provide that justification, and if we also allow people to give us some of their thoughts on it, they will support the greater mission, even when they disagree.

You should use the data, even when it’s not popular. You can’t choose when you want. I think it was very obvious when I decided masks were going to be optional next, and I got a lot of backlash. I think one of the lessons I’ve learned is that the loudest voice isn’t necessarily the voice of the majority. It is important to listen, but there are many voices in our community that we don’t necessarily hear unless we intend to go listen.

I know I’ve said it a thousand times, but imagine this from my lens: if I say I’m not going to make masks and I’m wrong, what could have been the possible consequences? More people could have died? If I’m wrong the other way around and the masks don’t make a difference, what’s the downside? People are upset.

Maybe masking wasn’t the best thing for everyone, but for me the consequences were very different.

What was your response to the school shootings in Uvalde and how do you think school shootings can be prevented?

Why do schools continue to be the place where we think the solutions are to every situation that exists in society? We wonder why do we have trouble finding teachers? Why do we have trouble finding directors? Well, because every wrong we find, we expect the school and the school system to fix it. I don’t even want to solve it. I certainly do. And I know that all of our educators want this, but with what resources would you want me to solve these problems?

Uvalde is a small community. They probably don’t have access to as many bonds as larger areas like Austin. We have bulletproof films on schools where the facade is just glass. We were able to invest a lot in “hardening”, which is a word that the governor uses. I find that offensive. The minute you have to say we have to “toughen up” school, doesn’t that sound weird?

We have a lot of physical work to do, but is that really the answer? Because doesn’t that always address the symptoms rather than the root cause of why we continually see an increase in shootings across our country?

I think some sensible gun access laws should be considered. It is very simple. An 18 year old can’t drink alcohol, but the 18 year old could go buy that gun. To me, it’s just common sense that we have to do something about it.

And then we need to do more for mental health issues. I don’t disagree when the governor says there are mental health issues. I think we can do “both and”. Not everything has to be polarized.

You’re staying to make ends meet before you leave for Dallas. Do you think the Austin School District can really pay for a quality education without some reforms to take back?

No. Without reform, the clawback (tax money collected in Austin but shared with other districts) no longer works as intended. I am not, nor our board, nor our anti-recapture community. We believe that every child in Texas deserves a quality education, and dollars shouldn’t matter, whether you live in Austin, where there’s a lot of real estate wealth, or you live in Roscoe or you live in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo or Laredo or any other place.

We use the word real estate wealth because our tax target, for education funding purposes, is based on the value of property, but we equate real estate wealth to the personal wealth of the student family, and Austin is a perfect example of where this is no longer true.

We have a lot of real estate assets. but we have 52% of our students who are economically disadvantaged. The clawback was never intended to take money away from students who actually need access to more resources.

So in design, it’s great. The way it works, not great.

We will not be able to pay teachers nearly what they should be paid. Not that they ever would, but we won’t be able to keep up with the cost of living. We will not be able to have the type of access to education and the quality that we need without reform to be resumed.

Community members have also reacted in regards to teacher increases and pay. What do you think of the current state of the Austin District budget?

Superintendency is hard work, and there are really tough decisions you have to make because you have to see three, five, seven years. I would like to give as many raises to each employee as I could. And if I did that, by 2025-2026, there would be no more dollars in our fund balance.

We would no longer have the AAA rating from the rating agencies. We would not be able to borrow money for bonds. And if you don’t already have a fund balance that you can withdraw money from for payroll, you’ll have to borrow money, and you’ll have to pay interest on it.

I know that people who get paid as employees, they can’t see it, and neither should they. It’s not their job. It’s mine. I’m not going to leave that to anyone else. It’s a tough part of the job. This should be my hardest part of the job to do, and it really needs to be done.

Then, and only then, can we begin to make meaningful changes to the actual wages we pay our employees in the future.

Columnist Michael Coleman contributed to this story.

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