Elizalde Bails Out of Austin ISD, And There Was Much Rejoicing (And Great Anxiety)

Outgoing Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde

After months of brushing off rumors that she would give up the reins of Austin ISD, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde was last week named sole finalist for the top job in Dallas ISD, where she was chief schools officer before coming to Austin in 2020.

On April 7, the district said in its weekly e-mail to staff that “Dr. Elizalde is here to stay.” That announcement was prompted by rumors that she had made the Dallas shortlist; school districts are allowed to keep much of their executive hiring process confidential. Trustees in DISD must wait 21 days before officially hiring Elizalde, which is usually a formality.

As the news sinks in, families, educators, and other AISD stakeholders are trying to decide what the news means for the beleaguered district. Elizalde joined AISD amid the arduous first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools were trying to ramp up their first full semester of remote learning. During her less than two years at the helm, Austin schools have faced a difficult transition to hybrid learning, struggled to reduce the spread of COVID on campus, and are now coping with a tsunami of teacher resignations. That’s all while feeling the fiscal pressure squeezing AISD as its enrollment declines while its tax roll grows, meaning ever-larger recapture payments to the state — though Elizalde’s critics say she’s partly to blame for the district’s current budget shortfall.

With the news of Elizalde’s departure, teachers appeared to collectively rejoice. Ken Zarifis, the president of the Education Austin employee union, described the situation as a “win-win.” “She got a job she wanted, and I think we’re going to be able to move forward with the employees in a different fashion.”

Dalton Pool, a teacher and coach at Bowie High School, said the district is better off with her departure. “We understand the state, and specifically recapture, make it almost impossible to get the pay and resources we deserve, but incompetence, mistrust and poor decision-making get in the way of us doing what we do best,” Pool told the Chronicle. “That was the breaking point for so many of my colleagues that have decided not to return.”

Some parents approached the situation with warier eyes. Cuitlahuac Guerra-Mojarro, a parent with children in AISD schools, said he’s worried the district will once again rush to find a new leader, as it did after Elizalde’s predecessor Paul Cruz abruptly resigned in February 2020. Guerra-Mojarro, who organized against the closure of historically Black and Latino campuses that the AISD Board of Trustees approved in late 2019, said that Elizalde, like Cruz, will not see through what she started – in her case, adjusting the district’s staffing structure and facing down the budget crisis she long promised to resolve.

Guerra-Mojarro worries that choosing a new superintendent shortly before the November board elections could leave AISD with new trustees at odds with leadership. “We should hire an interim [superintendent] to get us past November,” he suggested. “What’s really most important to me is not repeating the mistakes of the past and making sure that community input is authentic, and that the school board selects a person to do positive things for our students.”

Candace Hunter, who has a 7th grader in the district, said she views Elizalde’s imminent departure as an opportunity to find a better fit for a district that’s never quite meshed with her style. Nevertheless, she said she’s disappointed that Elizalde is leaving, for the same reasons as Guerra-Mojarro.

Board President Geronimo Rodriguez said trustees will meet soon to discuss a transition plan for administrative leadership. “Thank you to Dr. Elizalde for her steadfast leadership through what has been an unprecedented and challenging two years,” he said in a statement. “Her commitment to our AISD mission allowed our community to safely move through the pandemic and stay laser-focused on academic achievement.”

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