If you attended your first Austin school board meeting Monday night, you would have never guessed Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has ever received criticism from school board members, the teachers union, Education Austin, or the Austin community.
Austin School Board President Vincent Torres commended the superintendent in the board's annual evaluation, recognizing the challenges the district faces and outlining the district's achievements over the last year. He highlighted improved graduation rates, dual language programs, early childhood education, and the superintendent's ability to balance the budget in the face of continued cuts from the state.
"She has led the work to manage our resources wisely with a strategic, long-term view and, as a result, we have received high bond ratings over the past three years," Torres said.
But all that praise did not come with an immediate financial validation for Carstarphen. The School Board did not make a decision whether or not to extend the superintendent’s contract, which expires in June 2015. School Board President Vincent Torres says the board could vote on an extension at any time. Torres said because it took the district longer to complete the superintendent’s annual evaluation, he decided to put the item on the agenda sometime after the holidays.
In the evaluation, Torres also applauded the superintendent's decision to expand health insurance to qualifying individuals and compensation for all staff, but said the board must continue to invest in teachers and staff.
"This means the Board must also work with the Superintendent to identify and secure the funding needed to continue to provide competitive compensation for all staff and provide them with the resources needed to perform their jobs," Torres said.
While Torres touted the Superintendent's commitment to outside organizations like Ballet Austin and Austin Partners in Education, he emphasized the importance of community engagement, something the Carstarphen administration has been criticized for in the past.
"We must continually work to develop and enhance the District's relationship with parents, community groups and the community at-large," he said.
Public input--which usually includes at least one or two AISD dissenters--was also conciliatory and positive. Education Austin representatives expressed support for a stipend for bilingual counselors, which the board approved Monday night. School counselors who are currently certified in Bilingual Education or pass the Bilingual Target Language Proficiency Test (BTLPT) will receive a stipend of $2,500 in May 2014. Those who take the test after January 6, 2014 will receive a $1,250 stipend. The stipend will continue in the 2014-15 school year.
"I feel really good tonight," said Ken Zarifis, Education Austin president, who stood with members of the group. "Tonight the stipend you're about to take a vote on is an effort to show dignity and respect who work with our kids every day. We need to look for our opportunities to show all of our employees respect and dignity in this way."
The board also approved Gus Garcia Middle School as the site for the Young Men's Leadership Academy and James E. Pearce Middle School as the site for the Young Women's Leadership Academy. In January, the board voted to transition those schools into single-gender schools for the 2014-15 school year. Both schools, which failed state accountability standards in recent years, will focus on college prep courses and offer high school credit to students.
The board also continued its emphasis on college prep with its implementation of new high school graduation requirements under House Bill 5. The bill created three graduation options: the Foundation High School Program (FHSP), the FHSP plus endorsements, and the FHSP plus endorsements and a Distinguished Level of Achievement.
The board voted to require all students to start high school on the distinguished plan, which requires students to take four years of English, math and science, including Algebra II.
Last month, the State Board of Education decided not to require Algebra II for all Texas high school students. The move received criticism from education advocates who say students who do not take Algebra II will not meet the requirements to apply for college. If a student wants to switch to a Foundation plan, it would require parent approval and discussions with a student's school counselor.
The board also decided to require half a credit of Physical Education and half credit of Health.
"PE today is not just volleyball games in the gym. There's a whole curriculum behind it," said Vivian Ballard, Chair of the Austin School Health Advisory Council. Ballard says health is important to teach classes like substance abuse and alcohol awareness.