I know many readers are chomping at the bit to cast a vote for gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott next month, but please note that there are many, many other races on the ballot. (Check out your Williamson County sample ballot here.) Residents of the Round Rock Independent School District in particular will enjoy the opportunity to vote in four contests for the Board of Trustees. (Places 1, 3, 5, and 6). While few voters really pay attention to local, non-partisan races, there is more here than meets the eye. To some extent these races are indicative of a power struggle between "the Elected" and "the Appointed" in public education.
For Place 1, Nikki Gonzales is challenging Claudio Cruz. Cruz was appointed last year when Brian Sellers suddenly quit before his term expired (a common occurrence in RRISD, maybe because it allows those in power to appoint a replacement without all that darned campaigning & election stuff.) Being new, Cruz does not have much of a record but is known via his work as an employee of Austin ISD. Many folks active in Round Rock schools and politics know his challenger Nikki Gonzales from her work with the PTA, the Texas State Legislature, and the Williamson County Sheriff's office. She has strong support from the families and taxpayers of the community who want to have an elected voice on the board. I would vote for Nikki Gonzales.
Hands down, Bryan Black is the best choice for Place 3. A former award-winning journalist, Black is currently the Director of Communications for the Texas Department of Agriculture, has completed the Leadership Round Rock ISD program, and is a RRISD parent. His goals include making RRISD a role model for districts in not only student achievement and innovation, but in fiscal responsibility and transparency. The latter is something RRISD could use a little more of. (See "Shut Up, They Explained," and "RRISD Tries to Silence Whistle Blowers?")
Black is such a stellar candidate that voters should choose him regardless of who his opponent may be. It happens however, that he is challenging long-time board member Diane Cox. Cox is definitely on the Left politically, and the only Round Rock resident who was willing to go on air to support the disastrous Diana Maldonado campaign for State Legislature in 2010. Even for those who believe that school boards are magically non-partisan, Cox's tenure has been frustrating, and she seems to have been involved in most of RRISD's woes, including everything from the illegal bonus and illegal Student Health Advisory Council scandals, to a rather disastrous re-zoning process. Cox has barely won her last two elections, usually losing in the Williamson County portion of the district, but scraping up enough votes in Travis County to hold her position. (In one case by a mere 7 votes.)
In Place 5 there are three candidates vying for an open seat thankfully being vacated by Catherine Hannah. Allen McKee, Paul K. Emerson, and Suzi David are running, but the front-runner and most likable candidate seems to be Allen McKee. Like Bryan Black, Allen McKee is interested in having a stellar school district and promoting transparency and accountability. There's not a lot of information on Suzi David, but Emerson is mouthing those nice-sounding platitudes about being a "team player" and "non-partisan." Those terms sound innocuous and comforting, but anyone who has been paying attention to RRISD events for the past decade knows there is a great struggle underway regarding the fundamental role of the school board. In some minds the trustees should serve the ISD superintendent like an appointed cabinet supports an executive. For these folks, there should never be dissension on the board since the role of trustees is to implement directives and provide support to the superintendent. However, many Americans still believe in representative government and see the superintendent as the employee of an elected board: the superintendent answers to the board, the elected board answers to the people. This struggle received attention last year when the Texas Legislature overwhelming passed a bill affirming certain rights of elected school board trustees. Unfortunately, Paul Emerson's rhetoric clearly places him in the "go-along-to-get along" camp, and I doubt he will be willing to stand up for parents and taxpayers if necessary. Frankly, I think parents and taxpayers want elected representatives who are courageous enough to ask questions and stand up for what is good, true, and right at all levels of government, especially school boards.
Interestingly enough, the most vocal member of the board, Terri Romere, does not have a challenger for her second term. Huh. She has been accused of being a trouble-maker for asking questions and demanding answers, but I guess the community is pretty happy with her service. Parents have praised her for listening to their concerns, acting on those concerns, and refusing to rubber-stamp every proposal. While certainly one to ask the right questions, Romere is simultaneously a great cheerleader for RRISD and her commitment to the students and families of the district shows. She will begin her second term unopposed.
There is also a contest for Place 6. Paul Tisch is another appointee, replacing Democrat Glen Colby who, like Brian Sellers, suddenly quit. Tisch is challenged by Tony A. Pitts. I can't seem to find a website for Tisch or Pitts, but here's a link to Tisch's Facebook page and Pitts' law offices. While Williamson County liberals are usually happy with the ISD appointees, they were a bit miffed when Tisch took Colby's place. It appears Tisch is a Republican and Pitts is a Democrat. Tisch has not been in office for long, but one hopes his party affiliation indicates his willingness to affirm representative government.
RRISD has come through a lot of controversy, but seems to be on a better track, especially with new Superintendent Steve Flores. Voters now have an opportunity to continue this trend by electing solid candidates committed to excellence, accountability, and very importantly, transparency. In addition, I hope citizens will comprehend the deeper power struggle here between the elected and the appointed in our local government.
Please make sure you are registered (the deadline is TODAY, Monday, October 6,) and please vote early if possible. Early voting begins on October 20 and continues to October 31. Election Day is November 4, but don't wait!
Remember, school board elections are supposedly non-partisan, so if you are a straight-ticket voter, you will still need to make selections on these local races.