Three candidates, all active district volunteers, are competing for the Austin school board’s District 5 seat, which includes much of Central and West Austin.
The trustee seat is one of four on the nine-member board that will be filled by newcomers, turning over the district’s leadership along with a new superintendent at the helm. The new board will tackle a host of challenges, including managing a return to in-person instruction in the midst of the pandemic, as well as expected cuts to state education funding during the next legislative session.
If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff election.
Early voting will run from Oct. 13 to Oct. 30. Election Day is Nov. 3.
These are the candidates:
Lynn Boswell, 51, is a documentary filmmaker and has been a school volunteer for 16 years. She has served on the District Advisory Council; the Austin Council of PTAs, including as president in 2018-20; and various campus PTAs and advisory committees. She also has worked on the city of Austin Juvenile Justice Workgroup and the Travis County Census 2020 Complete Count Committee and has been a leader with Just Fund It TX, a nonpartisan group that advocated for state leaders to devote more money to public education.
Boswell’s top issues include advocating for equity and academic excellence, conducting an equity assessment to have shared data to inform decisions and seeking shared solutions to inequities. The district must retain families and enrich learning by building on successful programs, she said, and must strengthen prekindergarten, special education and dyslexia services. She said the district must lobby the state to reduce high-stakes testing, increase school funding and ensure local control in handling the pandemic. Boswell said she’d be deeply embedded in each District 5 campus community to understand the needs and opportunities at each campus.
“Nothing matters more to our community’s future than what happens in our schools,” she said, adding that as a parent and volunteer, she has seen a rich mix of options and respect for some students, and she has seen them denied to other students by school closures, inequities in discipline and overemphasis on testing. “This is a critical moment for AISD, with great change, powerful strengths, deep needs and big opportunities. In this moment, we have a chance to ensure that every Austin ISD school reflects Austin’s progressive values.”
Jennifer Littlefield, 40, is a lawyer and former legislative aide who also has done policy work for a state agency. She has served in various districtwide initiatives, including the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, which evaluated and prioritized district needs and made way for the 2017 $1.1 billion school bond package. She has been a volunteer at Patton Elementary, Small Middle School and Austin High School, and she has helped advise on multiple boundary changes to balance enrollment across the district and reduce reliance on portable buildings.
Among the biggest issues Littlefield says the district must tackle are reopening schools safely amid the pandemic, improving strategic planning and addressing equity gaps exacerbated by remote learning. She said she wants to ensure strong community engagement, prioritize competitive salaries for teachers, strengthen academic and extracurricular programming that attracts students to the district, recruit and retain more teachers of color, and implement restorative justice practices and cultural sensitivity training. She also wants the district to offer after-school care for working families based on income and shift the focus from school policing to mental health services.
“I know the challenges AISD faces, and I am prepared to lead,” Littlefield said. “I bring an in-depth understanding of the school and neighborhood communities in District 5, as well as the district’s academic programming, finances and equity issues.”
Piper Stege Nelson, 45, a former middle school teacher, is the chief public strategies officer for the SAFE Alliance, the merger of the Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace. Stege Nelson previously worked on Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, managing partnerships for a global education program for girls. She served as deputy director of Annie’s List, supporting elected women and identifying and training potential progressive candidates in Texas. She also worked for the National Democratic Institute in Washington. She’s served on the Austin Commission for Immigrant Affairs, on the Lee Elementary PTA executive board, as the board chairwoman of AIDS Services of Austin, and on the Austin Council of PTAs.
Stege Nelson said the district must improve communication and community engagement and must address district inequities, including in the special education program, performing an equity audit and educating district leadership on root causes of inequity. She said the district must prioritize student safety by serving kids who cannot learn remotely and by making sure children in violent homes are getting the help they need. She said the pandemic laid bare the inadequacies and inequity in the district.
“It has been so hard to watch the district sow further distrust with families and staff in AISD, not just in the pandemic but over the last few years,” she said. “Both structurally and philosophically, the district communication needs to improve drastically. I bring to this race positivity, honesty and the heartfelt belief that a rising tide raises all boats.”