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Northside ISD’s Brian Woods on politics, education, and his next steps

Brian Woods poses for a photo in front of Northside ISD's board room.
Camille Phillips
After 31 years with Northside ISD and 11 years as superintendent, Brian Woods is leaving the district in June 2023. He's taking a job with the Texas Association of School Administrators.

After 11 years leading San Antonio’s largest school district, Northside ISD’s Brian Woods is leaving the district at the end of the school year.

As the superintendent of one of the largest districts in Texas, Woods has been an active voice at the state capitol advocating for public education.

TPR Education Reporter Camille Phillips sat down with Woods to ask him about the future of education in Texas — and why he’s leaving Northside at 54, well before retirement age.

This conversation has been edited for length, continuity, and clarity.

Phillips: You've been superintendent of Northside ISD for more than a decade, right?

Woods: That's right. 11 years.

Phillips: Eleven years. And you've been with the District 30 plus?

Woods: 31. That's right.

Phillips: So why now? Why did you decide this was the time to end this chapter of your career?

Woods: I think the primary reason is because I feel like we're actually past — or, for the most part, past COVID. And it's a good time to depart. I've been trying to balance having a high-quality board, because that's obviously who hires the next superintendent, and I have a lot of interest in that, and yet not leave at a time where somebody coming in is putting out fires and fighting a really uphill battle.

Phillips: What about for you personally? Why was it time for you to decide to leave the district?

Woods: Yeah, I think a couple of reasons. One was being a superintendent is great work, but it's also exhausting work. I was just flat tired, and coming out of the two, three, however many — however you count it — years of COVID, and all of the issues surrounding COVID probably accelerated that timeline some. Some of which was not COVID itself. It was the politics that surrounded COVID, frankly.

Phillips: Do you think that — you talked about the politics of things. Is it getting better or is it just kind of steadily high level?

Woods: I don't think it's getting better. I think what's happened in the last few years, since — I guess since 2016 maybe, is that our country has become really polarized. And while that may have started at a national level, that's trickled down to a state and even a local level.

And I think it makes it really tough for folks who are in public organizations — especially schools, cities, counties — to do their business and not constantly defend against political attacks from one side or the other, right?

And it seems like that we only hear from one edge of the political fringe or the other edge of the political fringe. And I believe the vast majority of people aren't on those fringes on most issues. They're in the middle. And yet we don't hear a lot from that group.

The other two — the two fringe groups throw bombs at each other and anyone they perceive is leaning towards the other side. And that's made it very challenging to do business in public organizations and schools in my mind are the tip of the spear for that.

Phillips: You've been active with the Texas legislature advocating for public education. I'm wondering what you see as the big challenges ahead for public education on a state level in Texas.

Woods: Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of them. I think if you look at anybody who — any listener — who's paid attention to the last 30 or 45 days in the legislature can see that there are a lot of challenges. There's a very active conversation around vouchers, which in my mind is just a way to continue to defund public schools.

There is a lot of interest in preventing schools from doing certain things around curriculum and materials, some of which is probably reasonable. But I think the conversation has gone way beyond reason, frankly, and I think they've gotten into dictating their values to local teachers and librarians and principals, which I think is not a good thing. I think that's what we have school boards for. I think local decisions ought to control those types of things.

I think funding is, frankly, the biggest one. We all went into this session with high expectations especially around school safety funding — that it would increase in a meaningful way. And so far, at least, the conversations are not so meaningful. And that's terribly ironic and sad given that we are coming up on the one-year anniversary of Uvalde.

So, I think funding is clearly a long-term issue that's going to have to be fought for. And I know folks get sick of hearing about funding around schools, but it's because it's a persistent issue, right? It just never seems to go away. Depending upon what statistic you read, Texas is always in the bottom ten states with regard to funding per student. And in the second richest economy in the nation and one of the richest economies in the world, that's just terribly ironic, I think.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Phillips: Northside is the fourth largest district in Texas and the largest in San Antonio. You have this interesting view as a leader of Northside for all these years. I wonder just from that perspective — take it first for San Antonio: Is there something that you hope or wish for the future of schools in San Antonio or a recommendation you have for the future leaders of all the districts here?

Woods: I think the way I'll answer the question really has to do more about the city overall, not just about the schools within the city. We in San Antonio, we in Texas, we in this country have never figured out a way to keep income from being the major determinant of a child's trajectory.

We talk about it all the time. We debate it politically all the time, and yet we've never solved the issue — again, in spite of one of the biggest economies in the world. And that, to me, is what needs mitigation, right?

I'm a believer that schools ought to have a huge role in children's lives, as much as the parent is comfortable with that role being. And I believe that if we need to feed kids and provide them eyeglasses and get them medical treatment and make sure there's food in the home, that we ought to be funded to do that and we can do that. But even when you carry it that far, schools can't do it alone. And to expect that schools can do it alone, in my mind, is a false narrative completely.

Phillips: So, are you suggesting maybe something like reinstate the child tax credit?

Brian Woods: There’re a hundred policies that could be enacted locally, statewide and nationally that would help get at this idea. But let's start with things that are obvious to all of us. Let's house those that are homeless, let’s feed those who need food.

Again, this is not — the state right now as we sit here is sitting on a $33 billion+ surplus. And while property tax relief is needed and schools need help and roads need to be built in a growing state, let's not ignore the fact that there's this one variable that determines a child's future more than anything else. And yet we seem to just kind of let that go on decade after decade and not mitigate it.

Phillips: You're still in your fifties, right?

Brian Woods: Right. 54.

Phillips: So, what's next for you?

Woods: I'm going to go to work for the Texas Association of School Administrators. That's an organization that I was the president of during COVID, actually. And they do a lot of work for school leaders and those who work for them. But one of the things they do is advocate on behalf of schools. And so, my role is going to be both a grassroots advocacy work as well as some work in the capital in odd-numbered years in the spring.

Phillips: You're talking about the high politicization of education and how that has made it harder to lead a school district. But you're still going to be in the realm of public education. You're still going to be in politics because you'll be advocating on behalf of school superintendents across the state.

Woods: Right.

Phillips So, how will that change things in your day-to-day work?

Woods: Yeah, I think the difference is that I'll be doing that as full-time work. Obviously, you know, in this role there isn't — you can't dedicate 100% of your time to that work, as important as it is. You've got to run the day-to-day operations of the school district. Our core work is to educate children. It's not to advocate for better policies, even though the two things are clearly tied together.

I've been an educator for 31 years and care about it deeply and care about the people who do it very deeply. But I see this huge need for better policy in our state with regard to children and the people who work with them all day, every day.

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Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.