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Texts reveal tensions

Superintendent Don Austin messages board trustee Shana Segal to express frustration with critics
Cherianne Yoon

Text messages between Superintendent Don Austin and school board trustee Shana Segal seem to show a high degree of tension at the upper levels of district administration. The texts, obtained by parent Ginne Noh through a California Public Records request, show Austin’s anger toward Segal’s former campaign manager Gayle McDowell after McDowell made a social media post saying Austin should be fired.

In her post, McDowell said she was hoping for Austin to be replaced as superintendent soon.

“Unfortunately we need ‘three’ board votes to get him out — one or two board members can’t do anything by themselves,” McDowell wrote in the post. “My hope is that with enough public pressure, they might be swayed, but we need to gather this momentum.”

Using online messaging, Austin told Segal she needed to own the statements from McDowell and that he was ready to leave the district.

“Seriously, just own it, and it will be easier,” Austin said in the text exchange with Segal. “I am ready to go out soon. I can’t take the constant lies and attacks. You guys can pick the next person. I’m sure it will be everything you guys want. I’m done.”

Austin was granted a four-year contract extension by the board of education this summer.

For her part, Segal said McDowell’s words don’t necessarily represent her point of view.

“I cannot control what (other people) do or write,” Segal said in response to Austin’s message. “I am not campaigning, and she is no longer my manager.”

Austin said this incident is shows how criticism he receives, from what he calls a vocal minority, affects his personal life.

“I do everything in my power to protect all of us,” Austin said. “I take the blame for things I don’t even touch. I test my messages for tone and take the high ground. I don’t let people attack our staff. For that, my kids cry reading comments.”

In an email to The Campanile, Austin said other school officials are also facing community attacks, but that Segal is not the source of them.

“Relentless attacks have targeted not only myself, but also esteemed educators, several school principals, dedicated teachers, our counselors, Instructional Leads and even a student who dared to simply and sincerely advocate for civility,” Austin said. “Ms. Segal is not the source of the abuse.”

Austin also said he originally sent the texts to Segal because she knew people who were the source of some of these attacks.

“She is an elected official with relationships and connections with some of our biggest offenders, which is why I reached out to her,” Austin said.

Austin said he has given community criticism too much power over his life, and wants to focus on his accomplishments as superintendent, including Niche, an on-line ratings aggregation service, naming the district as the top one in California, and students showing unprecedented growth in literacy rates.

“Like many PAUSD leaders before me such as superintendents, principals and board members, I gave the vitriol more attention than it deserved,” Austin said. “Our successes shouldn’t be overshadowed by divisive narratives.”

Austin also said he has apologized to Segal for his text exchange with her.

“In May, I extended a sincere apology to Ms. Segal for not discussing this matter in person, which had been our usual approach in previous interactions,” Austin said.

And Austin said Segal told him she will not let the incident affect her decisions as a board member.

He said, “With her resolute commitment to not be influenced by the actions, words, lawsuits, petitions or postings of her campaign manager, friends, associates and donors, I am now assured that I can operate without fear of retaliation.”

Segal declined an interview request for this story.

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Naveen Narayanaswami
Naveen Narayanaswami, Staff Writer
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    AnnSep 24, 2023 at 6:23 am

    The excerpts of text messages provided in this article paint the picture much more sympathetically to Dr. Austin; the full ones show threatening, hostile behavior. They show, additionally, that the messages were not merely anger toward Ms McDowell; they were anger toward Ms. Segal (although, oddly, due to something written by Ms. McDowell).

    It is troubling that the Campanile here allowed the aggressor to paint the narrative. True, Ms. Segal apparently declined an interview; this is expected when a victim doesn’t feel safe (as clearly Ms. Segal does not, based on the text messages). Did you contact Ms. McDowell? I gather, from your note at the bottom of this article, that you did not.

    We should be asking questions such as:
    – Was this an isolated incident, or part of a pattern of abusive behavior by Dr. Austin?
    – Did Dr. Austin apologize? What was the nature of that? Here, he apologizes only for sending texts rather than “discussing” it in person.
    – How did you feel upon receiving these messages?
    – What has been the nature of your relationship since then?
    – How has the rest of the board reacted? Did they offer protection and support?

    Ms. Segal might not consent to an interview, but perhaps Ms. McDowell can speak to aspects of this.

    I recognize that this is student reporting, but nonetheless, I caution that this is irresponsible to allow to the aggressor to speak unchecked. Instead, this article allows the aggressor, Dr. Austin, to concoct whatever story he wishes — and it is clear, from his quotes here, he is creating quite a story.