Apr 22, 2017

$100 Million Center Is Founder’s Latest Push for Public Education

Reporting Texas

This architect’s illustration depicts the Holdsworth Center campus, proposed for property near Austin’s Loop 360 bridge over the Colorado River. Courtesy of Lake|Flato.

The $100 million Holdsworth Center, which will train Texas public school administrators in leadership techniques, expands its founder’s focus from politically supporting public schools to direct intervention in how they’re run.

Charles Butt, the chief executive of H.E. Butt Grocery Co., is a longtime critic of legislative voucher proposals to shunt state tax money to private charter schools. He has contributed money to interest groups such as Texas Parent PAC and Save Texas Schools, and is a supporter of House Speaker Joe Straus. The speaker, a San Antonio Republican, has said it’s unlikely that the House will consider voucher legislation already passed by the Senate during the current legislative session.

Butt’s Holdsworth Center, which will be based in Austin, is named after his mother, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt, who was a public school teacher in Kerrville and later cofounded of the H.E. Butt Foundation.

Six schools will undergo training this year, beginning in June. The center said it will announce those selected this month. The district’s first year will focus on superintendents before expanding to other groups. Butt’s funding will fund operations and a “generous, multiyear investment” in school districts that participate, according to the center.

Center Executive Vice President Kate Rogers said in an email that the Holdsworth Center is seeking the city’s approval to build a 44-acre campus on property adjacent to the Loop 360 bridge over Lake Austin. She said the land, which the center hasn’t yet purchased, is currently zoned for single-family homes.

San Antonio-based Lake|Flato architects are designing the facility. Rogers said center officials hope to begin work in 2018 and have the campus open by 2021.

While a permanent facility is being developed in Austin, Rogers said, programs will be conducted in hotels and conference centers near the districts being trained. After superintendents, training will expand to principals and support staff. Training will focus on change management, effective teaming, board relations and best practices in talent management.

Rogers said in a telephone interview that the center won’t seek academic credit for its training but will offer certificates.

“We’re not an accredited university. We’re not taking that on,” Rogers said. “We’re not working with aspiring candidates. It’s not about preparing future principals and superintendents. These are about the people in the job today.”

Rogers said the center is pursuing top-down leadership training in which superintendents and principals choose others to follow them into the program.

The goal, Rogers said, is to train small groups of leaders to make systematic changes and address problems like high teacher turnover and low student achievement.

“In a world where leadership development is outsourced to multiple programs over multiple years, there’s no alignment,” Rogers said. “This is about helping them to create a much more strategic approach to talent management.”

Mark Gooden, a University of Texas at Austin education professor who specializes in principal training, said in an interview that he welcomes the Holdsworth Center but added that programs outside academic accreditation can have problems specifying training standards. Some standards are necessary, he said.

“Let me be clear, I’m not a big fan of standards, but I’m not one of those people saying we have to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Gooden said. “Even if we say they’re placing leaders, how good are those folks? I think you have to have programs that are accredited by somebody.”

Gooden said there aren’t enough leadership development opportunities and that the center will help address the shortage.

Johnny L. Veselka, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said in a February statement that his organization supports the center.

“It will complement the work that TASA does to develop leaders who create and sustain student-centered schools and develop future-ready students, as well as the training and leadership development provided to administrators by other groups,” Veselka said.

The six districts selected for the first year’s training will be announced this month, Rogers said.

“There are 1,200 school districts in Texas. That’s 10 percent of the nation’s students, and the need for training is tremendous,” Rogers said. “Our goal is to work alongside districts to train leaders in the most robust fashion possible.”