AISD’s plan to close, consolidate schools shreds public trust

AISD Superintendent, Paul Cruz during a press conference in 2016. (LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN ARCHIVES)

The move by Austin Independent School District Superintendent Paul Cruz to close and consolidate several East Austin schools soon after voters approved a billion-dollar bond package is a betrayal of public trust.

Clearly, Cruz’s decision unveiled last week is a departure from the promises school trustees made to the public months ago regarding campus closures and consolidations, promises Cruz also signed off on. This week, after fierce public pushback, Cruz is moonwalking away from that decision. But the damage is done.

In explaining those missteps, Cruz said he had good intentions, motivated by “the excitement of new schools on the eastside,” made possible by the $1.05 billion bond package voters overwhelmingly approved last month.

“I was really prioritizing eastside schools,” he told us.

That was a huge miscalculation. Cruz should have known better, given all the reassurances that he and trustees made leading up to the bond election that school closures and consolidations were not part of the bond process — and not on the ballot. They emphasized that such decisions would be made independently, through a different process yet to come.

When voters approved the billion-dollar bond package in early November, they were focused on the district’s message that those bonds were needed to modernize, rebuild and retool Austin district schools so its 82,000 students would be better prepared for technological and medical jobs in the Central Texas and global economy.

That was a persuasive argument with voters, who approved them with 72 percent in favor.

Much of that goodwill evaporated last week as Cruz’s plans for East Austin schools came to light. Intentional or not, Cruz signaled that the election was a green light for closures and consolidations.

“The successful passage of the recent bond showed taxpayers entrusted AISD with reinventing the urban school experience, including necessary steps, which would be irresponsible to ignore,” Cruz said Friday.

A “continuing trend of declining enrollment in some areas of Austin ISD has created challenges that must be addressed with clear, intentional solutions — including community input to provide modernized learning spaces our students deserve.”

Cruz’s plan put six elementary schools on a fast track for consolidation, meaning some would be closed in mergers. They are: Brooke, Norman, Sims, Metz, Sanchez and Zavala. All have low enrollments, which qualifies them for closure under a district facilities plan.

But closures are by no means automatic. Plans adopted by the school board give schools an opportunity to avoid closure or consolidation by increasing their enrollments to certain levels, either by offering stronger academics or other programs that attract students. Schools are supposed to receive help from district staff and community leaders to meet those enrollment targets.

With the winds of victory from the bond election at his back, Cruz veered from that process.

The Statesman’s Melissa B. Taboada reported that Cruz’s plan calls for one of two East Austin elementary schools — Norman or Sims — to close and consolidate with the other campus. A planning team would have until Jan. 16 to determine which school would survive and which would shut down. The remaining school would be rebuilt for $25 million and open in 2020.

Similarly, Brooke Elementary is on the closure list, with its students moving to Ortega, Linder/Uphaus or Govalle, one of which would be rebuilt into a 522-student, $32.5 million campus opening in August 2020.

Zavala, Sanchez and Metz elementary schools also would be consolidated, district documents show, and that planning team would have until June 7 to decide which would be rebuilt, with the other two schools folding into it. The district timeline was unclear about when the other two campuses would be closed, but the $25 million rebuilt campus is slated to open in August 2021.

Given such contradictions, it’s no wonder many feel duped. Board President Kendall Pace, said she, too, was caught off guard as was her colleague, trustee Ted Gordon, whose District 1 includes Norman and Sims.

“The timeline took us by surprise,” Pace told us. “I asked (Cruz) what does this mean?”

Cruz confirmed that the board was not briefed on the plan, though they did receive an email about it. That is another misstep. Something that significant should not have been conveyed in email. That was a moment that required personal communication as closures and consolidations have proved to be among the most controversial topics in the Austin district. And for good reason.

Allan Elementary never recovered from its closure in 2012 orchestrated by then-Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who turned the campus over to IDEA charter schools to establish its charter program in the district. IDEA operated the school for just a year before it and the school district parted ways in a bitter breakup.

But the cynicism and bruised relations precede that.

East Austin has borne the burden historically of a segregated system in which schools with minority students were shut down to accommodate court-ordered integration that favored white schools in West Austin. Those political and racial ghosts still lurk in eastside communities that understandably distrust AISD officials when it comes to decisions regarding closures and consolidations.

Trust is fragile. What is almost incomprehensible is why Cruz, knowing that history, further strained that trust with premature plans calling for closures and consolidations without meaningful public input.

Backpedaling with statements that he will slow things down and gather public input won’t heal the damage. Cruz should concede he erred, hit the rewind button and start over with a process that respects what trustees pledged to do: Implement an independent process that takes bold steps to help schools stay open — before moving to shut them down.