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.

 

 

Will Amazon’s HQ2 home be the old Motorola campus?

Eightfold Development of Austin has proposed its campus in East Austin for Amzaon’s HQ2 headquarters and envisions a main building in the shape of Amazon’s Alexa cloud-based voice device.

Austin is cited as one of the key cities for Amazon’s secondary headquarters, known as HQ2, that the company wants to build somewhere in North America. But even if the Austin City Council came up with the financial incentives to lure Amazon – and successfully hurdled the politics of awarding publicly-financed tax abatements and other sweeteners to a rich outsider – there would be the question of where Amazon could locate in Austin, given its gigantic footprint and many preferences.

After all, the e-commerce behemoth has not been shy about detailing the perks and features it expects from communities bidding on its $5 billion project that is projected to generate 50,000 jobs. And Austin leaders, while expressing their huge interest in luring Amazon, also have been clear about their preference that Amazon fits with Austin values and not the other way around.

In addition to incentives, Amazon is asking for “an urban or downtown campus, a development-prepped site,” adding “We want to encourage states/provinces and communities to think creatively for viable real estate options, while not negatively affecting our preferred timeline.”

And that’s not all. Amazon wants to be within one to two miles of major highways, with a building or buildings that can initially accommodate up to 500,000 square feet by 2019 and up to 8 million square feet (33 buildings) beyond 2027. And that’s not all.

Amazon wants to be near, within 45 miles of an airport, have restaurants, retail, cafes and other amenities on its site. It also wants access to public transportation on its second-home site.

There’s more, but that alone is a big challenge for Austin in providing those features on a site within minutes of downtown.

On Tuesday, I toured such a place. A place that time had forgotten, but is being revitalized and readied for Amazon – or something else. It’s the old Motorola plant and campus at 3501 Ed Bluestein Boulevard in East Austin.

Set off the road on 100-plus wooded acres, it is less than five miles from downtown and about six miles to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Within 12 months, the site will yield about 500,000 square feet of office space with a potential of 5 million to 9 million square feet ultimately as it is built out. The latter will require zoning variances to build taller than the 60 feet now permitted.

Touring the campus is a throwback to Austin before the city was discovered by Formula One, Apple, Google and the hordes of hipsters that have relocated to the city. Then, Austin was laid back, weird and, goodness knows, affordable. A single mother of two, as I was in the late 1980s, could rent a house in East Austin and still put food on the table.

Developer Adam Zarafshani of Eightfold Development is touting the campus for Amazon, but makes clear even without Amazon, the campus, an ugly duckling when Eightfold acquired it, is being transformed into a swan through an $800 million, five-year redevelopment.

Where now there are abandoned buildings under renovation and redesign, he envisions a mixed-use community, complete with an urban farm, cafes, wellness and health clinics, computer labs and space for arts organizations and other nonprofits. He says he already has partnerships with Huston-Tillotson University, Austin Free-Net and Fusebox, a nonprofit arts organization, which will lease space or get it for free. It will be, Zarafshani says, a city within a city, with about 3,000 housing units, many that would be rented at rates teachers can afford. And it will be sustainable, with 75 percent of its power coming from solar energy, he says.

It’s the kind of development that compliments East Austin rather than insults it. It won’t displace long-time residents or drive up neighborhood property values, since it’s in a part of town known more for industry and commerce than for homes and neighborhoods. And most of the buildings are being renovated rather than raised. There will be a museum on site telling of Motorola’s history in Austin, featuring many items, such as an old cappuccino machine and era furniture, reclaimed from the renovation.

There are panoramic views and trails. And the campus has an Austin Energy power substation that was built for Motorola. And the Capital Metro Green line – that proposes to connect Austin with passenger rail service to Manor and Elgin – runs alongside the southeaster corner of the property.

With so much competition – upwards of 200 cities in the United States and Canada – vying for Amazon’s HQ2 project, it’s anyone’s guess which city will prevail when Amazon makes its decision next year. Even if Austin beats out the competition, there is no guarantee Amazon will choose the Eightfold site. But bids are due on Oct. 19 and Eightfold believes its development would be just the right fit.

Perhaps. But with or without Amazon, the old Motorola campus is being revitalized, rebuilt and repurposed. After a 12-year sleep, it’s a welcome awakening.

 

With Troxclair’s name affixed to affordability plan, it was going nowhere

Austin Council Member Ellen Troxclair fails to pass affordability action plan. 04/10/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Austin Council Member Ellen Troxclair fails to pass affordability action plan.
04/10/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

No one is claiming that the affordable action plan the Austin City Council narrowly rejected this week was perfect – not supporters, such as Traci Berry, a senior vice president for Goodwill Industries.

And not City Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who championed the initiative.

But in picking it apart, then voting to postpone it indefinitely – essentially killing it — six council members shut the door on something that was at best a roadmap advancing affordability goals all council members have affirmed. At worst, it was a flawed document with little meat on its bones, which would have put unwarranted restraints on the city budget.

Either way, it could have been handled as a work in progress, fixing and amending it as needed, as Berry noted.

“The most important piece of the plan is that it created a conversation by many stakeholders on a communitywide level — that we are putting our stake in the ground on one of the most important things we need to do in this city and saying, ‘Let’s go,’ ” she told me.

“It should have been all yes (votes) and zero no.”

Instead, the council split 6-5, with Council Members Alison Alter, Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Leslie Pool, Sabino “Pio” Renteria and Kathie Tovo voting against it. In addition to Troxclair, the resolution had the support of Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Jimmy Flannigan, Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen – who co-sponsored the resolution.

What sunk a resolution that seemed like a sure thing when it was first rolled out?

Some will say the details were problematic; others will tell you it didn’t go far enough. Still others would say it made the council look bad by not recognizing affordability measures underway. But the inability to coalesce around the resolution even as a working document points to political divisions on the council: Who would get the credit?

Troxclair was the lead sponsor, so the resolution – even with Adler’s support and heavy-hitting backers, including the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Habitat for Humanity — was doomed. Troxclair’s name as chief sponsor was akin to kryptonite.

The resolution laid out recommendations aimed at dealing with the various aspects of Austin’s affordability crisis, including expanding the city’s housing supply and addressing training needs of low-wage workers and the unemployed. But it also endorsed zoning reforms under way in CodeNext and city permitting. It contained a controversial budget option to keep taxes flat.

Though Troxclair championed affordability as key plank of her campaign when she ran for office in 2014, some colleagues believe she has since used the issue to posture, rather than produce. They aimed to teach her how to count votes, it seems.

They cited an American-Statesman commentary penned by Troxclair as an example of Troxclair’s posturing, saying she sets herself up as the lone council member standing up for affordability against a tax-and-spend council.

Troxclair wrote in August, 2016: “In this year alone, I have voted against hundreds of millions in spending, from high-priced consultants to vehicle purchases to cost overruns. I did not vote this way because replacing vehicles every three years and hiring consultants aren’t nice things to do. It is because each purchase ultimately impacts affordability. We must ask ourselves: Is this item a higher priority than financial relief for Austinites?

“Austin residents need a break – and this is the time to take their pleas to heart. We have to end the pattern of consistently increasing spending that has become a crisis for our city. It’s time for action, and it’s time for this budget year to be the Year of Affordability.”

You can judge for yourself if Troxclair was trying to steal her colleagues’ thunder, but if she was, Troxclair was doing what elected officials do: Using her bully pulpit to influence public opinion for her more conservative approach to budgeting and making Austin more affordable. Does she elevate herself by doing that? Sure. But she is not alone on the Council in showing off.

Adler says the discussion and action on Thursday was “not the Council’s finest moment.”

Troxclair says she is “disappointed, but not discouraged.”

Berry says, the Council lost an opportunity to send a strong message to people on the front lines in fixing problems and those bearing the brunt of Austin’s affordability crisis.

“The people who come to us live in poverty so they are marginalized. When they come through our doors, work and education are so important,” she said.

“They have transportation issues and housing issues. When they have to travel 20 plus miles, commuting for low wage jobs, how do they take care of their families? Where is their opportunity to succeed?”

Troxclair’s affordability action plan spoke to those issues. It wasn’t perfect, but it at least got things moving.

 

 

 

 

 

Local LULAC’s ‘State Of Latino’ guide is helpful summary of best practices

Juan Rodriguez and Mary Lou Rodriguez dance as Celsius band performs during The La Condesa 7th-Annual Cinco de Mayo Downtown Block Party on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the 1862 Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla over France, which occupied Mexico. The May 5th holiday has come to be a sort of Hispanic St. Patrick's Day in the United States that is celebrated by people of every ethnic background. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Juan Rodriguez and Mary Lou Rodriguez dance as Celsius band performs during The La Condesa 7th-Annual Cinco de Mayo Downtown Block Party on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

In an increasingly gentrified city, even well-intentioned projects can have a negative effect on existing communities if the overall needs of a specific population aren’t taken into consideration.

So then, how can policymakers avoid overlooking obvious solutions? Members of the League of United Latin American Citizens District XII say they have an answer: Read the recommendations in its recently released “State Of Latinos Austin Texas 2016” guide.

The report, which was presented last month, is a summary of best practices, existing projects and other initiatives already underway in various sectors in Austin. The compilation of so much information offers valuable insight. With a still new 10-1 Austin City Council structure, it makes sense to have a resource that council members can use to familiarize themselves with many of these initiatives as they work on new policies and programs.

The document, LULAC’s District XII members say, aims to “provide some guidance on deliberate steps toward ending persistent racial outcome disparities in specific policy areas.” There’s no way around it; because of Austin’s history of discrimination, disadvantages associated with race remain deeply embedded in the city.

As a solution, LULAC’s report lists three reminders for social change. They are:

  • Include equity as a criteria for inclusion and prioritization of policies.
  • Target benefits to Latinos and other vulnerable populations.
  • Prioritize the provision of resources where they’re most needed.

Currently, the catch-all term that addresses much of the inequalities that persist is “affordability.” But as we all know, affordability doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. For many low-income individuals and families — of which the majority are Latino and African-American — affordability can equate to the ability to meet basic necessities. And, as history shows, helping low-income residents has rarely been a priority for Austin’s leaders and policymakers.

But things are changing.

Today, local leaders and organizations are increasingly partaking in crucial conversations about affordability and inequality in Austin. Much good work is already being done – including in the business, health, housing and education sectors – to address the issue. However, many of those efforts are fragmented.

That’s bad news. When policymakers don’t have the whole picture, it’s easy for things to get lost in the cracks, members of LULAC’s District XII say. That’s why they created the report.

“The guide is a reminder, and a starting point in some cases, for city leaders to focus attention on specific details and to identify core issues and introduce the vocabulary of racial equity into conversations,” Cynthia Valadez, a member of the group, told me.

The concerns outlined by the document align with the city’s Hispanic Quality of Life initiative, which aims to determine what the city can do to improve opportunities and living experiences for Hispanics, a historically underserved community. Since launching the initiative in 2008, the city invested in demographic research and analysis, collected community feedback and had an oversight committee in 2013 – the Hispanic Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission – present a final report with recommendations.

Following the recommendations of the 2013 report, the city has made some changes, like increasing funding and expanding programs at the Department Health and Human Services, as well as creating a Hispanic/Latino Leadership Program at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

What about all the other recommendations made in the report? What’s the status of those?

As David Green, the city’s media relations manager, told me, “there isn’t a single master list of the myriad actions the city has taken in regards to the recommendations from the June 2013 report.” It makes sense to have a master list to reference, which could act as a reminder of what else needs to be done.

What’s next for the Hispanic Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission is presenting a summary later this year that will outline actions and more recommendations, Green said in an email.

It would be wise for the committee to take a good look at LULAC’s guide to ensure the best outcomes for all present and future initiatives targeting low-income Austinites.

Looking forward, the LULAC guide will not only benefit city leaders and policymakers, it could become a vital instrument for the person who serves as the city’s chief equity officer – a newly created seat that has no official start date. That post will lead the newly formed city of Austin’s Diversity and Equity Office. The creation of the office was a direct result of the requests made by Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Advisory Commission members. Currently, the city is searching for a candidate for the job and has scheduled community forums for feedback about which qualities Austinites would like to see in this new leader.

With so much work still left on the affordability front, the LULAC guide would be a useful tool of reference for all city leaders.