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.

 

 

New AISD board leadership has plenty of challenges ahead

Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees members: (from left) Ann Teich, District 3; Edmund T. Gordon, District 1; Julie Cowan, District 4; Amber Elenz, VICE-PRESIDENT, District 5; Gina Hinojosa, PRESIDENT, At Large 8; Jayme Mathias, SECRETARY, District 2; Kendall Pace, At Large 9; Paul Saldaña, District 6; Yasmin Wagner, District 7.
Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees members: (from left) Ann Teich, District 3; Edmund T. Gordon, District 1; Julie Cowan, SECRETARY, District 4; Amber Elenz, District 5; Gina Hinojosa, At Large 8; Jayme Mathias, District 2; Kendall Pace, PRESIDENT, At Large 9; Paul Saldaña, VICE PRESIDENT, District 6; Yasmin Wagner, District 7.

The Austin ISD Board of trustees has new leadership. On Wednesday evening, Kendall Pace was elected as board president, Paul Saldaña was named vice president and Julie Cowan as board secretary.

The election was prompted by the resignation of board president Gina Hinojosa who has filed as a candidate for the Texas House of Representatives District 49 seat. Hinojosa will continue to represent the At-Large Position 8 seat on the AISD board of trustees.

If their experiences are any indication, this could prove to be a very effective team. Collectively, the three new board officers have worked with local business, city, county and state leaders – equipping the board with skill sets that could prove to be crucial for the district.

Pace is a management and financial consultant and has served on the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s education and talent development council and the district advisory council. Saldaña is a public relations consultant and longtime activist widely known for his work as chief of staff for former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia. Saldaña has more than 20 years in local municipal government and public policy. And Cowan has for nearly 20 years volunteered on various school district advisory committees – including budget and bond committees as well as serving as vice president on the Austin Council of PTAs. I should point out that the American-Statesman’s editorial board endorsed Pace, Saldaña and Cowan in their respective races last November.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead,” Saldana told me. But to borrow from a colleague, he said, “this is a shared leadership. We need to come together to get the work done.”

And, boy, is the workload heavy.

Facing the district are curbing declining enrollments and dealing with affordability challenges that are driving families and teachers out of the district. The district must also address academic performance of lower- and higher-achievers and finding a source of financing for annual pay raises for the district’s nearly 6,000 teachers. It will be a difficult task as long as the legislature continues to force the Austin school district to annually surrender tens of millions of dollars of its local revenue to the state, which distributes the money to poorer school districts.

What the new trustee leadership brings to the table will be vital to how much the needle moves in favor of Austin students.

In just under a year as one of the newest board members, Pace already has helped refocus the district’s public education foundation, which raises money from the private sector, just as she vowed to do during her campaign for her At-Large Position 9 seat. The Austin Ed Fund has raised more than $200,000 this year and already awarded nearly $50,000 for innovative classroom projects that enrich instruction in science, technology, reading and ecology, as well as skills in leadership and resolving conflicts or problems constructively.

Aside from the strong advocacy work she’ll need to keep, Pace now has the additional burden of keeping the entire board focused and forward-moving. She will be wise to learn from Hinojosa for finessed coalitions building and artful, deliberate compromise. Pace will have to learn to lead eight other personalities with varied communication and work ethic styles – all which may change by this time next year. The board, after all, could end up with five new trustees as terms expire in November for Jayme Mathias, District 2; Ann Teich, District 3; Amber Elenz, District 5; Yasmin Wagner, District 7 and Gina Hinojosa, At-Large Position 8.

It will be interesting to see how Pace and the rest of the board work together. For now, congratulations to the new leaders and good luck to the entire board.