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12 Questions for AISD

Before trustees vote on IDEA, some questions we'd like answering

By Richard Whittaker, 4:00PM, Mon. Dec. 12, 2011

Austin ISD board of trustees at last week's work session: Tonight is the big vote on IDEA Public Schools, but are they really ready to move forward?
Austin ISD board of trustees at last week's work session: Tonight is the big vote on IDEA Public Schools, but are they really ready to move forward?
Photo by Jack Anderson?

In an informal meeting last week with Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, our news staff made it clear that the Chronicle does not believe that Austin Independent School District has the information required to approve a deal with IDEA Public Schools tonight.

It's not just IDEA that concerns us, the Austin American Statesman and other local media outlets. There are several items on tonight's Annual Facility Recommendations that have us wondering about the district's level of due diligence. That concern extends to community activists and prominent East Austin figures like Paul SaldaƱa, who wrote today in an open letter to the board that "the district has failed to actively listen" and asked trustees to "table any decision tonight on facility and academic recommendations, or better yet vote NO."

It is also clear from every recent citizens communication session that much of the general population shares the media concerns. If the board members doubt that, they may just want to visit Eastside Memorial at 4.30pm, where parents will be gathering to march to Allan Elementary before traveling en masse to the board room to protest the plan.

Frankly, there are plenty of questions that we really hope the board members have asked staff, IDEA, and even themselves before tonight's vote.

1: Carstarphen told the Chronicle that she wanted to reform the Eastside Memorial Vertical team quickly before Education Commissioner Robert Scott comes in with his own plan. However, No IDEA in Eastside organizer Vincent Tovar told us that he spoke with the Texas Education Agency last week and was told that Eastside was not on the agency's "hot list" for intervention. Has the board spoken to the commissioner about this?

2: Why was IDEA the only option brought forward to the board?

3: Why was the agenda item to initially start talks with IDEA buried on the June 20 consent agenda?

4: Penn State researcher Ed Fuller – a long-time trusted voice to the district – has already expressed great concerns about IDEA's performance, including its student retention rates and the GPAs of the students it sends to college. Now Fuller has released data that he says show that the IDEA Charter Elementary only slightly outperforms the average East Austin elementary, and is in fact beaten on Math and Reading combined scores by 12 of the 30 campuses. Has the board seen that study, and does it have any response?

5: If the trustees vote to accept the IDEA charter proposal, how will the district handle the initial years when IDEA and the regular campuses will cohabit at Allan and Eastside?

6: If the board does vote to accept the IDEA charter proposal, when will staff members at Allan and Eastside be informed about their employment prospects?

7: IDEA has previously stated that it will not cover the bulk of electives or extracurricular activities, and that the district will have to provide those. Has the administration analyzed the structure and costs that will be required by that arrangement?

8: IDEA makes it clear in its employee handbook that its staff are at-will employees and that "this means that both employees and IDEA have the right to terminate employment at any time, with or without advance notice and with or without cause." How will the district operate, knowing that some staff at the affected Eastside campuses will be in regular one-year contracts with grievances and disciplinary procedures, and the rest can be fired without notice?

9: IDEA CEO Tom Torkelson called opponents to the charter plan "professional protestors – people who are paid to oppose public school choice for parents." Similarly, IDEA chief growth officer Matt Randazzo told the Statesman that "We're collaborators with the district or we end up here as competition." Do these declarations – denunciation of opponents and blackmail threats of competition – sound like a partnership?

10: Which charter groups were canvassing the Eastside community in support of the plan?

11: Webb Middle School has already been through the ringer and has finally made it to Academically Acceptable status. Why go through yet another transition by turning it into a pre-K thru 8 campus and risk overcrowding? And why place a pre-K center at Dobie Middle School (another Academically Acceptable campus) which currently houses grades 6-8?

12: The most important question: Do the board members really believe they have the facts and the community support to proceed tonight?

The AISD Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on the administration's annual facility recommendations tonight at its meeting, starting tonight at 7pm at the Carruth Administration Center, 1111 W. Sixth.

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