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AISD Sued Over Eastside Planning Transparency

Suit by former campus committee member alleges open records law broken
Richard Whittaker, 1:07pm, Wed. Mar. 27, 2013
Photo by Richard Whittaker
"We live in a time when we need transparent government." Former Eastside Memorial CAC member Steve Swanson filed suit against Austin ISD this morning over their lack of openness about the embattled campus

It's little secret that a lot of people think Austin ISD is too secretive. Now the administration is being sued by an Eastside Memorial community member and campus volunteer, who alleges they are violating the Texas Public Information Act.

In a suit filed this morning in Travis County District Court, former Eastside Memorial Campus Advisory Committee member Steve Swanson alleges that "AISD is unlawfully withholding public information regarding [Eastside]; the potential closure or repurposing of that campus; and of the district's neglect and abandonment of its duty to help the campus succeed."

The timing is significant, as AISD is trying to find a replacement entity to take the place of IDEA Public Schools in the Eastside Memorial vertical team. Over public protest, the board voted in 2011 to hand the team over the private charter group, starting with Allan Elementary. After a ballot box purge last November, the new-look board cancelled the contract. Since then, the administration under Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has said they have to find a replacement for IDEA, or the Texas Education Agency will close the campus. At a press conference at the Carruth Administration Center this morning, Swanson said he found that claim lacking. "I have a letter from the TEA from the last month or so that basically says, 'The school's academically acceptable, why are you talking to the commissioner? Why are you asking for his help?'"

The goal of the suit is two-fold. Firstly, to see whether the district has withheld documents about the Eastside plan. Secondly, to see whether they ever really had a plan in the first place. If they did, and withheld it from the Eastside CAC, then Swanson and his attorney Brian McGiverin argue that the administration violated the Texas Education Code, which requires that the campus community be involved in running the campus. If they didn't have a plan, then that's just a different violation of the code. The only question remaining for Swanson is whether the sin of excluding the CAC and the community was one of omission or commission.

Swanson's suit contends that he requested "AISD's internal reports on how it could best ensure it made decisions that would serve the community. But the central administration did not produce them." Swanson said, "We're not getting the information we requested on the process they use to plan schools, to budget schools, who are the people involved, when were they involved, how did they make decisions, and why do we have a reconstitution plan that makes people believe we need somebody from the outside to run our schools."

Swanson has already filed a formal grievance with the district about Eastside on this matter, arguing that the district never involved the CAC with designing the state-mandated Campus Improvement Plan (see "A Failure to Communicate", Feb. 8). Swanson said that both steps will "prompt a more honest discussion about what has taken place in the past."

Swanson is not alone in wondering whether the district is fulfilling its transparency obligations. In 2012, the Chronicle filed an opens records request for all communications about IDEA Public Schools taking over Allan Elementary in early 2012. When the district sent back the paperwork, there were no emails between Jan. 26 and Feb. 20, and Feb. 22 and March 7. This seemed extremely unlikely, since this was the height of the IDEA Allan firestorm. When we asked them to review the request, they came back with more than double what they had originally.

Part of the problem, the district argued at the time, is that such requests are handled by keyword searches, and so if the keywords are wrong, then the results will be incomplete. However, it is a matter of public record that even board members have been frustrated about how slowly the administration delivers data.

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