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Schoolyard Scuffle

Talking Out of School

By Jenny Staff, Fri., July 9, 1999

Another quick council approval was the St. John's Multipurpose Center, the multimillion-dollar joint venture between the city and AISD approved by voters in the November bond package. Although the combination of the new J.J. Pickle Elementary School and the adjacent community center (which will house divisions of the city's health and human services, police, and library services) was widely supported by the council, Council Member Daryl Slusher took the occasion of his yes vote to air a months-old grudge he has held against the school district.

Seems that earlier this year, the city had been negotiating with AISD over water quality standards on its various campuses: In return for allowing higher impervious cover on campuses within the desired development zone -- and other perks including waiver of height restrictions and expedited site plan reviews (AISD no longer needs city approval for site plans on projects under 10,000 square feet) -- Slusher was pushing for SOS compliance within the drinking water protection zone. This would supersede an interlocal agreement that AISD has with the city, allowing it to build at 25% impervious cover throughout the Barton Springs Zone, instead of meeting the 15% and 20% standards in the contributing and recharge zones, respectively.

As Slusher tells it, during meetings in his office with school officials earlier this spring, Slusher told the district that in return for new concessions in the interlocal agreement, he wouldn't settle for less than SOS compliance in the drinking water protection zone. But when he repeated his position on the dais on March 11, when the agreement came up for a vote, AISD representatives characterized it as a position reversal and argued against it. Subsequently, school officials privately complained that Slusher's "change of position" confounded a year's worth of work between AISD and city staff.

Last week, Slusher said that AISD's compliance with SOS would set a good example for its students, and that no one from AISD should have been surprised at his position on the council dais. Furthermore, he said, when district representatives explained their problems finding land to expand southwest area schools, including Cowan Elementary School, he had agreed to a compromise impervious cover limit of 20%. Since council approved the agreement in March, the AISD Board of Trustees has yet to sign off on the agreement.

"We were satisfied with the standards as they existed in the current interlocal agreement," interim AISD Superintendent A.C. Gonzalez said this week. "We have been abiding by those standards, and in several cases have gone beyond them on our own." Nonetheless, Gonzalez said, he was optimistic that the district and the city could come to an agreement on the impervious cover limits, though he placed the burden of initiating the deal on the shoulders of the city. "There was a meeting set, and the council members did not appear. Or canceled at the last moment," he said. "We're waiting on the council to follow up."

Curt Shaw, AISD's director of construction management, said the district only wants the same development allowances the city gives to other school districts, including Round Rock and Eanes. "We thought, let's just ask for what the other districts have. That's what we'd come requesting. We have conditions as a school that are different from a commercial development. Why make us just part of a blanket response?" Shaw continued: "SOS allows the city to have an interlocal agreement with the different school districts that reflect their particular needs and conditions ... SOS provides for exactly what we've got with the city."

But sources say there's no love lost between SOS and AISD; ever since the water-quality ordinance's inception, the school district has asserted its need to be exempt from the impervious cover standards, because -- as former AISD board member Nan Clayton told the Statesman back before the 1992 vote -- "SOS would make it nearly impossible to construct new schools." (Clayton, incidentally, has since softened her stance.) And during negotiations for the May bond package (in which voters approved the St. John's Multipurpose Center), for example, the SOS Alliance leaders unsuccessfully pushed the district to comply with the SOS ordinance.

Shaw said this weekthat because of the district's busy summer construction schedule, City Manager Jesus Garza agreed to act as if the new agreement had been approved, except for the impervious cover limits. Of course, what that means is that the district got breaks on desired development zone projects -- and "there's a ton of 'em," according to Shaw -- but took no actions that deal with impervious cover limits in the Barton Springs Zone.

But by doing that, said Slusher, AISD is only holding up half of their end of the bargain. "They're operating all the stuff we gave them on the desired development zone, but they won't sign off on the other part. ... They're getting all kinds of waivers," he said. "We worked with them very closely, to make it easier for them to build in the desired development zone, because a lot of those schools are landlocked. We understand that, and our policies are to steer growth into the desired development zone. And we're still giving them a break in the SOS zone. It was given from the dais, yet they go back and say, 'They tightened it up and changed the agreement from the dais.' I don't want to have a partnership where the partners treat each other like that."


Watson to the Rescue

The partners will have to learn to play nice, however, if Mayor Kirk Watson is successful in his newly announced (albeit unusual) plan to form a task force to help the district out of its superintendent-searching jam. At a press conference on Wednesday morning, July 7, the mayor announced that his Blue Ribbon Task Force would provide an "inclusive and productive process" for the superintendent search. Heading up the task force will be Council Member Gus Garcia, himself a former AISD trustee, along with longtime civic boosters Neal Kocurek and Ada Anderson. And a half-dozen other task force members would be in place by July 23, Watson said.

Perhaps the most interesting response to the mayor's plan came in the form of a tersely worded, four-sentence statement from AISD Board President Kathy Rider. She thanked the mayor for his support and promised she'd get back to him after a Thursday meeting with board members and a representative of a firm AISD has hired to assist in the search.

This Week in Council: The council is off yet again this week, July 8. But for your summer reading pleasure, the city manager's policy budget has been published (see "Naked City"). Enjoy! The council will be back in session on July 15.

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