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AISD's Wish List

Meria Carstarphen gave her recommendations on facilities, but what's next is up in the air

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 14, 2012

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen
Photo by John Anderson

Education policy wonks love to talk about school accountability and high-stakes testing. But at the ground level, it's the state of the buildings – and who gets to learn there ­– that really gets families and communities concerned about education.

Take Austin ISD's Annual Academic and Facilities Recommendations. Designed to make policy into something concrete, they spun out of the chaos that was the now-infamous Facility Master Plan debacle of 2010. Intended as a grand exercise in strategy, the master plan's two immediate legacies were infuriating families who feared school closures and helping catapult task force member Kathie Tovo onto City Council. However, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen took the bones of its long-term proposals and created a new system where staff would create an annual wish list of big projects for the board to approve.

But the suspicion held by many activists – and some board members – is that the cart has been placed before the horse, that major strategic changes for the district are snuck through disguised as facilities investments. Say you want to convert a coed school into a single-sex academy: That comes with construction costs, even if it's simple issues like converting some of the bathrooms, and that's a facilities question. But when exactly did the board say it wanted a new single-sex academy – or, as is proposed at the moment, up to three new single-sex schools?

ABC: Easy as 1, 2, 3?

Last year, Carstarphen brought forward six proposals, and the trustees approved five of them – including the controversial decision to hand Allan Elementary over to charter system IDEA Public Schools. Last Monday, she presented her 12-item draft list for the 2013-14 school year, broken into manageable chunks. The top priorities, the ones that have been most heavily vetted and seem most likely to pass, are in category A: expanding dual language programs, opening up the Respons­ive Education Solutions program at Lanier and Travis High Schools, a boys' academy, and a new in-district charter (unlike the controversial IDEA Allan, this comes from within the community). Then there's category B, which includes undercooked projects that still need more work, like new academic programs for Pearce and Garcia middle schools and the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team, plus the long-delayed purchase of land for a sorely needed South Austin high school. At the bottom of the heap is tier C, a grab-bag to be punted to the citizens' bond advisory committee for further scrutiny.

Expect shoving and high elbows between now and the final vote on Dec. 17, as trustees shuffle favored projects between the three categories.

On Board

But it's not just what will make the final AAFR list that's unclear: It's also who will be voting on them, and that's linked to the election calendar. Carstarphen introduced the recommendations with a simple schedule: Staff would start developing them each Jan­uary, for board approval in December, allowing for plenty of public consultation and giving staff eight months before the beginning of the new school year to implement the final decision. Last year, that schedule fell apart, as Car­star­phen ramrodded the first AAFRs through in the fall semester. This year, there's an even bigger problem: Last October, the board voted to move their elections from May to November. That means the new board elected on Nov. 6 may be sworn into office almost exactly as the AAFRs come up for a vote. So will the outgoing lame duck board vote on the measures, or will as many as four freshmen be expected to vote yea or nay on massive policy issues on their first day on the job?

So far, no one has a clear answer, leaving trustees in the unusual position of not knowing when their terms expire. Outgoing board President Mark Williams has said that he will want to make sure, if it is the new-look board, that they're up to speed on the recommendations and know what they're voting on.

Yet with four board seats on the Nov. 6 ballot, and a community burned out on campus restructuring, the incumbents and the administration are getting skittish over radical proposals like two single-sex schools in East Austin. This plan isn't a male equivalent to the Ann Richards Academy for Young Women Leaders, but a drastic proposal to convert Pearce and Garcia middle schools into separate boys' and girls' campuses. It was in an early draft of the 2012-13 AAFRs, but quickly and quietly fell off the table. This year the administration, spurred on by Trus­tee Cheryl Bradley, had initially appeared gung-ho on the revived plan. But the possibility of another IDEA Allan-scale PR disaster appears to have curbed their enthusiasm. Even with an extra year of work, the single-sex plan has won few friends, and the administration has cooled even further, talking about unnamed alternative program redesign at Pearce and Garcia. Now, even if she can revive the single-sex plan, Bradley faces the very real possibility that it could be a new board – one less friendly to such radical changes – that has the final vote.

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