The Austin Chronicle

Who's On First?

By Richard Whittaker, January 21, 2011, 1:05am, Newsdesk

The public fury over the potential closure of nine AISD schools has become an object lesson in how not to break bad news to people. But the Jan. 13 meeting at the Tony Burger Center had a double misstep in the district's PR offensive: One that snubbed an old ally and opened the door to old critics.

The original plan for the evening was to allow Austin Democrat Rep. Elliott Naishtat – one of the foremost advocates for social programs in the legislature – to speak first during the citizen's comment section of the evening. But at the last minute, the decision was made to shake up the running order and pick names at random, leaving the dean of the Travis County delegation twiddling his thumbs.

So who got the mic first? A concerned parent? A teacher facing unemployment? No, Del Valle ISD trustee Richard Franklin, who proposed that AISD think about handing over Eastside Memorial High School to the East Austin College Prep Academy, run by the Southwest Key non-profit.

The fact that Eastside isn't on the draft potential closure list wasn't the strangest thing about this incident.

Franklin omitted three facts from his speech. First, that he's the president of Youth Unlimited, a for-profit motivational and mentoring firm that already works with AISD*. Second, that he was sitting with senior staff from Southwest Key, including founder Juan Sanchez. And third, that he's on the board of a neighboring school district. If an AISD trustee had turned up at a Del Valle or Southwest Key meeting unannounced, it's hard to see that this would not cause a fuss.

This wasn't a one-off: The night before, at the meeting at the Delco Center, it was the turn of East Austin prep's Parent Council President Janie Flores to ask for Eastside High to be handed over at minimal rent.

The project was presented as "an out of the box proposal", but it was actually straight off the peg. Southwest Key has had its eye on the former Johnston High campus since 2007. The non-profit's leadership has also been quite willing to savage AISD to the media, and snubbed the district rather than work on a combined Promise Neighborhoods grant application. *Richard Franklin asked to note that while he does work with AISD, it is on a voluntary, pro bono basis.

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