The Austin Chronicle

The History of an IDEA

By Richard Whittaker, December 28, 2011, 3:05pm, Newsdesk

The Austin ISD board of trustees may be trying to put a happy face on after the PR pummeling it took over the IDEA Public Schools debacle. But if its latest attempt to rewrite history is any measure, they should prepare for more heavy hits.

In an op-ed piece in Monday's Austin-American Statesman, Board President Mark Williams and Trustee Sam Guzman laid out their argument for IDEA. Even though the duo kvetch about how the Statesman's writers "remain focused on the process and politics of the board's decision," they used the page to defend their decision. Rattling through the pro-forma (and questionable) claims on IDEA's successes, they also made some interesting suggestions about the timeline for the deal:

In January 2011, the board unanimously approved policy changes for in-district charter programs in order to "pursue innovative models to support choice and promote both individual and institutional learning." And in June, the board unanimously authorized the superintendent to explore a partnership with IDEA Public Schools.

The implication is clear: We'd all known about this for months, so why is everyone claiming there's been no transparency?

And here. We. Go.

On June 20, the AISD board of trustees did indeed approve an agenda item about working with IDEA. But what dominated discussion that night? Superintendent Meria Carstarphen unveiling her fancy new interactive end-of-year report timeline, which seemed like a wondrous exercise in obfuscation (apparently, in her version of the 2010-11 school year, mass lay-offs and the facility master plan debacle never existed.) The IDEA proposal was buried in the consent agenda, and merely proposed that the administration "explore a partnership" with IDEA. As I wrote at the time, "This is not a change in policy, but the discussion of a contractor on something as radical as an in-district charter. Wonder whether that will turn up on that timeline."

Let's be quite clear: There is no mention in the agenda item about time frame for these talks, or location of any potential in-district charter school. In fact, the only mention of Eastside at all on the agenda all night was the appointment of Joseph Coburn as principal: The same Coburn who quit mere hours before the accelerated release of Carstarphen's annual academic and facility recommendations.

Here's another added wrinkle: Part of the presentation to the board was a white paper called "Charter Options and Opportunities." In that, the administration says that it had worked with the Texas Charter Association to visit various charter operations around the state: Oddly, though, as of June 2 that had not included any IDEA campuses: "A visit to IDEA Public Schools was not possible due to the end of the year schedule," the white paper notes. However, the administration, Texas High School Project executive director (and IDEA funder) John Fitzpatrick, and IDEA chief growth office Matt Randazzo did have time to visit KIPP Coastal Village-Galveston ISD and YES College Prep-North Forest ISD together on May 16.

On June 16, four days before that consent agenda item slipped through, Guzman was stood outside of Eastside, making a big show about how he supported the reconstitution plan that would have merged the two schools at the Johnston Campus explore a partnership Global Tech and Green Tech – back into one school. At that point he was fighting against a charter school at Eastside, as this was when Southwest Key was making their bid for the campus. Again, no mention of IDEA, no mention of a charter, but rather a commitment to keeping Eastside as a regular public school.

Months ago, Board Vice-president Vince Torres told me, "I've come to understand how this superintendent operates, and you have to be listening for every nugget." Carstarphen would simply mention something to the board and take silence as tacit approval. Torres said, "If you miss that opportunity to ask questions and slow the train down the first time, the next time you're not going to have the opportunity." Now it seems the same holds true for the board of trustees.

Of course, this is probably all sitting very nicely with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, whose representatives have been visibly irritated by what little oversight the board has mustered on this deal. Their ideal situation would be that Carstarphen would have been able to handle the IDEA contract all by herself. Their argument is that a corporation has its executives handle contracts, not the board. But AISD is not a corporation. It is a local government entity, with elected officials whose prime responsibility is to the students, their families, their employees and the electorate.

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