From Second Street to Carruth

AISD and city relations improving with concrete results

City Hall: Like the AISD Carruth Administration Center, except the ceiling doesn't leak
City Hall: Like the AISD Carruth Administration Center, except the ceiling doesn't leak (Photo courtesy of Flickr user antiapathy [CC])

At her campaign launch, mayoral hopeful Brigid Shea lit into incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell for not doing enough to protect Austin ISD's neighborhood schools. In fact, his tenure has lead to, if not a golden age, then a definite improvement in relations and collaborations between city hall and AISD.

Shea said she would work with major urban mayors to "urge full funding of our schools” and took potshots at Leffingwell for not fighting back hard enough over the now abandoned plan for school closures. In her stump speech, Shea said "I vow to work closely with the Austin Independent School District to save neighborhood schools. They are key to healthy property values and strong neighborhoods."

You know, that sounds familiar …

Back in February 2011, Leffingwell sent a strongly-worded letter to AISD, opposing the proposal from the Facility Master Plan Task Force to shutter up to 11 schools in the urban core. In it, he wrote:

We know that families with children will not move into Austin neighborhoods – or stay in Austin neighborhoods – where there are not good public schools. Losing good schools in the urban core would plainly make many of our goals as a city dramatically more difficult to realize.

Just to clarify things, AISD and City Hall may share the same city, but they are two completely separate entities. The Texas constitution is extremely good at making sure that cities have very little say about what happens in school districts, and vice versa, and so both tend to keep their distance from each other. While the letter is still diplomatic in tone, respectful of distance it most definitely is not.

At the time, Leffingwell's letter was seen as a far more significant shot across Superintendent Meria Carstarphen's bows than any message sent by Congressman Lloyd Doggett or Rep. Elliott Naishtat. They have been regular speakers on such district issues, but the reality of life is that there has been a respectful and long-running observation of the divide between town and gown. Not as serious as, say, the wide berth given to the affairs of the slumbering burnt orange beast on its 40 Acres, but serious enough that Leffingwell's breaking of the state of detente was tantamount to leaving a severed horse's head in Carstarphen's bed.

(Addendum: Sources close to the fight against school closures tell me that Leffingwell took a very keen interest in what was going on with the school closure proposal, and was described as very helpful to those pushing back. However, other sources who were deeply involved in the task force say that Leffingwell's letter carried no more weight than that from any other elected official.)

Of course, Leffingwell was not the first person at the game. AISD founded the Community Committee on Neighborhoods & Schools in 2006, while the city established the Families and Children's Task Force a year later, and they had a serious impact on policy. Arguably it was Council Member Laura Morrison who was strongest and first on this issue. Back in 2008, she and then-AISD trustee Karen Dulaney-Smith wrote a joint resolution, eventually adopted by city, county and AISD, which drew on the recommendations from both entities. Adopted while Will Wynn was still mayor, it stated that "it is in the best interest of all residents of the city of Austin, Austin ISD and Travis County that the City, School District and County maximize collaboration in and coordination of all major planning efforts."

However, back to 2011 and, as the Austin Post put it, "Leffingwell put a halt to the city's run of bearing a cautious attitude toward intruding on AISD business." Save Austin Schools simply commented "We appreciate your support Mayor Leffingwell!"

It was also far more effective than then-mayor Kirk Watson's well-intentioned but miscalculated Blue Ribbon Task Force to find a new superintendent in 1999. Not only did it add a powerful voice to the chorus of opposition to closures, but it has also lead to some major new cost-saving collaborations between the two entities.

And guess who opened that door? Leffingwell.

(Addendum: Well, arguably wedged the door further ajar, after it had been been opened by Morrison, Wynn and the 2009 agreement.)

As Leffingwell's office pointed out at the time, it would be illegal to simply transfer cash between the city and the district: So instead he, Council Member Mike Martinez and then-council member Randi Shade sponsored a resolution instructing City Manager Marc Ott to "identify potential operational efficiencies and partnership opportunities to help ensure the success of AISD primary and secondary schools citywide." City spokesman Reyne Telles said that, after a series of high-level meetings, "the city and AISD were able to find a number of interesting partnership opportunities."

So far, three big projects have been initiated:

– In exchange for storage space at AISD, the city gives the district access to the Palmer Events Center for its large monthly staff meeting. The three year deal, approved on June 23 by council in an interlocal agreement, saves the city $43,500 a year on storage and save the district having to find a room for 200 people.

– After AISD cut three police patrol positions, APD has been providing after-dark patrols and alarm response at AISD facilities.

– The city and the county, through their joint subcommittee, are working on a request from AISD for financial and technical support for new software to strengthen the Impact System for drop-out prevention.

(Further addendum: This has all been achieved with Superintendent Meria Carstarphen at the helm of AISD, and it's not exactly like she has the best reputation when it comes to collaboration.)

Leffingwell's letter was also seen as putting new energy into the joint city/district/county subcommittee: Council members Kathie Tovo and Morrison (building one the work she had already done) followed Leffingwell's lead with concrete achievements like an agreement on increasing literacy.

Another big collaborative effort comes up today at council: The proposed $2.4 million allocation to build a multi-use center at Colony Park, next to the Turner-Roberts Recreation Center and Overton Elementary. Turner-Roberts is already used by Overton students, but this new building would be used for a "physical education program" and as a "general assembly area" for AISD – more specifically, Overton. That's important: In the 2010-11 school year, Overton was running at 108% of capacity, and that is only projected to get worse in future. If the city does move ahead with the planned Colony Park sustainable community, the district could be looking at another 300 elementary students in that area. (Addendum: The proximity of Turner-Roberts and Overton is no coincidence, but again part of city-district collaboraton. The school, which opened in 2007, and the rec center, which opened a year later, were part of the city's 2005 Colony Park master plan.)

So it's hard to see where Shea thinks there is some political wedge to hammer in between Leffingwell and herself. Moreover, she may find herself challenged on some of the political realities of Austin life and AISD in particular. In her launch speech, she also railed against high property taxes: Be interesting to see where she will stand when AISD comes back to the voters for the inevitable tax rollback election they'll need to give staff and teachers a well-overdue pay raise.

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Lee Leffingwell, Brigid Shea, AISD, Turner-Roberts Recreation Center, Facility Master Plan, School Closures, Elections, Meria Carstarphen

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