AISD to Consider Charters and Communities Tonight

Agenda a complex dance between trustees, neighborhoods and employees

Travis Heights Elementary: The site of AISD's next charter, if the community gets the votes tonight.
Travis Heights Elementary: The site of AISD's next charter, if the community gets the votes tonight. (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

As Austin ISD's Board of Trustees meets tonight, there will be a subtle dance between new members and old members, the administration and the employees' union. The keywords for the night will be charters, co-location, and community.

Tonight's big agenda item is approval of the district's Annual Academic and Facility Recommendations for the 2013-14 school year. Introduced last year by Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, the AAFRs are designed to turn policy into practice, especially when it comes to big ticket items and reforms, like charter schools and single sex academies.

After months of back and forth, and a tectonic shift in the board in November's election, tonight's AAFRs have been pared down to four items:

– Expanding and extending the dual language program
– Responsive Education Solutions Continued at Lanier and Travis High Schools,
– Approving the campus-initiated in-district charter at Travis Heights Elementary School
– Fine Arts Program - Any Given Child Creative Learning Initiative

And we can add on a fifth: The potential rewriting or canceling of the district's controversial charter contract with IDEA Public Schools .

These may be the last December AAFRs. (It's already the last annual set: The board has decided to shift to a biennial cycle, meaning there will be no new recommendations until 2014.) When the district elections were in May, that gave trustees plenty of time to work on next year's proposals. However, with this year's date shift to the November elections, that means new trustees have a little over a month to get up to speed on this year's plans. Before he left the board, former president Mark Williams said that one of his last major remaining tasks was briefing them before the vote.

However, new president Vince Torres said that trustees will consider rescheduling this, and other major decisions. "Normally," he said, "December would be the right time." With the shift in elections, and student performance data now not available until September, the AAFRs and the superintendent's evaluation will almost inevitably move in the calendar.

For this year's decision, the charter bits are relatively clear cut. Trustees will consider three measures: Revising the contract with IDEA, so they stay at Allan Elementary but do not expand into Eastside Memorial High School in 2013 (see "An IDEA Whose Time Has Passed?", Dec. 7); expanding the pilot Responsive Education Solutions contract at Lanier and Travis High Schools; and approving a new in-district charter for the Travis Heights neighborhood (see "Community-Backed Charter in Travis Heights Goes to the Board" in this week's issue).

The co-location part is a little trickier, and has been less talked about. Situating a school within a school has been a minefield for the district: Just look at the long and sometimes divisive history of LASA and its controversial cohabitation with – and then exit from – the old Johnston High (now Eastside Memorial). This time, it ties in with AISD's seeming policy shift against adding single sex schools – a massive reversal from a year ago, when trustees were pondering three new partitioned campuses. There was the long-promised boys' academy (a sort of y-chromosome answer to the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders). Then there was District 1 Trustee Cheryl Bradley's plan to send much of East Austin's student populations to single sex campuses, by ending co-ed teaching at Pearce and Garcia Middle Schools.

Bradley's plan – already punted from the 2012-13 AAFRs – has seemingly collapsed completely, and now the boys' academy is following suit. Originally, it was supposed to be part of this year's AAFRs: Instead, the board has shoved the issue over to the Citizens' Bond Advisory Commission for further consideration. It all comes down to location. The project's main planning donors, the Moody Foundation, seem to have set their eyes on Covington Middle School in South-West Austin, near Brodie and William Cannon: AISD seems more interested in repurposing the old Alternative Learning Center in Govalle. Covington is a nicer campus, but the district will need middle school seats in that area of town as the population expands. The ALC may placate the single sex advocates in East Austin, but seems to create the same community clashes that the district went through with IDEA.

There has been some suggestion from trustees about co-locating the boys' academy at another co-ed campus. However, that may do little to placate those purists who believe that boys and girls need to be truly separate. It also does little to calm the concerns of District 7 Trustee Robert Schneider. He has warned that, without a male answer to Ann Richards, the district could be violating Title IX's equal access terms. However, he has warned against co-location, noting that it can lead to Balkanized campuses.

And then there are the charter votes. Responsive Ed has been low-key and low profile, and its credit recovery program never required a campus takeover – unlike Travis Heights. That campus sits in District 6, where Trustee Lori Moya has taken a keen interest in the proposal. Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, who has been working on this Travis Heights project for the last two years, has described it as what the in-district charter process should be, and everything the IDEA deal wasn't: Collaborative, neighborhood-driven, and aimed at the needs of the community. Its purpose is to give the campus greater autonomy, and the board will be studying it closely as a model for moving forward on other self-governing campuses.

Moya and Zarifis are caught in a difficult balancing act: They both want the Travis Heights proposal to move forward, but they are bitterly split over IDEA. Moya is its biggest booster, after Bradley, while Zarifis is one of its biggest opponents. However, both are using the same language – that IDEA Allan and Travis Heights are very different kinds of charters. While Allan swept the slate clean and placed the campus under an external body, Travis Heights leaves the current staff, leadership and student body in place, and just gives them more latitude.

Moya has even gone so far as to suggest that Travis is so different to IDEA Allan that the district may consider other mechanisms for campus self-management in the future. She said, "What could happen is that the whole in-district charter process may not be a requirement to have this autonomy, and that's why it's a pilot." She noted that there have been experiments in autonomy before "but we've always gone back to the standard structure." While she does not suggest that the Innovation School Project design would work everywhere, it gives the board a real chance to discuss what autonomy means. She pondered, "Is it funding or is it curriculum or is it some combination of both?"

However, any agreement between Moya and Zarifis on charters stops when it comes to the IDEA vote. After a bruising and lengthy Dec. 3 board discussion, District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias (in whose district IDEA Allan is located) proposed splitting the baby: Keeping IDEA at Allan through 2014, suspending the planned Eastside expansion, and spending the next year closely examining whether the contract should continue beyond the 2013-14 school year. Again, co-location may become a key issue (as if IDEA didn't set off enough alarm bells amongst education advocates.) Allowing the Eastside expansion means IDEA and the current student population rubbing shoulders through to the 2018-19 school year. Considering IDEA so far has failed to win over the Eastside community (only 18% of its students come from the high's attendance zone) this seems like a recipe for conflict and tension.

So Carstarphen and her staff will present an amended agreement to the board this week. As required by state open meetings rules, the agenda item was posted on the board website on Friday, and it's surprisingly weak tea. Actually, not that surprising. Carstarphen seemed baffled by what the board was asking her to produce, and her main legal adviser, chief of staff Mel Waxler, hates to rock the boat. The draft recommendation muses at length about how keeping IDEA at Allan will restrict the number of seventh graders it will be able to receive, and how much extra it will cost to keep the extra kids there.

Nowhere does it note that critical figure: That 84% of its students come from outside of the Eastside Memorial attendance zone. Nor in, fact, does it mention that, since IDEA fills its seats through a lottery, the idea that it is locked into the 790 students plus pre-K figure cited is nonsense. With the old board, this may have sailed by: But this new board, with a more profoundly skeptical and wonky bent, may have a few amendments to make to Carstarphen's draft.

The writing may be on the wall. In the last week, IDEA has put on a mad dash to save their contract. One source within the discussions said that trustees' phones have been ringing non-stop, and on Tuesday IDEA gathered their supporters for a debate on Channel 16. Their key argument is that breaking up IDEA Allan would be breaking up a community. Add on that a chaser of hypocrisy, that the same board savaged for a lack of public consultation on the plan would move so quickly after the Nov. 6 election. In a press release, IDEA booster Larry Amaro said, "this idea to change the IDEA Allan contract means that the board may vote on a measure withing a two week period that gives no time for community engagement."

Hmm. Ever heard the old story about the man who murdered his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan?

It may not help IDEA's case that, contrary to Carstarphen's claims that they have been great partners, CEO Tom Torkelson has often struck a dismissive tone towards the East Austin community (he once called opponents of the original Allan handover "professional protesters"). His latest faux pas? According to the Austin American Statesman, in a recent conference call he warned AISD trustees against changing the contract by saying, "I would hate to see the board go down as the most knee-jerk reactionary board in the nation." Scarcely how to make friends and influence people.

Any claims of community that IDEA Allan makes must be weighed against the value of the existing Allan neighborhood community. On the board's scales, the three months that IDEA has run a public school in Austin may weigh poorly against the decades of history around the campus. Trustees are already heavily aware that they seemed like blatant hypocrites when they signed the Allan deal in the first place: After all, they had backed down on plans to mothball almost a dozen campuses earlier in the year. Why? Because the district believes in neighborhood schools.

But the cardinal fact in these reconsiderations is that it amends, rather than cancels, the contract. However, that is still not off the table for the 2014-15 school year, and anti-IDEA activists would like to see it sooner.

Moya may be critically wrong on one matter. At their last work session, she said she did not believe that there were five votes on the board to cancel the contract. At the moment, there are only two – herself and Bradley – that seem committed to keeping IDEA around. Even though Mathias proposed the amended contract, he also saw enough energy on the board for a straight up-or-down cancellation vote. At-Large Place 8 Trustee Tamala Barksdale has made it clear that she sees removing IDEA as righting a wrong, and Schneider has been IDEA's sternest critic. However, the only reason that there would be such a vote is if IDEA refuses to renegotiate.

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Austin ISD, AISD, Meria Carstarphen, Eastside Memorial, IDEA Public Schools, IDEA Allan, Vince Torres, Jayme Mathias, Cheryl Bradley, Gina Hinojosa, Ann Teich, Lori Moya, Amber Elenz, Robert Schneider, Tamala Barksdale, Covington Middle School, Garcia Middle School, Pearce Middle School, Moody Foundation, Larry Amaro

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