AISD Notebook

To borrow a pet phrase from AISD's top dog, Jim Fox, the pains of a "learning, changing, growing organization" are certainly beginning to emerge. With new principals at the helm at over two-thirds of the district's schools, employee/supervisor skirmishes were bound to flare up -- and the sparks are a-flying. In March, teachers whose contracts are not being recommended for renewal were notified of their lame-duck status. Among those is Monica Gambrah, a fourth grade teacher at Winn Elementary School in Northeast Austin. But the Winn community, which is predominantly African American, won't let Gambrah go without a fight.

At the regular meeting of the AISD Board of Trustees on Monday, over a dozen speakers went to the microphone and testified on Gambrah's behalf, urging the board to reject the administration's decision not to rehire Gambrah. The problem, they insist, lies not with Gambrah (who is a veteran black teacher), but with Winn's new principal, Suzie Cunningham (who is white). Cunningham, they say, has treated the teacher -- and them -- rudely. Among the speakers was young Antonia Edwards, a student at Winn. Antonia's main objective behind appearing before the board was to shed light on what she and her mother characterize as an ongoing conflict between them and other Winn personnel (including Cunningham). But having once been a pupil of Gambrah's, Antonia said, "It's just not right to move her," before bursting into tears.

What's going on? At press time, Gambrah had not made herself available for comment, and calls to Cunningham were swiftly deflected to AISD central administration. But it seems that Gambrah's non-renewal comes on the heels of a grievance she filed against Cunningham. Winn parents, who have been dissatisfied with the entire timbre of the school for years, obviously see a connection and have, of their own volition, taken up "Mrs. G's" cause.

In some respects, this case evokes another memorable incident in school district history. Not since the groundswell of support in 1995-96 for ousted LBJ High School principal Eddie Orum have African American parents rallied as forcefully around an embattled AISD employee as they have in behalf of Gambrah. But this time around, most of the usual African Americans who routinely appear before the school board have been absent from the arena. Instead, a distinctly different group has coalesced. A true school community is protesting, arguing, complaining, letting the big dogs know: "We are here." Dagnabbit, Fox is right. AISD is a learning, changing, growing organization. Not much fun, is it?

In board business: Trustees were asked to review a proposal for interim relief from overcrowding at a dozen schools, while major additions and renovations under the bond program are being completed. In most cases, the main strategy would be to shuffle students around to new portable buildings, which would go up on the campuses while construction is going on. Surprisingly, two of the more strained schools, located in Southwest Austin -- Bailey and Covington Middle Schools -- are only asking for one new portable each. This truly rankled Geoff Rips, the only board member to vote against the Southwest Austin relief areas as they have been defined by AISD administration. The real possibility of a new middle school, smack on top of the Edwards Aquifer recharge or contributing zones, could loom ahead.

Parents of children at Southwest Austin schools (such as Bailey and Covington) have been on the forefront of the "We're bursting at the seams! Build it YESTERDAY!" campaign. Environmentalists and South/Southeast Austin residents want to see new secondary schools built away from environmentally sensitive regions, in South and Southeast Austin. So Rips, um, ripped into the notion that Bailey's and Covington's needs in the interim could be handled with only one portable building. What, he asked rather facetiously, "phenomenal growth" won't overrun those campuses while the construction is going on? "It just flies in the face of everything we've been hearing for the last two or three years," he argued.

Deputy Superintendent Kay Psencik countered that Bailey and Covington will indeed still be strained during construction, but campus officials will brilliantly handle it, by ensuring that every corner of the building is used at all times. This answer still did not placate Rips, who was very plainly dug into this matter. Why? A glaring, obvious, option to the overcrowding problem remains -- and was not even proposed by AISD administrators. Martin Junior High, in Central East Austin, is under-enrolled and could easily handle overflow or transfer students from Bailey and Covington. In that vein, Liz Hartman proposed that the board at the very least discuss capping enrollment at schools that are frankly, stuffed to the gills. Trustees are slated to approve the interim relief proposal some time in May.

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