Naked City

AISD Task Force Trauma

The Austin Independent School District's sixth-grade secret is out -- sort of. Last week, we reported that AISD had requested an attorney general's opinion allowing it to withhold drafts of its two task-force reports on proposals to add a sixth grade at Kealing Junior High School and expand the sixth grade at Martin Middle School. The district refused to release these documents not only to the media, but also to the task force members who had helped draft them.

On Friday, AISD released its Martin report for presentation to the board of trustees on Jan. 13, and there were no surprises. The task force recommends that students from Allan, Metz, and Govalle elementaries should attend sixth grade at Martin but that Zavala and Allison elementaries should retain their sixth-grade classes. District spokeswoman Melissa Sabatino said the final report from the Kealing task force won't be ready until mid-January, but task force members say that despite considerable internal dissent, the recommendation to the board will be to add a sixth grade to Kealing.

Area 2 Superintendent Rosalinda Hernandez, who chaired the Martin task force, said, "We are going to go with the recommendations of the school communities." She surmises that parents and administrators at Allison and Zavala felt those schools' sixth grades offered a "more nurturing environment" for their students. "Both of those campuses have the Young Scientists program in sixth grade," she said, "and many of those students go on to [the magnet program at] Kealing instead of Martin." Hernandez said there were no substantive changes from the draft to the final report, "but we wanted to make certain all the details were correct before we released it."

AISD General Counsel Mel Waxler said that while he could not comment on the policy matters addressed in the draft documents, "There is clarity in the law: Studies and reports for decision purposes are not subject to disclosure, until they are finalized." Waxler acknowledged that committee reports discussed publicly numerous times might seem dubious candidates for secrecy, but argued, "We have to be consistent in our legal position, and it's our belief the law does not allow us to turn the materials over. ... We truly do not want to be silly about this."

Both task forces have been controversial, and not only because of the sixth grade proposals themselves. Several parents on the task forces have complained that AISD administrators are intent on eliminating elementary sixth grades, regardless of the task force findings. "If that had been the case," responded Hernandez, "we wouldn't have two campuses still electing to keep their sixth grades." But parents on the Kealing task force authored a blistering "dissenting report" saying they believe the process was rigged from the beginning to recommend a sixth grade for Kealing. The supporters recommend that future AISD task forces reflect "a sincere interest on the part of district administration to be guided by public input [and] an adequate time frame to seek input and address given charges."

The argument isn't over, said Tom Kolker, who served as a parent representative from Lee Elementary to the Kealing committee. Kolker says he believes there is strong opposition from parents to the change, but most feel helpless to do anything about it. He hopes the trustees will be more responsive than the district administration. "We don't agree with the preordained result," Kolker said, "and they shouldn't waste people's time, if they don't really care about public input."

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