Austin @ Large: Lesson Planners

All I need to know about cities, I learned in kindergarten

Austin @ Large: Lesson Planners
Illustration By Doug Potter

I'm sort of leery about using the words "vote" and "Austin ISD" in the same sentence, since my track record of dragging citizens to that nexial point has been so unspectacular. I wrote that the school board elections would be more important to Austin than the presidential race, and then nobody even bothered to run except Jennifer Gale, and then so few people bothered to vote she got 40%. Do I have a perverse negative effect here? Should I tell you to ignore the AISD bond election?

Well, in any event, I've already voted – at my son's elementary school, where I was Voter No. 1; they had to break the ballot-box seal for me – and you already know how I voted. When the Chronicle "editorial board" (an august and high-minded body, let me assure you) sat down to deliberate, it took about half a second to arrive at consensus: Yes on Proposition 1, no on Proposition 5, and yes on the rest, which we felt were noncontroversial. Our various minds may have reached this destination by different paths, but as endorsements go, this was easy. For me, Proposition 5 – the 11th-hour add-on packaging a (worthy) performing arts center with a (specious) Southwest middle school – simply doesn't pass the smell test.

The fact that AISD leaders feel they can justify the middle school with data is only slightly relevant; bond packages, by definition, involve making choices, and justifiable projects get left on the cutting room floor. Is a new school in Greater Dripping Springs more vital to AISD's near-term health than any other item, not funded in the bond package, on which the district could have dropped $20 million? I doubt it, but that's why AISD appointed a bond committee that spent a year working this package out. They didn't think it was, either.

Unfree Market

It pains me to admit, though, that my antipathy to Proposition 5 is worryingly "moderate," perhaps even "fiscally conservative," instead of being deeply rooted in opposition to sprawl in the Southwest for its own sake. I am opposed to sprawl in the Southwest, and everywhere else, for its own sake, and I think it's a social-justice issue – land-use "choice" means more than just selecting a lifestyle, it means having a life. Working people have to live miles out of town because it's all they can afford, and it's the only place where housing that meets their needs is being built, not because this is the way God made it, but because the "free market" in real estate has been completely, thoroughly rigged. This must change.

But I just don't believe, based on years of thinking about this issue, that rationing infrastructure is a really effective way of limiting growth. It might work with primary infrastructure like water service – well, maybe only water service, in locales where water is so dear that the choice between greenfield and desert can be made by one entity with its hand on the tap. But even that only works sometimes. My hometown, with some of the strictest growth-management policies in the state, refused to hook up to the California Aqueduct for this very reason. We still had sprawl. (And destructive fires, but that's a different sermon.)

It clearly doesn't work with secondary infrastructure like schools. (Or, yes, libraries.) Obviously, the strained capacity of existing AISD (and, let us not forget, Eanes ISD) schools has not served as a brake on residential growth in the Southwest quadrant heretofore, or else we wouldn't be told (for the second time in a decade) we must spend big sugar to play catch-up with the kids who are already there. At what point would the lack of adequate schools induce builders to lay down their hammers and saws, or make the U-Hauls do U-turns? How rank will the existing schools be by that point? As rank as our existing highways? Except, of course, in the school context, "congestion" is more than an annoyance. Kids who get stuck in traffic, so to speak, drop out, get reckless, cause accidents.

What Goes Around

In other ways, the school-bond debate (to the degree there is one) is starting to bug me the same way the toll road debate did. I have no problem with chin-pulling abstractions about what our school leaders, or our transportation leaders, should do to get with the Envision Central Texas gospel and all. (AISD trustee John Fitzpatrick points out that ECT's megaboard includes, among its dozens of worthies, no school superintendents or school board members.) But they are just that – abstractions, which have to inform decision-making about real life, not the other way around. Where roads are concerned, I think the stakes involved are higher than do many of my progressive friends. But we can all agree that, where kids and schools are concerned, the stakes are higher still.

My goat is more often gotten, though, when my progressive friends couch their gripes and qualms about the bond package – or the toll roads, or Capital Metro's rail proposal – as expressions of "the city" or "the central city" or "urban Austin" or some such. I think the toll road alliance of convenience between the burbs and the Birkenstock Belt – a romance quickly ruptured over the AISD bond package, it would appear – says something about how the two constituencies are more alike than different. But neither is truly representative of urban Austin, a majority-minority city whose center is shifting north and even east with every passing minute.

All three of these packages, in their own ways, reflect this fact; most of the new schools, most of the new toll road miles, and most of the new rail stops are, you know, over here. It's good manners to say those investments are uncontroversial, but apparently it's optional to argue that investing in working-class non-Anglo Austin is necessary to the health of our city and region, and that the harm created by the absence of those investments is not outweighed by the health of the aquifer. This doesn't mean "urban" Austinites in the Birk Belt should ignore the aquifer or the street-level issues in their own well-favored neighborhoods. But nor should they ignore the equally important issues affecting urban life, too often for the worse, in the rest of town where the real people live.

And they do get ignored in the Birk Belt. All the time. I don't say this to lay down markers in some race-class-culture game; it is not for me to decide whose constituency or tribe is more right or moral. But there are many of us in this city, with many needs, and we have to share, and the institutions that we share have to try to help us all. This is a lesson my son learned in kindergarten. Perhaps he can fill a niche in Austin politics. end story

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AISD, school bonds, John Fitzpatrick, Envision Central Texas

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