Elementary School Limbo Continues
Decisive vote on whether to close two AISD elementary schools comes down to indecisive 4-4 tie at Monday's board of trustees meeting
It was supposed to be the dramatic conclusion to a two-month battle. Instead, the decisive vote on whether to close two AISD elementary schools came down to a profoundly indecisive 4-4 tie at a packed board of trustees meeting Monday night. (Trustee Rudy Montoya was absent.) Until a new vote is set, AISD-watchers must remain in limbo as issues of school finance, housing, and class coalesce like clouds over underenrolled Becker and Oak Springs elementaries. "So many parents just need to know what's going to happen," said Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association President Kathie Tovo.
Montoya may have just earned a place as the most-griped-about trustee among weary parents desperate for resolution; however, Eastside representative Cheryl Bradley probably lost some friends Monday night as well. Bradley, the lone African-American on the board, has consistently opposed Superintendent Pat Forgione's proposal to close Becker, located in Bouldin Creek, and Oak Springs, in Central East Austin. Both schools are majority-poor and serve students from nearby housing projects, so over the last couple of months, Bradley has many times lashed Forgione with impassioned speeches about "disadvantaging the disadvantaged." She made just such a speech Monday night before raising her hand in favor of school closure, and shocking those who considered her an ally of the anti-closure camp.
Here's what happened: The board sat down Monday expecting to vote on Forgione's proposal to close Becker this year and Oak Springs in 2007. Board President Doyle Valdez put forth a surprise variation, however: close Becker, but keep Oak Springs open. It was a savvy move by Valdez, who like Forgione supports school closure as a fiscally responsible strategy. By offering to keep Oak Springs open, Valdez could earn Bradley's vote, even though the board could turn around and close Oak Springs next year anyway. For Bradley, even a short-term chance at saving the school was better than many potential alternatives. "I have to protect my district," she said.
Protect it she did, but then she had to protect herself against the parents who, in the stunned aftermath of the tie vote, stormed the dais. Bradley says some considered her a "traitor." That, however, raises the question of whether there exists a coherent movement to betray. On the one hand, the middle-class liberals who rallied a bevy of prominent Austinites to the save-Becker cause spoke of the school as a canary for schools all over Central Austin. On the other hand, their rhetoric often treated Oak Springs as, at best, an afterthought. An Austin Neighborhoods Council resolution urging AISD to keep Becker open referred to Becker only; so did a letter from City Council members Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken, and Jennifer Kim, as did public comments from the Save Our Springs Alliance. (Here at the Chronicle, a cover story on Becker and subsequent feature on Porter Middle, which AISD voted to close earlier this month, also gave Oak Springs footnote status.) Bradley's dilemma, and ultimate decision, points to a difference between the "save the inner city" rhetoric and the reality that in fast-gentrifying Austin, there's inner-city, and then there's inner-city.
For Bradley, however, the main reason to treat the closure of Becker differently from Oak Springs is the differences between the communities themselves. Several of Becker's most visible champions have been middle-class neighbors who helped the PTA develop a proposal to seek out grants to build a magnet-style program to boost the school's enrollment. While the Becker community urged AISD to offer the "proposal" option to Oak Springs, it's somewhere between disingenuous and naive to suggest that Oak Springs could take advantage of it. "There's no middle class in Booker T. Washington," said Bradley, referring to the housing project that supplies nearly all the school's students. "There's no way Booker T. could have come up with a proposal."
The four trustees who voted against the proposal were John Fitzpatrick, Robert Schneider, Mark Williams, and Patricia Whiteside, and all said they were opposed to the process, not to the prospect of school closures. Williams, for example, complained that out of the zillions of potential budget cuts AISD could make, the district put only school-closure on the table. He called for a full review of the entire budget so that school closure could be weighed in comparison to other possible savings. Similarly, Schneider wanted to review all variables affecting school enrollment, including boundary and transfer policies, so that any closures would come as part of a coherent plan.
One of the enrollment variables is the bad reputations some central schools have, particularly among middle-class parents who move into previously poor neighborhoods: Becker, for example, was considered a "bad school" by many in the neighborhood before it became a cause célèbre. Fitzpatrick pointed out that by keeping Becker and Oak Springs open, "there's a real opportunity to capture the energy and attention" to get other neighborhoods as excited about their schools as Bouldin Creek had become for Becker. He even offered a snappy acronym: Support Underenrolled Center-City Elementary and Secondary Schools, or SUCCESS. The success of SUCCESS, however, largely depends on the final vote whenever it finally comes.