Elementaries Spared Axe

Forgione withdraws long-fought-about proposal to close Becker and Oak Springs elementaries

It's a truce, for now.

AISD announced Friday that Superintendent Pat Forgione had withdrawn a controversial proposal to close two elementary schools. That came as a huge relief to the Becker and Oak Springs communities, whose long battle for their schools was supposed to culminate in the final marathon Board of Trustees meeting that went down Monday, March 27. The trustees' vote, however, came to a 4-4 tie, with trustee Rudy Montoya M.I.A.

Forgione's announcement means the school defenders won't have to rally the troops for a repeat of Monday's impassioned performance, but the Superintendent warned them not to get too comfortable: Depending on the findings of a Task Force on School Sustainability whose members would report to the Board in October, either school could still go under the axe next year. "I am placing both Becker and Oak Springs on notice that their viability beyond 2006-2007 is still in question," said a rather snippy statement from Forgione, who was visibly irate Monday night as one trustee after another announced their intention to oppose his plan. In the final vote, only trustees Doyle Valdez, Johna Edwards, Ave Wahrmund, and Cheryl Bradley supported the plan – a rare occurrence in compromise-happy AISD, where most votes are unanimous and critics.

The trustees who opposed the plan – John Fitzpatrick, Robert Schneider, Patricia Whiteside, and Mark Williams – said they were not opposed to school closure itself. However, they each expressed concerns that the process had so far not been fair to the Becker and Oak Springs stakeholders, and didn't let them, as trustees, compare the cost savings of closing the two schools with cost savings that could come through other means. The savings from closing a school – perhaps $400,000 per year – are only a fraction of a percent of the district's $761 million budget. On the other hand, AISD's revenues are flat, so every dollar matters. As Williams pointed out, however, the district also has the responsibility to weigh the cost savings of closing the schools against the "good will" savings of keeping them open.

Now, the Becker and Oak Springs communities have six months to develop plans to boost their enrollment without skimming students away from other AISD schools. Becker, whose middle-class neighbors have already helped develop a proposal for an arts or dual-language academy to attract new students, is in a stronger position for success. At Oak Springs, the vast majority of students come from the Booker T. Washington housing project across the street, and no middle-class defenders, savvy in the ways of local governance and public decision-making, have yet emerged to lead the proposal-writing charge. The resource difference between the two schools was stark at the school board meetings, where crowds pleaded for Becker, but few voices chimed in for Oak Springs except a father named Daniel Garza, who gave eloquent, extemporaneous speeches about all Oak Springs had done to teach him to be a more involved parent. Despite the differences in their communities, the challenges facing both schools are significant; still, as Becker parent Lori Barzano put it, it's "wonderful" to have a chance to try.

And, with the May 13 school board elections bringing as many as five new trustees to the nine-member board, the debate over how to manage underenrolled schools in the center city is likely to continue sizzling for months to come.

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More by Rachel Proctor May
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Becker, Oak Springs, Daniel Garza, Lori Barzano, Pat Forgione, repurposing

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