There are many words to describe the average Austin Independent School District board meeting: "tedious," "bureaucratic," "restrained." However, for the trustees' Dec. 12 gathering, one word suffices: "carnage." The board collapsed into animosity over the proposal to turn Eastside Memorial High School and Allan Elementary into an in-district charter under IDEA Public Schools, eventually choosing to delay the final decision to a special Dec. 19 meeting.
Board President Mark Williams summed up the night's warfare when he told the press corps, "It wasn't pretty." Talk about an understatement. The long-awaited pitched battle between IDEA Public Schools and supporters of the current Eastside Memorial became vitriolic and loud. Even though she was speaking from the dais with a microphone, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen was almost drowned out by the opponents' chants of "no IDEA" coming from the courtyard. Board secretary Lori Moya finally lost her patience, berating the Eastside supporters for heckling. And even after that preamble, there was still no solid decision.
Before the IDEA fiasco, the board had already approved a series of radical measures included in Carstarphen's first annual academic and facility recommendations. Some, like closing the Alternative Learning Center (long considered an academic gulag for difficult students), will probably meet with broad community approval. Others, such as the various measures intended to relieve elementary overcrowding, faced serious community opposition but were approved with little debate. That left longtime district advocates like Allen Weeks reeling: He called the plan to turn Webb Middle School into a pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade center "a livable arrangement" but far from ideal. What worried him most was Carstarphen's continued claims about real community outreach. He said, "She says she cares so much about the school, that she cares so much about the kids," but, he continued, the reality is that she disrupted their education without serious discussion of facilities options.
After those votes, the IDEA debate dragged on until 1am. The exhaustion was, of course, self-inflicted: Even with trustee Sam Guzman's last-minute request to shuffle the agenda, the board had shoved the matter to the end of a packed night, not even picking it up until 11pm. Long after midnight, in an attempt to restore some semblance of order, Williams requested a straw poll of trustees to see if it was even worth continuing with the discussion; what he got was a 6-3 vote to return next week to review the contract. Moya, Guzman, and Cheryl Bradley have become the deal's primary proponents, with Bradley saying she's "sick and tired of mediocrity" in East Austin schools. As for the skeptics, Robert Schneider and the board's at-large members Annette LoVoi and Tamala Barksdale were pushing to kill the deal – or at least provide due diligence. This left Williams, Vice President Vince Torres, and Christine Brister as quieter voices favoring coming back next week for another review.
As the night progressed, the IDEA proposal began to look increasingly like a gun to the district's head. Carstarphen's haste to approve the deal has always raised eyebrows, but she defended the rush by explaining that IDEA is demanding a Dec. 31 deadline to coordinate its planning. The pressure became obvious when Guzman told the board that IDEA would be opening up shop in Austin whether AISD likes it or not; the IDEA staff brought in for the occasion responded by cheering loudly.
They were not the charter operation's only cheerleaders: Throughout the evening, the district's official Twitter account @AustinISD was retweeting stories and tweets from local reporters, but only those that sounded supportive of IDEA. Nothing critical, or even referring to opponents of the deal, got the social-media push.
Education Austin co-President Ken Zarifis was among the large crowd assembled in the boardroom and said he was "still stunned" that the board was resisting the overwhelming community opposition to the IDEA plan, which had been vociferous during the citizens communication portion of the meeting. Noting the IDEA staff and students in the meeting, he said: "They've got to bring people up from the Valley to find support for IDEA. They can't find it in the community." He warned that the controversy could cause long-term damage to the district management's credibility. "There's already an enormous distrust of this board and the administration within this community," he said. "If we want to get big things done in the next couple of years that are really, truly transformative, they have to have people trust them. ... Without that trust, we're going to be here, big initiative after big initiative after big initiative."
So now the board will return Dec. 19 for a dedicated, single-issue meeting. Guzman seemed particularly chagrined by the delay, effectively accusing his fellow trustees of a stalling tactic and thundering that they should not waste staff's time if they were never going to approve the agreement. But LoVoi argued that the board had not seen a complete version of the revised contract and instructed district council Mel Waxler to provide the latest and correctly marked-up version of the agreement. So far the board has been caught up in contract minutiae; as Barksdale noted with increasing frustration, they have not discussed the simple issue of whether IDEA actually runs a successful program. Instead, the administration has simply repeated IDEA's claims of academic success – claims that have been placed under an increasingly critical microscope by recent research (see "Uncontrolled Experiments," Dec. 9). When the trustees return next week, a fight over those issues seems inevitable.
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