The Austin Chronicle

AISD Approves Its Big IDEA, 6-3

By Richard Whittaker, December 23, 2011, News

Carole Keeton Strayhorn has been a lot of things: Texas comptroller, Austin mayor, Austin Independent School District board president. But at Monday's school district board meeting, she was an Allan Bulldog, watching in disbelief as AISD's board of trustees voted 6-3 to hand over the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team to IDEA Public Schools to run as an in-district charter program starting next fall.

The previous week's board meeting (Dec. 12) could be summed up in one word: carnage. Unable to reach consensus, the board delayed the decision on IDEA a week for a special meeting, planned as a three-hour block for the discussion and vote. Instead, Monday's six-hour meeting became what board Vice President Vince Torres had predicted: a circus. Eastside community members had camped out overnight to get slots during Citi­zens Communication, only to have South Texas IDEA representatives ushered past them by AISD staff to reserved seating. Later, even as seats emptied in the board room, AISD police initially refused to admit more people, leaving protesters in the pouring rain. Strayhorn and another aged former-board-president-turned-mayor, Gus Garcia, both walked several blocks in the bad weather to speak against the proposal – historically a courtesy that has been automatically extended to retired trustees, but one that was only granted to them by a last-minute board vote.

Earlier in the day, Strayhorn and Garcia held a press conference outside Allan Ele­ment­ary which along with Eastside High is one of the two schools to be moved into the IDEA program. They denounced the current board, noting that when they worked together on desegregating Austin's schools and on founding Austin Community Col­lege, trustees proactively visited community schools – something this board has failed to do. "This is AISD through the looking glass," Strayhorn said. "Austin in Wonder­land turned upside down."

Defending the IDEA proposal, Super­in­tendent Meria Carstarphen insisted there is a "silent majority" of parents abandoning Eastside and that two-thirds of students eligible to attend there are going elsewhere (in district or out). However, the Citizens Communication list from the last two meetings undermined that claim. On Dec. 12, families rebutted the idea that the district had really consulted with them about any of the plans. At the Dec. 19 meeting, not one of the 30 speakers – including many Eastside students – had a good word to say about IDEA. Instead, they were unified in their support of their neighborhood high school and of public education and constant in their condemnation of Carstarphen and the six trustees – President Mark Williams, Torres, Christine Brister, Lori Moya, Cheryl Bradley, and Sam Guzman – who approved the deal.

By contrast, the three no votes – at-large trustees Tamala Barksdale and Annette LoVoi and District 7's Robert Schneider – were treated like folk heroes. LoVoi initially moved to reject the IDEA contract, arguing that it violated seven key terms of the district's adopted charter policy. When that motion eventually failed (3-6), Schneider went on the offensive, challenging Car­star­phen both on the numbers and on how they had been presented, saying that he still had not seen a comparison of what IDEA was providing vs. what the district could provide. He noted that for all of IDEA's claims that 100% of its graduates go to college, almost half of those are receiving grade point averages lower than 2.0. "I don't call that a college preparatory academy," he said. (Car­star­phen countered that it reflects well on IDEA that it even tracks its graduates' college grades.)

Carstarphen seemed dispirited for much of the evening, and district counsel Mel Waxler bristled that he had not been given sufficient warning about contract questions – so much so that LoVoi asked him pointedly whether he was answering questions as the board's lawyer or that of the superintendent. ("The majority of the board," Waxler responded testily.) LoVoi remained steadfast in her commitment to this last-ditch due diligence, saying it represented good governance. She said, "Some people have said that board members must be 'anti-charter' if they want to look at the documents in this detail, and I say to them I disagree."

Barksdale insisted on making her fellow trustees vote on the best possible version of a bad deal, adding several contract amendments, not without some struggle. Although he accepted some of Barksdale's changes, Guzman (who had moved to approve) said he had anticipated a simple up-or-down vote on the contract as drafted. Barksdale got a clause amended to require IDEA to exceed AISD – not just match it – in four-year graduation and drop-out rates. "If we're not [requiring that]," she said, "I'm not sure why we're bringing in a partner." She also persuaded the board to clarify and strengthen the parent grievance process. LoVoi offered her own amendments. Earlier, AISD teacher of the year Caroline Sweet had raised concerns about the future of East­side's Infant Development Lab, and LoVoi demanded long-term guarantees for childcare provision at the campus, plus clarification on bilingual immersion programs. Similarly, to add teeth to Barksdale's performance standards, she pushed to strengthen the quarterly performance review.

Williams said that since IDEA staff present had raised no objections to the revised terms, he expected the contract to be finalized and delivered by the end of the week. That is unlikely to placate Eastside supporters, who left the room promising to make this facility process a key factor in next November's board election. Echoing their dissatisfaction, LoVoi said, "I'm not sure there's a single person on the board who would stand up and applaud the way this was done."

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