School's Garden Bulldozed
AISD contractors mowed down Martin Middle School's wildlife habitat
Families at Martin Middle School are already feeling like they're under siege from Austin ISD. So when contractors bulldoze a wildlife garden built by staff and students, just so they can remove a portable classroom, it's hard for them to not feel hurt.
Martin's wildlife garden was a point of real pride on the Eastside campus. Originally a community vegetable garden, the space had become increasingly unproductive. So last academic year, the science department converted it for native species. Aided by a $2,000 grant and training from the National Wildlife Federation, staff, students, and volunteers from Keep Austin Beautiful and Mighty Fine Burgers pulled out the old timber-sided vegetable beds and replaced them with limestone edging. Students filled in the garden with hundreds of wheelbarrows of mulch, sand, and soil, then gradually added plants and a water trough. After all that work, it was finally certified as a National Wildlife Habitat. "Everybody had a hand in it," said sixth grade science teacher Melissa Shannon.
Then, within the last two weeks, the whole thing was destroyed by contractors moving a portable.
Like many AISD campuses, Martin depends on portable classrooms. As part of the annual facility recommendations, it was decided that the campus had one too many. District staff has been prioritizing portables that are not being used as classrooms, and so told the contractors which one to remove. Unfortunately, the garden was in their way. Local residents passing by the campus found that the plants had been dug up, the limestone slabs discarded, and the whole garden flattened. While Shannon was appalled by the damage, she was not surprised, as contractors for the district have a poor record when it comes to removing portables without damaging the campus. She said, "They leave tire tracks in the ground, and it's just, 'Let's go.'"
Moving portables is a normal part of AISD summer business. Curt Shaw, AISD director of construction management, estimated that, in a regular year, his office will shift around 40 units. This year, with extra portables required for the new prekindergarten center at Dobie Middle School and with Webb Middle School transitioning to a pre-K through eighth grade "primary center," that number is closer to 70. "When you're moving 70 of these things around," said Shaw, "you're going to have some hiccups."
This is not the first time this summer that portables have caused neighborhood consternation. In May, a unit was removed from Wooten Elementary, then left for several days in the middle of the neighboring city-owned Wooten Park before being collected. It took another week for workers to fix the broken fence. Shaw said he is unsure exactly what happened at Martin, but that juggling portables is a complex business. They can only be moved during weekday evenings, and staff has to know the receiving campus is ready before the hauling begins. This year, the district has had to use three contractors to handle the shuffle. Shaw conceded that there are still questions to be answered about why the Martin portable was selected, who decided to demolish the garden, and whether the contractor consulted with management over the bulldozing. When it came to the garden, he said, "We didn't do ... sufficient research."
Shaw pledged that the garden will be reconstructed. However, the damage that's already been done may go a lot deeper than the roots of the garden. Many residents fear that Martin is being sacrificed to make IDEA Allan a success, and that its sixth grade is being recruited to fill the district's new charter campus. Several teachers have already been let go from Martin – including Shannon. She said, "We were consistently told that we could sustain two [science] positions, but AISD said, 'No, you won't; you have to get rid of people.'" Now, with the destruction of the garden, she said, "Everyone is commenting that, if this had happened on the West side, they would have been out there replacing all the plants and putting everything back the way it was." As far as the community is concerned, she added, "It's just slap in the face after slap in the face."