An IDEA Whose Time Has Passed?

The AISD board contemplates terminating its contract with IDEA Public Schools

New AISD board President Vincent Torres is already showing a marked change in style and direction from his predecessor, Mark Williams.
New AISD board President Vincent Torres is already showing a marked change in style and direction from his predecessor, Mark Williams. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The future of IDEA Public Schools in the Austin Independent School District may be short. On Monday, the AISD board of trustees asked for revisions to its contract with the charter company, delaying expansion into Eastside Memorial High School for another year – or potentially, tearing up the contract altogether.

The trustees voted 6-3 in 2010 to let IDEA run Allan Elementary, which currently hosts grades K-2 and 6. The IDEA plan for the 2013-14 school year is to expand to grades K-3, while moving its sixth and rising seventh grade students to Eastside Memorial, building to a full K-12 charter for 2018. That controversial 2010 decision was a pivotal factor in the Nov. 6 election, with four board members either stepping down or – in the case of Sam Guzmán, the project's strongest advocate – voted out. So on Dec. 3, the deal came back for discussion by the new board. The result was a grueling four-hour session, at which the fractures among board members became clearer than ever.

In a nod to the changing dynamics, new board President Vince Torres said, "Yes, there is a new day in town." Balancing past failures with future needs, he noted that a project like IDEA Allan can be set up for failure unless it is not just a good project, but a good project properly presented – referring to community anger over the poor process leading to the deal with IDEA. Furthermore, in a sign that this new board may not depend on the administration for all its information-gathering, new District 2 representative and board secretary Jayme Mathias (who ousted Guzmán) had prepared his own lengthy report on the project. Echoing Torres, Mathias said the message parents received from AISD in the process was clear: "We're asking your feedback for the sake of asking your feedback, and we've already made our decision."

While it has good attendance and retention figures thus far, IDEA Allan failed in its stated original purpose: to provide a new educational opportunity for kids in the Eastside Mem­orial vertical team. Mathias explained that only 14% of its students come from the Allan attendance zone, and only 16% from his District 2. At-large trustee Tamala Barks­dale accused the school of recruiting good students districtwide, rather than building up the neighborhood. With the current enrollment, she said, "What's going to change in year two, year three, year four, year five, to not end up with what we didn't want from a charter partnership?"

In a sign of the bitter debate to come, District 4 Trustee Lori Moya thanked Mathi­as for his paper but said "there's more history that's missing." Arguing that IDEA is a good partner, she said such partnerships could end the adversarial 'us versus them' dynamic of public vs. charter schools. However, she said, "Some people are content to continue the 'us' and the 'them.'"

For that dynamic, Moya only needed to look around the room. The board broke down into two clear factions: Moya and District 1's Cheryl Bradley argued that AISD's persistent failures require radical solutions (i.e., IDEA), while Mathias, Barksdale, and District 7's Robert Schneider disagreed that IDEA was the only option. The meeting was heated, to say the least: Barksdale told IDEA representatives not to interrupt her; Bradley packed her bag before the meeting ended and called the whole discussion "crazy."

Schneider said the IDEA deal compared extremely poorly to the ongoing proposal to set up an in-district charter at Travis Heights: He noted that that project, unlike IDEA, was based on real community outreach. Addressing IDEA staff directly, he cited high first-year drop-out rates for their graduates attending college: 46% at four-year colleges, rising to 66% for two-year institutions. He concluded, "For folks that claim they're a college prep school, your numbers aren't very good."

Then the bomb dropped, as trustees discussed terminating the IDEA agreement in a straight up-or-down vote at their Dec. 17 meeting. In an effort at compromise, Mathias proposed keeping IDEA at Allan through 2014, with no expansion to Eastside Memor­ial. That way, he said, "It will give us as trustees time to sort through the issues." However, if IDEA rejects that proposal, then the board may well end up voting to cancel the contract outright, effective at the end of this school year.

Torres instructed Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to prepare a recommendation based on Mathias' proposal, adding that the board has "some heavy lifting" to do on community engagement. Vince Tovar, spokesman for PRIDE of the Eastside, applauded this step, and said, "New and old board members are demonstrating that they're going to look at the data, they're going to be fully informed before they rush into decision-making, and they're respecting the community more."

The clock is ticking: The board must decide by Dec. 31 whether to amend or terminate the IDEA contract for 2013. Without a policy change, IDEA stays in place at Allan, and next year's Eastside expansion proceeds as planned.

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IDEA Public Schools, Austin Independent School District, AISD, AISD board of trustees, board of trustees, Sam Guzman, Jayme Mathias, Vincent Torres, Eastside Memorial vertical team, Allan Elementary, charter school, Lori Moya, Cheryl Bradley, Robert Schneider, Tamala Barksdale

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