AISD: Get With the Times

Modernizing the district in more ways than one

AISD's Board of Trustees met at the Central Library on Saturday to begin mapping out the district's five-year strategic plan. Trustees tentatively agreed on five "headline priorities," posting sticky notes under each with ideas on how to achieve each goal. Some of the priorities are aligned with demands sought by the East Austin Schools Manifesto Coalition. (Photo by Austin Sanders)

The Austin Independent School District's Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Monday to select Sanchez Elementary for a $25 million modernization project. Metz and Zavala elementaries were also up for consideration, but now that Sanchez has been chosen, their fate will remain undecided until at least 2020. For now, the two schools will work with the district on "targeted utilization plans" to try to raise enrollment and prevent closure. District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias, who represents the three schools, also secured a commitment from the district to explore adding new programming to Metz and Zavala in an effort to attract more families.

Sanchez was recommended for the project by a 30-person committee of teachers, district staff, and community members. Their recommendation was based, in part, on Sanchez's low Facilities Condition and Educational Suitability assessment scores, meaning the campus would have the most to gain from modernization; the relative cost of the project compared to the other schools; and the fact that Zavala and Metz are closer together, so upgrading one of them could potentially have a bigger impact on the nonupgraded campus.

But one problem with selecting Sanchez remained: The $1 billion bond package approved by voters in 2017 specifically called for the modernization of an elementary school within the Eastside Memorial Early College High School vertical team. Only some Sanchez students eventually attend Eastside; others go to Austin or Travis. To get around that issue, Super­in­tendent Paul Cruz committed to exploring a change to the attendance zones surrounding Sanchez, so more students from the surrounding neighborhood would be zoned to attend Eastside.

Another concern characterized by some in the Metz and Zavala communities was a sense of "disrespect" shown by the district toward its East Austin schools. Bertha Delgado, who attended Metz as a child, said the district and board "should be ashamed" for pitting the three school communities against each other. Calling out Mathias directly, Delgado said, "If you don't take our schools off the chopping block, we're going to ask for your resignation."

That frustration has been the driving force behind the East Austin Schools Man­ifesto Coalition, a group led by D1 Trustee Ted Gordon, which hopes to persuade AISD's administration to take steps to improve schools in East Austin. Before Monday's meeting, the group organized a small demonstration outside of the boardroom to draw attention to its 15-point list of action items, delivered to the district earlier this month. The group met last week with senior district leaders, including Cruz and Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson, to discuss how the manifesto could be implemented.

Two members of the coalition described the meeting as a positive step forward, but lacking in direction from the administration on how to enact the agenda. "We agree these are good goals, but not on how to reach them," said Gordon on Tuesday. His coalition colleague Jim Harrington said the group demanded written responses from the district to all 15 items within 30 days, and then a follow-up meeting within another 15 days. If the district fails to do so, Harrington said, the group "would be willing to go to court" over the issues listed in the manifesto.

Meanwhile, the district also appears to have backed down from a different legal threat, from the state's Attorney General's Office, which last week wrote to Cruz to "caution" the district and urge its trustees to "reconsider" making changes to AISD's facilities rental policy. Initially, the district said it would continue to "explore" potential changes to its facilities rental policy, despite the A.G.'s letter. Several trustees interviewed said the threatening letter had given them pause, but they were still interested in a report back from legal counsel for the district and school board on ways in which they could alter the rental policy without putting the district in legal jeopardy.

However, in a press release Tuesday, Celebration Church Senior Pastor Joe Champion announced that the church had reached an agreement with the district to rent the PAC on a "month-to-month" basis. This follows a letter from Champion sent last week to the board of trustees after the district denied the church's rental applications for October, urging the board and district to reconsider the decision. It is unclear what caused the district to relent and permit the church continued use of the facility, but one clue can be found in the two law firms representing Celebration in the matter: Texas Values and First Liberty Institute. The two have become leading crusaders in the "religious liberty" movement, fighting for anti-transgender legislation and in court cases that erode the separation of church and state. Of note is the crossover between Paxton's office and First Liberty Institute: First Assistant A.G. Jeffrey C. Mateer, who penned the letter to AISD, comes from First Liberty, and Hiram Sasser, Paxton's former chief of staff, worked at First Liberty both before – and now after – his time with the state.

In a statement, AISD said it would continue to review facility use regulations, and in the meantime, "honor all current agreements we have with Celebration Church, as we have always intended to do."

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Austin ISD, Sanchez Elementary, Paul Cruz, Bertha Delgado, Jim Harrington, Ted Gordon, Jeffrey C. Mateer, Hiram Sasser

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