Southwest Key Faces Student Walkout
East Austin College Prep youth challenge embattled nonprofit
At least 100 students at East Austin College Prep High School (EACP) walked out of class mid-morning on Monday, Dec. 17, and drove to the nearby headquarters of embattled nonprofit Southwest Key – which runs EACP – on Jain Lane. The students marched through the office space – passing by CEO Juan Sanchez's glass office as he looked on – and quietly filtered into a noon board meeting, protest signs in hand, to rally against proposed budget cuts at EACP that could have resulted in terminating teachers.
"He's the head of a nonprofit and makes millions," said senior Quinten Williams, co-organizer of the protest, of Sanchez's hefty $1.5 million salary, which he noted is twice what his counterpart at the much larger American Red Cross makes. "But they are okay with firing teachers? It's not fair."
Sanchez and Southwest Key have come under intense scrutiny in recent months for housing migrant children separated from their families at their 27 immigration shelters in Texas and elsewhere, as well as their high CEO salary ("The Duality of Southwest Key," June 29). A recent New York Times article further exposed potentially shady dealings, including evading salary caps and stockpiling public funds for private uses.
EACP, part of Southwest Key's Promesa Public Schools charter program, faces a $550,000 deficit; while its funding strategy anticipated 800 students this school year, current enrollment is around 630. During the board meeting, EACP Superintendent Jaime R. Huerta proposed vacating most of the campus at E. MLK and U.S. 183, renting out the space in lieu of cutting teachers – a plan supported by the protesting students.
However, Sanchez and board member Alexia Rodriguez were sharply critical of the plan and chastised Huerta for not coming prepared with more details. "I'm not comfortable with vacating the building and I can't approve this without seeing a plan," said Rodriguez sternly. In a follow-up statement, Rodriguez said the school board was "deeply" committed to its students and that "ongoing budget concerns and recent poor academic results have required the board to closely review school operations and discuss ways to prioritize student achievement and success without compromising the campus space and learning environment."
While Sanchez did not address the students' criticism of his own salary during the meeting, he told the Chronicle afterward that "it's two separate budgets; it's two separate issues." In the end, the board voted to punt the decision to a later, unspecified date. Students noted the board had rescheduled its meeting before, potentially to avoid scrutiny, and promised to show up whenever they need to. Sanchez "clearly didn't understand our point – or pretended not to," said co-organizer Yamilet Perez. "He advocated for the opposite of what we were there for and [the board] tried to make themselves look like the good guys. I think they were just trying to get us out of there. But don't worry, we're not giving up and he'll see us at the next board meeting."