Public Notice: Speed 2, Trust 0

AISD board, City Council give up on consensus-building

Public Notice: Speed 2, Trust 0

It's been a disappointing month on the local political scene, as first the AISD Board of Trustees and then the Austin City Council settled for what amounted to party-line split votes – in the face of vocal public opposition and on an accelerated deadline – when either body could have done better, and certainly could've put more time and effort into solutions that could lead to a consensus instead of those party-line splits. And certainly they could've done more to work with the people being most directly affected.

The most egregious example, of course, was the school board's decision to close four elementary schools after an emotional night of school kids, parents, and teachers pleading for their schools – and even the testimony of the district's own Equity Officer, Dr. Stephanie Hawley, that the plan they were about to approve was "a map of 21st century racism." Trustees went ahead and voted for the closures minutes later, on a 6-3 vote, and each of the majority had a prepared speech to justify their vote, with no mention of Dr. Hawley or any of the issues that had been raised, which make at least two of the closures questionable.

District staff didn't initially want to give Dr. Hawley that opportunity to speak, and they didn't want to release her report in a timely manner, either. The 20-page report, "Austin ISD 2019 School Closures Proposal: Equity Analysis of Process, Principles & Practices," came out this week with no press release and no visibility anywhere on the AISD website. You can read more about it on the facing page, but here's one highlight: "School closures and consolidations are not equity strategies. They are short-term and often short-sighted approaches to cost savings that are seldom reinvested in programming in the very school communities that are displaced and dispossessed."

Yeah, but school closures – and the new school construction projects that the closures engender – have long been a goal of the Austin Chamber of Commerce (and their lead hit man, Drew Scheberle), and the Chamber hit the jackpot last month as district management used a Chamber-financed PR campaign to give them just enough cover to get a sharply divided school board to make a bad but apparently irrevocable decision.

This week, it was City Council's turn, as they hustled through a spate of some 275 proposed changes to the Land Development Code first draft to pass, on first reading, a set of recommendations for staff to incorporate into the second draft of the code and maps. The large majority of these passed on consent or with little discussion, but the ones that didn't tell a different story and highlight the major sticking point on which the Council and the city seem dead set against reaching a consensus: the planned transition zones as the primary tool to accommodate more of the elusive "missing middle" housing that you may have been hearing about into preferred growth corridors that are largely single-family, but in most cases already contain a goodly mix of missing middle and small multifamily. Residents and neighborhood groups, who've been through similar planning processes before, claim they can do so again and want a chance to update their plans with new goals and new zoning tools in hand. An impatient and mistrustful Council majority seems more inclined to stick with the formulas they defined in April.

You can read more about this in this week's feature, but the upshot is that on first reading at least Council is more inclined to weather a storm of split votes and angry citizens, rather than to look for consensus solutions that many claim are still achievable. Among a cascade of 7-4 decisions (CMs Tovo, Kitchen, Pool, and Alter on the short end) were multiple votes specifically refusing to ask city staff for information about housing capacity, about how city services such as trash pick-up and emergency vehicle access would work, and about other issues that the majority didn't want to hear the answers to because of "how that information is going to be used," as CM Jimmy Flan­ni­gan put it. In the end, the vote on the whole code went 7-4 as well; though all four dissenters said they hoped to get to a final product they could vote for, the majority opinion seemed to be that 7-4 is good enough.

A phrase that was making the rounds a few months back, at the start of the new code revision process, was that "change will happen at the speed of trust." It's a maxim that seems to have been all but forgotten just a few months later.

Send gossip, dirt, innuendo, rumors, and other useful grist to nbarbaro@austinchronicle.com.

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