Will Austin ISD Push Out a Highly Regarded Partner?

The district is proposing to give away family service centers

Austin ISD headquarters (photo by John Anderson)

“There is a disconnect,” said Allen Weeks, executive director of Austin Voices for Education and Youth. “You know, if our work is so good – if it’s a national model that helps 7,000 families a year in our neediest schools – why does the district want to turn that over to a partner that lacks experience in serving families? Why do they want to break a system that works?”

Weeks was talking about Austin ISD’s plan to remove Austin Voices from five of the six service centers the nonprofit established at district schools 15 years ago and has run ever since. The centers, known as family resource centers or FRCs, provide help for economically disadvantaged families in Austin’s poorer neighborhoods, things like food assistance, rent assistance, and health care, to stabilize families so kids can stay in school. AISD is recommending that the centers be taken over by a different nonprofit – Communities in Schools of Central Texas, which currently counsels Austin ISD students. The district’s board of trustees will vote next week on whether to formalize the plan.

The plan follows a routine request for proposal to run the centers sent out by AISD in December. Austin Voices has participated in an RFP every five years since collaborating with the district, but they’ve never competed with another organization. Results from the most recent RFP showed CIS scoring slightly higher in several metrics than Austin Voices – out of 100 points total, each scored in the 80s. CIS sent the Chronicle a message regarding the RFP bid process: “We deeply value the trust and respect we have earned from AISD families and school leaders,” the message read. “We trust in AISD’s process – which has included school leaders and mental health and student support professionals – to make a recommendation through a fair purchasing process.“

“You’ve got these questionable rankings, like giving the other group two points [out of 100] higher in the ranking on experience when they don’t have the same experience.”   – County Commissioner Brigid Shea

However, district observers, including City Council members and county commissioners, have questions. Those we spoke with were quick to praise both groups but noted that Austin Voices specializes in working directly with families in its FRCs, whereas CIS has traditionally focused on mentoring and counseling students. There is confusion about the district’s evaluation of the bids, particularly the ranking showing CIS scoring higher than Austin Voices on experience in running FRCs. “You’ve got these questionable rankings, like giving the other group two points [out of 100] higher in the ranking on experience when they don’t have the same experience,” Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “It’s distressing to see this happen.”

There is also concern that AISD is laying claim to something it did not create, and, arguably, does not own. Austin Voices, not the district, originated the centers and brought in the funding needed to run them, Weeks told us. He said AISD currently provides only about 13% of the centers’ budget – $218,000 this year. By contrast, Austin Voices supplied 75% of the money spent at the centers last year. The remaining 12% of the budget comes from the city and the county.

Shea said that if AISD does wind up giving the family resource centers to CIS, she will propose in the next budget cycle that the money the county provides for the centers go only to Austin Voices. Her colleague on the Commissioners Court, Jeff Travillion, said he would prefer for AISD to keep both entities: “I’m afraid when you put one group in and take the other group out that ultimately you’re not able to serve as many students. If they both do great work I want them both there.”

Several trustees are clearly worried about a loss of services. At the board’s April 4 meeting, Board President Arati Singh asked if the proposal would result in families no longer having access to promotoras, members of the community trained by Austin Voices to provide health care referrals. Trustee Lynn Boswell, seeming to refer to Austin Voices, said one of the two nonprofits has a long history of “making sure families are gathered to speak their truth in our district.” She wondered if that would be lost.

However, the trustees were also reluctant to directly challenge the district plan. Doing so would throw doubt on the RFP process. “We want the procurement process to be as transparent as possible, and have been watching it closely,” Trustee Kevin Foster told us. “If we as trustees see that it was a fair process, it would be inappropriate to try and change the outcome.”

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