Austin ISD trustees met Dec. 9 in a public session for the first time since approving the district’s School Changes plan in November, a plan that will close four campuses—Brooke, Metz, Pease and Sims elementary schools—beginning in the 2020-21 school year and reinvest costs into other district programs.

At the meeting, trustees discussed ongoing transition planning regarding affected campuses with district staff. However, prior to the meeting, AISD released an equity report by Chief Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley that analyzes the school changes process overall.

Equity report calls school closures ‘short sighted,’ questions School Changes process timeline

In the equity report—which was developed prior to the approval of the School Changes plan but not made public until Dec. 9—Hawley calls the plan “short-sighted” and states it would “once again place the burden” on East Austin communities. She also offered recommendations that could have created a “more equity-focused” approach.

In recommendations, Hawley asks the district to develop a strategy and a leadership mindset that aims to increase enrollment, to look at boundary and feeder pattern changes to balance enrollment prior to school closures, to keep stakeholders involved and informed throughout the process, and to present “community-informed alternatives” based on public feedback. She also asks the district to seek an outside agency to conduct an equity audit of the past decade’s academic, finances, facilities and bond work.

Overall, the report questions school closures as an effective money-saving and reinvestment strategy. Hawley states in the report that closures are not an equity strategy because money saved from closed schools “are seldom reinvested in programming in the very school communities that are displaced and dispossessed.”

“The proposed closures as drafted would extend the district’s more-than-hundred-year history of racial and economic segregation,” the report states.

The report also evaluates the short School Changes timeline, stating it limited public feedback and opportunities for co-creation of alternative plans prior to the board’s final vote in November. It also states that school leaders believed “closing schools is the only answer” to the district’s financial and enrollment challenges and that leadership cannot see a “way of problem-solving with communities over time.”

“The district must consider and support actually co-creating solutions with the goal of eliminating school closures as an option for the city’s most vulnerable communities and a means to short-term financial health,” Hawley states in the report.

Additionally, Hawley states the process exposed the community’s “lack of trust” in the district due to ambiguity in communication and in the methodology used when selecting closing schools.

“The guiding principles [developed by the board earlier in 2019] did not aim to address the years of the school to prison pipeline culture for children of color, inequitable disbursement of resources, deep segregation, and most importantly, the specific academic and social emotional needs of students, who have been systemically underserved,” the report states.

School closure transition planning underway

Trustees Dec. 9 received an overview of transition plans that are being developed by district staff to manage the schools being affected by School Changes.

According to meeting documents, the transition plans included over 250 steps for each campus, including a future communication timeline, transportation planning, and upgrades and changes that will need to take place at receiving schools to integrate new students and staff.

Superintendent Paul Cruz said plans are different for each school, but the district is working under a similar framework to the Norman-Sims transition. The co-location of those two campuses took place last year due to construction at Norman Elementary School.

Trustees, including Ann Teich and Yasmin Wagner, asked the district why transition plans were not presented to the public prior to the school closure vote in November.

“I think parents would have felt better if they had this amount of data as soon as possible,” said Teich, who voted against the School Changes plan. “As trustees we have to be very sensitive to campuses and what they are going through. Having detailed plans in place gives our communities some sense that we are anticipating [their] needs. We should have been ready for that.”

In terms of future site uses for the closing campuses, Cruz said each school will have a different process. He said the district wants to make sure they are engaging communities about uses that would work for each school.

New South Austin school naming process being presented

Trustees will convene again Dec. 16 for their final voting meeting of 2019. At the meeting, the district will begin the process to select a name for the new Southwest Elementary School and Blazier Elementary School relief campus.

According to a timeline by the district, name nominations can be submitted from Dec. 17-Jan. 10. A school naming committee will review the nominations through Jan. 30, and staff recommendations will be made to the board of trustees Feb. 7.

A vote on the new school names is scheduled for Feb. 24.