Austin ISD to seek public input about campus autonomy

Austin ISD plans to seek community input about giving some campuses more autonomy and flexibility with their resources following a June 17 vote by the AISD board of trustees.

The board approved 8–1 a motion to move forward with that community engagement, which "might" lead to establishing a design framework and process to provide a cohort of AISD campuses with more flexibility and autonomy in terms of allocating resources, targeted to begin in the 2015–16 school year or before if deemed appropriate by the board. Trustee Ann Teich opposed the motion.

At a work session earlier in June, the board noted that some schools and communities had expressed the desire for a structure to support implementation of the Travis Heights in-district charter, which will give the principal and school staff more autonomy than other AISD schools. The board directed the district to explore alternatives to its current method of allocating district resources to campuses.

One of those alternatives is a weighted student funding model, in which money follows each student to his or her school, funds are distributed to schools based on individual students' attributes, and principals and campus advisory committees develop academic plans, budgets and staffing plans tailored to meet the needs of their schools.

Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit organization that has worked to implement the WSF formula in other districts, recently conducted research to determine what changes AISD might have to consider if the district were to move toward WSF, rather than the district's current staffing-based funding model.

Teich noted some schools are already pursuing more flexibility, the board is still grappling with how it defines "equity" in terms of funding, and other community partners besides ERS might be willing to help with the process.

"I'm not opposed to campuses and principals having flexibility over their budgets and their staffing. My concern is we already have some of this stuff going on in our district and that's why I think that we can handle this in house," she said. "We don't have to rush through this; we can take our time. It took Travis Heights three years to do this."

Originally, the board was scheduled to vote on moving forward with establishing the design framework for a cohort of campuses with greater flexibility. That motion failed 4–5, with trustees Teich, Jayme Mathias, Gina Hinojosa, Robert Schneider and Tamala Barksdale voting against.

Barksdale asked that community engagement be incorporated into the wording of a revised motion to make it clear that the district should seek public feedback before the board votes on implementation of such a framework. She also asked that the timeline change from 2014–15 to 2015–16 and questioned the language in the initial motion including the mention of WSF.

"The board isn't ready just yet to move down the funding track that we started down with the ERS project," she said.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said the vote would not tie the district to a WSF model, and explained it was included in the motion to show that the administration developed the motion in response to one of the board's fiscal year 2014 budget parameters, which included consideration of a possible WSF funding system.

Trustee Lori Moya said she supported the motion because she wanted to give campuses the option to learn more about flexibility and autonomy and determine whether they are interested in it. She added she hopes the board will revisit the WSF portion of the motion in a later discussion.

"I really wish that we that the weighted student funding was a part of this, and I hope we get to it at some point because I really think that we need that in order to help our campuses' staff and have the resources that they need on campuses," she said.

Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, which is part of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, noted that the process for Travis Heights involved major community involvement.

"We should bring people together to make sure we are all clear on what type of equity we are talking about, what type of funding we are talking about, and what type of flexibility," he told the trustees. "Let's not get the cart before the horse here; let's slow down and make sure that we do this right."

Joseph Berra, representing the Texas Civil Rights Project, asked the board to take a community-based approach to equity in the district by establishing a citizens panel to address equity issues raised by TCRP last fall.