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Community members fight possible school closures

Thursday, January 13, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Last night’s meeting at the Delco Center had all the trappings of a school pep rally: packed seats, a sea of T-shirts in school colors, plenty of signs, and plenty of cheers and emotion from the crowd.


The reason for the meeting wasn’t a football game, however. It was school closures. The Austin Independent School District has put a number of schools on the block for closure, based on the age of the facilities, local demographic trends, and the current utilization of each campus.


A consultant and facilitator presented the options recommended by the DeJong-Richter report. Schools under consideration for closure are Pease, Barton Hills, Zilker, Sanchez, Ortega, Joslin, Brooke, and Oak Springs elementary schools and Pearce Middle School. A couple of boundaries, including those for Akins and Crockett high schools, will be redrawn to provide better attendance balance.


Emotions were high and the arguments from supporters were fairly consistent: Our school is exemplary, taking out this school takes out the heart of our local community, smaller schools are stronger schools, and this is just another sign that Austin ISD favors its west side campuses.


“We demand that our neighborhood schools remain open,” said Susana Almanza of PODER, citing the school district’s poor track record on the east side. “Our parents should have a right to access to participate in their children’s education. This plan is discriminatory.”


Another speaker said the pattern of closures is an invitation for a lawsuit from MALDEF or LULAC. And one mom said that if east side families could feed a family of four on $20,000 a year, then AISD should learn to live within its budget, too, a comment that was well received by attendees.


Almanza’s suggestion that AISD sell its downtown headquarters and move its staff onto local campuses won wild applause from the audience, as did her suggestion that the superintendent’s “exorbitant” salary be cut.


Consultant Carolyn Staskiewiez told the audience the school closures, to be phased in over 10 years, would save the district $11.2 million, or the equivalent of about 200 teaches’ salaries. The plan also would allow the district to take $66.3 million in capital costs off the books.


Zilker, Oak Springs, Ortega, Sanchez, and Pease were well represented last night. Former State Representative Wilhelmina Delco was the lead-off speaker, and she chastised the facility master plan committee for not considering a school’s success when considering a potential closure.


“One of the things that distresses me and disappoints me is that we have overruled the benefits of success,” said Delco, arguing to keep Oak Springs open. “Oak Springs, 10 years ago, might have been on that list of schools that were failing and needed to be closed. Now Oak Springs is exemplary, and not only is it an exemplary school; it’s an exemplary school that stands as a monument to success across the street from a housing project.”


Other parents and teachers who took the microphone were tearful, especially when it came to Pease, which some families had attended for three and four generations. Pease is the oldest continuously operating school in Texas, but it’s also one of the most expensive for AISD to operate, given that all 293 students transfer into the downtown school from other parts of town.


Last night’s meeting at Delco was not intended to be a dialogue, nor is tonight’s at the Burger Center. The committee is allowing two hours total for community comment and said that specific questions would be addressed in other community meetings.


Once the task force finishes its recommendations, their report will go to the school board and then back to the task force before a final vote. School closures and boundary adjustments will not be finalized until March.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell weighed in on the school closure issue in a statement released yesterday, saying closure of inner-city schools would make urban core density a much more difficult goal to achieve.


“I know that AISD is facing some very difficult budget decisions, and I do not envy them the choices that I know must be made,” he said. “However, I feel obligated to share my personal view that as the city continues to work to reduce expensive suburban sprawl and facilitate sustainable growth in Austin’s urban core, the prospect of closing successful central city schools clearly runs counter to our community’s long-term planning goals.”


He added, “We know that families with children will not move into Austin neighborhoods – or stay in Austin neighborhoods – where there are not good public schools.  Losing good schools in the urban core would plainly make many of our goals as a city dramatically more difficult to realize.”

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