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Group releases report critical of AISD school closure plan

Wednesday, January 19, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

As the fight around the proposed closing of nine area schools heats up, the Friends of Barton Hills Elementary have gathered their resources to release a formal response refuting the findings of Austin Independent School District’s Facility Master Plan Task Force. In it, they offer a litany of complaints about inaccurate, missing, and artificially manipulated data that was included in the recommendations.


The Friends of Barton Hills Elementary is a group made up of parents and concerned citizens that formed in the past week in response to recent findings by the task force suggesting the closing of several city schools, including Barton Hills Elementary.


The group is concerned with the proposed shutdown of all of the schools, not just Barton Elementary.


“Our whole approach from the very second that we found out that this was happening was that this is not something that is about Barton Hills; this is not something that is about Zilker,” group member Jason Sabo told In Fact Daily. “I would even argue that this is not an issue that should only be of concern to the people in these impacted communities. This is something that every single Austinite should be concerned about.”


Criticism of DeJong Richter, the consulting firm from Ohio that was hired by the school district, has been pointed.


“I’m horrified by the position that that consultants put the task force in,” said Sabo. “The fact that this consulting firm could change Austin and gave that task force and our school board a report that absolutely ignores academic achievement and child safety is antithetical to what we in Austin hold dear.”


The formal report by the group rebuts the findings of the task force using its own criteria, as well as offering up additional criteria not considered. It also suggests alternative recommendations to cut costs for AISD.


Public opposition to the plan has focused on its disregard for the academic standings of the schools and its inaccurate or misleading evaluations of student populations. Sabo sees a bigger problem for the city as well.


“I think another point that is very, very important in all of this is the economic impact on the entire city,” said Sabo. “This will become national news; I’m absolutely convinced of it. And if this becomes a national news story, the word that gets out is that Austin, Texas, high-tech capital, is closing down some of its highest-performing central city public schools. And that is the worst thing imaginable for us, in terms of making a site selection case to employers.”


Sabo found little solace in the proposed timetable for the project.


“Once the state budget cuts start coming in around the country, the national media will start looking for stories about what the local impact of that is, because it’s going to be cataclysmic everywhere,” he said. “If the national media story about what’s happening in Texas is ‘look at Austin, it’s cutting its downtown high-quality public schools,’ we don’t have two months. We need to stop this now, because if we don’t, the national media story is going to be one that will further erode the confidence in our economy, the confidence in our educational system, and make it even harder to attract businesses.”


The task force met last night at AISD’s Baker Center. The meeting was open to the public, but not to public comment. They discussed potential next steps in light of the recent public outcry against the current proposed plan. While nothing was decided, group members Susan Moffat and Kathie Tovo presented a draft alternate proposal outlining facility cost savings that would prevent school closures. The task force meets again next Tuesday, at which time the conversation about the plan will resume.


No one from the school district returned repeated calls for comment on Tuesday.

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