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Hundreds gather to challenge AISD’s proposed school closure plan

Friday, January 14, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

A large, loud crowd was on hand at Burger Center last night to share their opinions on the Austin Independent School District’s recently-released Facilities Master Plan. Last week, the report announced the proposed closing of nine schools.

 

The current incarnation of the plan has elementary schools Pease, Sanchez, Barton Hills, Ortega, Zilker, Oak Springs, Joslin and Brooke slated for closure. Pearce Middle School is also targeted by the plan.

 

Patti Summerville opened the meeting by asking who in the crowd was from each school, allowing each to see who could cheer the loudest. “I just wanted y’all to get the energy out,” said Summerville.

 

The opening set the tone for the meeting. All of the more than 40 people chosen from a much larger pool spoke against the proposed cuts, to cheers from the sign-waving crowd.

 

State Rep. Elliot Naishtat was one of the speakers at the meeting. He told In Fact Daily that over the past week his office had received countless emails and dozens of phone calls about the proposed cuts. He read from a letter that he had sent to Superintendent Meria Carstarphen yesterday. The letter emphasized the need for public input in the decision-making process.

 

He also echoed Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s concerns about what the school closures would mean for Austin, even quoting from the mayor’s recent statement.

 

Leffingwell released a statement Wednesday about the school closings. While he acknowledged that the City of Austin does not play a formal role in the decision, he said, “Losing good schools in the urban core would make many of our goals as a city dramatically more difficult to realize.”

 

Speaker after speaker expressed confusion at the decision to close the selected schools. Eight of the schools that are being considered for closure were rated “exemplary” by the state this school year.

 

“Our charge was to look at demographics, numbers, boundaries, and that type of data,” said task force member Pete Price, when asked by In Fact Daily why the proposal did not take academic performance into consideration. “We may, but presently that’s what we looked at, and we didn’t take into consideration academic success. That wasn’t our charge.”

 

After the meeting, an exhausted-looking Richard Frazier spoke with In Fact Daily. Frazier is co-chair of the Facilities Master Plan Task Force, and a teacher at Anderson High School.

 

“I don’t think I was expecting quite as vehement a reaction as we got and I think the thing that we still haven’t communicated clearly is that if we choose not to close schools, which seems to be the predominance of opinion, then there are other things we are going to have to do just to have school,” Frazier said.

 

“It’s not that anyone wants to close buildings, because nobody wants to do any of this. It makes us look like we’re evil, sitting home and plotting all these awful things, but the truth of the matter is that we haven’t found a better way,” said Frazier. “Though it is productive to know that this way isn’t going to be popular, that just means we have to go someplace else that isn’t popular.”

 

When asked about the future of the Facilities Master Plan, Frazier emphasized that the plan was far from set-in-stone. “We’re going to hopefully go out to all the schools, and have a dialogue, unlike this one.”

 

“If we all just stand up there and vent, and basically have a pep rally, which is what this has been, it really hasn’t been that helpful other than to know what people value most, which is that building and the teachers that are in that school as well,” continued Frazier. “The value is in the sentiment of that building, I get that. It’s just that I don’t have another way to do this right now.

 

“It’s really simple: 80 percent of the schools’ budget is teachers’ salaries, if we don’t have the money to pay all the teachers, that’s the next cut. The worst-case scenario would be we save the buildings and a young person comes to the school next year to get the teacher he’s been waiting to have and that teacher’s not there because they got cut,” said Frazier “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

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