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AISD committee tweaks equity presentation

Monday, March 30, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

The Austin Independent School District’s ad hoc Historically Underutilized Business Committee prepared its presentation for board members on equity and equality issues Monday, leaning toward providing the public a more recent history of the relationship between the Texas Civil Rights Project and AISD.

“Some of the conversation with the trustees and with the community has been, we don’t want to create the perception — although for some it’s more than a perception — that this is being driven by outside organizations or entities (such as) the (American Civil Liberties Union), (the Texas Civil Rights Project) and others,” said District 6 Board member Paul Saldaña, the HUB committee chair.

At a March 9 work session, the board tasked the HUB committee with ironing out details for the newly proposed Excellence on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, including a description of its responsibilities. It also requested the HUB committee provide direction on a district-led self-assessment to investigate equity in education across AISD.

Both the requested self-assessment and equality committee stem from a January meeting with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which threatened to sue AISD or file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. The civil rights group is claiming there is a disparity between the resources and opportunities given to affluent students and their low-income peers who reside in Northeast and East Austin.

Spearheaded by Saldaña, the new equality committee is intended to be a permanent, standing committee that will combine with the HUB committee, created around 2008.

Monday, visiting District 5 Board Member Amber Elenz raised an issue with the background information provided to board members and the public regarding the new committee and equity self-assessment.

The background information Elenz took issue with only mentioned the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Jan. 6 letter. The letter brought AISD’s attention to a “Dear Colleague” letter from the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. The letter, signed by the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, highlighted the importance of providing equitable education for English language learners and legal guidelines to ensure public school districts were meeting obligations.

“I’m not comfortable with the beginning sentence of the background,” she said. “This (debate) has started way before that letter, so I feel like that sentence is defining this work, and I think we all discussed that was not the case.”

The civil rights group also brought the issue of equity before the board in 2012, said Joe Berra, the group’s attorney. It has had ongoing conversations with AISD board members since then and produced an in-depth report in September 2014, he said.

District 2 Board Member Jayme Mathias, also a HUB committee member, also said District 7 Board Member Robert Schneider placed a request to discuss equity and equality issues on AISD’s October 2014 agenda.

“We were scheduled to have a conversation about equality and equity before anything in the first sentence came to our attention,” Mathias said, referring to the background information.

Saldaña said many in the new board were not privy to previous discussions, and that “the whole conversation around moving forward with a potential self-assessment and defining equity and equal really started with this board.”

Saldaña said he wanted to start the board with a clean slate on the issue. He said in the past few weeks, he has wanted to move the focus away from a defensive to a more offensive plan of action.

Committee members agreed to change wording to highlight AISD’s proactive approach and include Schneider’s original proposal to discuss the issues in 2014, but also included AISD’s recent history with Texas Civil Rights Project.

Regular members on the HUB committee are Saldaña, At-Large Position 9 Board Member Kendall Pace, District 1 Board Member Edmund Gordon and Mathias. Board President Gina Hinojosa appointed all of the members.

AISD board members are set to vote on the equality committee’s permanent creation and job description — “to work with the administration and community to ensure academic excellence through the pursuit of equity, diversity and inclusion in the areas of policies, programs and operations” — on its agenda at tonight’s meeting. The committee will include the current HUB committee and its members.

The board is also set to vote on the committee’s recommendation that AISD undertake a self-assessment with the proposed committee providing the framework at its regular meeting today.

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