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AISD board may create new equity committee

Monday, March 23, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

The Austin Independent School District board of trustees may vote to create a new, standing subcommittee that addresses equity and equality issues throughout the district.

The proposal of a new committee stems from an interaction with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which threatened to sue AISD or file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. TCRP is claiming that 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.

In a September 2014 report, TCRP concluded that such disparities are evident, and that AISD must find a way to be equitable with its resources, including access to high quality and signature programs, effective teachers and staff, donations and private resources given to schools from outside groups.Funding from outside groups often goes toward educational programs or extracurricular activities.

According to the report, the inequities are in Austin’s historically segregated areas of town.

The organization is requesting that AISD conduct a self-assessment on the level of equality throughout the district. TCRP has brought the issue to the district staff before, in 2012.

At the board’s March 9 meeting, Gina Hinojosa, Position 8 at-large member and board president, said the board tasked an ad hoc Historically Underutilized Business, or HUB, committee to lay out framework for a second committee. That committee would tackle what equity and equality would look like in the context of AISD’s educational and extracurricular programs and funding.

The board also asked the HUB committee to review necessary steps for AISD’s self-assessment, Hinojosa said. That committee, spearheaded by District 6 Board Member Paul Saldaña, met Feb. 27.

The work, however, “took a turn” during the committee meeting, Hinojosa said.

“I think the sentiment is that this is an important issue we need to consider, and so the recommendation is, or the question is, should our board be open to having a longer-standing committee, rather than an ad hoc committee,” Saldaña said. “And that we revamp … the name to be called the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (Committee).”

The new committee would still include HUB issues but broaden its scope to include others as well, Saldaña said.

Hinojosa asked if Saldaña thought it was important to have a long-standing committee in place before undertaking the steps toward an equity self-assessment.

“I think whether or not we make a decision to move forward with a self-assessment, we continue to have issues posed by the community about equity and diversity inclusions issues anyway,” Saldaña said. “So, I think it makes sense for us to evolve and appropriately name our committee the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.”

At the end of the discussion, Hinojosa said it was important to consider possible ulterior motives to TCRP’s claims, but also recognize the possible issues in the district.

District 7 Board Member Robert Schneider disagreed, however, arguing that a road map defining what AISD saw as equitable and equal should come before establishing the committee.

“My recollection was (HUB) was supposed to come up with some kind of recommendation on what equitable and equal might look like in AISD,” Schneider said. “Then, discuss a possible committee that was appointed by the board in some way, with a balanced representation, to discuss the issue and whether it met the definition — and see if we have an equity problem. That’s not something I think there’s any agreement on at this point.”

Saldaña said the committee simply did not get that far. Board Members Julie Cowan (District 4) and Amber Elenz (District 5) were present at the meeting along with the four regular HUB committee members.

“What I want to do is take this as an opportunity to go on the offense,” Saldaña said. “Instead of us being sued or being forced to do this, I honestly believe at some point (an equity self-assessment) is going to be a federal mandate or a state mandate.”

Schneider said he still believed AISD needs to better define what the district was shooting for, but had called the Texas Association of School Board Educators and the Texas Education Agency to see if any other school districts were doing an equity self-assessment before the March 9 work session.

The school boards group had never heard of anyone doing one, he said.

“(The TEA) basically gave me the same answer, although they added two important caveats. First of all, that there’s no requirement that if a district does this kind of study, that they report it to TEA,” Schneider said. “The other important caveat was the only district they were aware of that had done something remotely similar was a district that had actually been sued by the Texas Civil Rights Project out in the El Paso area.”

If the civil rights group had a case that would hold up in court, it would have filed suit already, Schneider said, adding that he did not believe it was financially prudent for AISD to do what ultimately is the organization’s work.

District 1 Board Member Edmund Gordan said he was interested in pursuing the self-assessment regardless of whether AISD was under the threat of a lawsuit, and thinks that forming a standing committee would show that the board took the issue of inequality seriously.

Elenz and District 2 Board Member Jayme Mathias agreed about the merits of forming the standing committee.

Elenz, however, then pointed out that in 2013, board members voted down a proposal of an outside economic analysis of AISD’s efficiency, efficacy and equity issues that stemmed from a 2012 TfuCRP complaint.

The board placed formation of a standing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee on the next regular meeting’s agenda, and added discussion of the issue as a standing item at future meetings.

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