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Planning Commission and AISD back charter school code change

Monday, May 30, 2016 by Courtney Griffin

Last week, City Hall was filled with people hoping to speak to the Planning Commission about proposed changes to how charter schools are built. And, though there are still details to be worked out, those amendments will be moving on to City Council.

Both the Planning Commission and the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees took up the issue of charter school development regulations last week. Currently, charter schools are exempt from the site planning process, and city staff has proposed a change that would make their development adhere to the same standards practiced by ISDs in Austin, as established by interlocal agreements.

Discussions with the commission took place on Tuesday, and though the debate took more than two and a half hours, the city’s Land Use Review Division Manager Andy Linseisen hopes that agreement is on the horizon.

“I would love to show up at Council and say, ‘We have an ordinance that everyone can agree to, let’s not have a two-hour debate,’” said Linseisen. “I don’t know if that’s possible, but that’s my dream.”

At the moment, Linseisen explained, there are “definitely points of contention” in the staff proposal, such as asking schools to provide traffic impact analyses. He acknowledged that charter schools see the provision as “unfair” but noted that local ISDs “go through a lengthy process to establish a school.” This process includes bond packages, many years of public involvement and improvements to the local traffic system, unlike charter schools.

Linseisen said that there was disagreement about some of the proposed impervious cover restrictions as well.

Beth Castillo, who lives in the Windsor Park neighborhood, urged commissioners to consider “the real impact that the loopholes in our current city land use policies have on local, residential neighborhoods.” She shared her story of living immediately behind the Manor Road campus of local charter school Austin Achieve. She said the school’s location has created “a daily nightmare” of traffic problems on her street, problems that have not been improved to handle the addition of a school.

She also explained that, under the current land use policy, the school did not have to discuss its plans with the neighborhood or compromise its seven-day-per-week construction schedule in any way. Currently, Castillo is living in a rented home nearby while she rents out the home that she owns near the school. Other neighbors testified that they, too, were planning to move due to the school.

Traci Berry, senior vice president with Goodwill Central Texas — which operates the Goodwill Excel Center to help adults earn high school diplomas — spoke against the proposed changes. She said that the language in the code is equal and that the ISDs had chosen to enter into interlocal agreements with the cities.

Though charter schools cannot enter into such agreements because they are not taxing entities, Berry said, “We request the same privilege being afforded to ISDs — the opportunity to have conversations and input into the process. Our first meeting was just yesterday.”

Berry also highlighted the disparity in funding given to charter schools, which do not earn the same facilities funding as ISDs.

Armbrust & Brown’s Amanda Morrow also spoke to the commission on behalf of charter schools in Austin. She explained that when charter schools file for a development permit, they are exempt “from a few things” but are required to adhere to base zoning districts, environmental regulations, transportation requirements and floodplain requirements in a monthslong review process.

However, Linseisen pointed out that the schools are exempt from impervious cover, landscaping, cut and fill and compatibility standards, subdivision regulations and traffic impact analyses.

Morrow also noted that it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that ISDs opted to enter into interlocal agreements with the city, reducing their exemptions. She explained that charter schools were not even aware that an ordinance was being considered until last month and did not get the opportunity to sit down with staff until Monday of this week.

Linseisen clarified that he had been in contact with Morrow for the past year but didn’t publicly release the ordinance prior to the meeting with the Committee on Codes and Ordinances “because it was complicated, and we had a lot of trouble with it.”

“We’ve met with anyone who wants to meet with us,” said Linseisen. “We’ve had a lot of conversations.”

As a result of those conversations, Linseisen said he thought they were “very close” to something they could offer as a compromise, and both Armbrust & Brown’s David Armbrust and Austin Neighborhoods Council President Mary Ingle agreed that this was the case.

In the meantime, Linseisen told the commission that the city had “less than 50 and more than 20” charter school projects currently in process. Those projects will be grandfathered and thus not subject to the new rules.

That resonated with Commissioner Patricia Seeger, who urged the commission to move forward with changes “before there was a backlog of 50 properties” that would be eligible for grandfathering.

On Monday, the previous night, the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees took its own stab at leveling the playing field between public schools and charter schools. Board members unanimously urged Council to amend the city’s Land Development Code to require nearby open-enrollment charter schools to abide by the same development standards the city requires of AISD.

“I just want to applaud the administration for coming up with this resolution,” said District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon. “District 1 has already been affected (by) charter schools — I think with rather disastrous results.”

The state created open-enrollment charter schools in 1995 as an alternative to traditional public schools. Funded with public dollars but often privately run, charter schools operate under looser regulations than public schools. Differences can be seen in requirements for teacher certification and the length of a school day, among other factors. However, charter schools are not eligible for bonds and receive the majority of their funding from the state.

Still, at Monday’s meeting, trustees noted the rapid development of charter schools and pointed to a discrepancy between a state law requiring equal treatment in regard to municipal regulation and the current city code.

“They can build a school in two years where it takes us five years,” said AISD Board of Trustees Vice President Paul Saldaña.

Trustees noted the impact of the Land Development Code’s exemptions of “public primary and secondary educational facilities” from many site development regulations. Since most Austin public school districts, including AISD, are governed by separate interlocal agreements with the city that supersede the Land Development Code exemptions, these exemptions don’t affect them.

But in a bit of a loophole, trustees said, open-enrollment charter schools are currently exempt from many site development regulations under the Land Development Code that AISD must comply with under the terms of its agreement with the city. This has contributed to the rapid rise in the number of charter schools within AISD’s boundaries.

In addition, trustees noted earlier this year that charter schools are actively competing for AISD students and adding to AISD’s habitually declining student population.

Gordon told the Austin Monitor that Austin Achieve was the impetus behind some of the changes.

“What these folks did was take a pastoral piece of land that had been there for a long time in a very peaceful neighborhood … and they built whatever they wanted,” Gordon said. “And it’s literally in these peoples’ backyard.”

Under current city building code, charter school development operates with many issues unaddressed when compared to public school development. Charter school developers do not have to submit a site plan for an educational facility, and setbacks and building heights are established by applicable zoning districts. The code makes no mention of landscape requirements and does not contain compatibility language designed to minimize the impact of construction on surrounding properties in residential neighborhoods. In addition, review times for development range between two to four months.

In contrast to the city and district’s 1994 land development standards agreement, AISD requires a 25-foot setback from any residential area, site plans for land larger than 5,000 square feet, a maximum building height of 60 feet and a much more intricate review process, among other regulations.

However, while all trustees supported the code change, District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias pointed out a possible discrepancy in the wording of the motion AISD passed, which calls for “land development regulations for open-enrollment charter schools that are no less restrictive than development activities of the District under the requirements of the (land development standards agreement).”

“What does that mean?” Mathias asked. “Does that mean raising the standards of privately run public schools or lowering the standards of publicly run public schools?”

AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz said it was more about leveling the playing field. However, trustees said it was their intention to raise charter schools’ standards.

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