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Proposed ordinance puts charter schools at odds with neighborhoods

Monday, May 23, 2016 by Vicky Garza

Though they gave it a shot, members of the Planning Commission’s Committee on Codes and Ordinances were unable to reach an agreement on what to do with the draft ordinance that would remove site development plan exemptions for charter schools.

Andrew Linseisen, the Land Use Review Division manager in the city’s Development Services Department, told the commission that the ordinance was intended to make the rules for all public schools the same.

It may sound simple, but it has been shown to be a divisive issue and one that is complicated to incorporate into city code.

Linseisen told the committee that that process was “not simple, not easy and not clean.”

“This effort eliminates the blanket exemption and mirrors the terms (public schools must follow) in interlocal agreements,” said Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd. “We did the best we can in a fair and even-handed manner.”

After hearing from all the stakeholders in the room, committee members voted 2-1 to move the ordinance along, with Commissioner James Schissler voting against and Commissioner Fayez Kazi absent. However, since one member was missing, the vote had to be unanimous to move forward; therefore, city staff is allowed to do what it wants with the draft.

“This ordinance is very emotional for people in that it can erroneously be framed in the charters versus traditional public school arguments,” Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza told the Monitor. “The reality is that we are currently out of compliance with a state law that requires that we treat open enrollment charters and traditional public schools the same in regards to zoning and site development standards.

“Even though it is likely that neither side will be totally happy with the final result, the ordinance proposed by staff is getting as close as it can to the requirement of equal treatment in zoning and site development regulations,” Zaragoza said.

Commissioner Patricia Seeger also shared her reason for voting in favor of the ordinance. “Charter schools today are not subject to any school districts’ interlocal agreements. They operate outside of Austin’s site development regulations placed on much development in Austin. I believe this proposed code amendment will rein in the offensive development adjacent to residential properties.”

Schissler, who voted against recommending the ordinance, told the Monitor that his main issue was the impervious cover restrictions because they would require charter schools to buy a lot more land. “They do not have the resources to pass bonds to buy property like public schools do,” he said. He added that he would like to see them fast-tracked through the site plan process given their restricted timeline.

However, charter school proponents say that there is no equality with this ordinance because charter schools do not receive any money for facilities.

Kathleen Zimmermann, executive director for NYOS Charter School, said that the school cannot afford the proposed land development code regulations.

“What looks like parity on paper is not parity in real life,” said Zimmermann. “We’d love to have a beautiful campus, but we get $1,400 less per student per year (compared to public schools). We compromise — (we) do yoga in the hallway and play soccer in the water retention pond.”

Prominent Austin attorney David Armbrust, representing a coalition of charter schools, called the funding disparity unfair. “Charters don’t get money for facilities, so that comes out of the classroom,” he said.

Additionally, charter schools have only two years to build a school once they receive approval from the state. That tight schedule doesn’t leave much room for the additional time that going through the city’s site development process takes.

“We understand it’s a challenge,” said Linseisen. “We don’t have a good answer for them on how to expedite our process. We can work with them on it.”

However, that timeline is even tighter in real life, according to Traci Berry, senior vice president of community engagement at Goodwill Central Texas, which operates the Goodwill Excel Center to help adults earn high school diplomas. “We were approved in April and had to open the following August — not a full two years,” she said.

To supporters of the ordinance, it is not about financial equity, children or schools.

“State law says that we have to treat them equally for zoning,” said Susan Moffat, a community activist and former researcher at the Texas Legislature. “Under the current loophole, they could build a giant structure that could close the next week,” she said.

“This is about leveling the playing field of building standards that everyone has to adhere to; how it affects our neighborhoods and our people,” Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, told the Monitor. “I hope this gets resolved quickly before another neighborhood has to suffer this egregiousness.”

Staff will bring the ordinance before the Planning Commission at its May 24 meeting without a recommendation. It is scheduled to go before the full City Council on June 9.

Photo by Alan ChiaLego Color Bricks, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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