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Charter school agreement held up by environmental dispute

Monday, June 20, 2016 by Cate Malek

A debate over development standards for charter schools is close to being resolved, but reaching a final agreement hinges on finding a solution to a dispute over environmental regulations.

The city has been working to close a loophole that effectively means that charter schools built in Austin haven’t had to follow the same development guidelines as other public schools in the area.

The loophole has led to months of emotional debate. Critics argue that not only are the unequal land use requirements unfair to public schools but that the lack of regulation means the city hasn’t had enough control over the effect charter schools have on the neighborhoods where they’re built — and especially over traffic congestion and environmental impacts. But representatives from charter schools say that unnecessarily strict development standards will stretch their already tight budgets and limit their ability to serve at-risk students.

After a month of stakeholder talks, almost all of the issues in contention have been resolved. The last sticking point is an environmental regulation over how much impervious cover — or the amount of pavement, such as roads, sidewalks, driveways and parking lots — should be allowed in a new school development plan.

At the City Council meeting on June 16, the chambers were filled with more than 60 parents and children representing charter schools from around the city, hoping to sway Council’s decision. But despite strong feelings on the issue, Council staff said stakeholders on both sides have worked hard to reach common ground.

“No matter what happens, what’s before Council will be a vast improvement over what’s currently in place,” said Lauren Ice, staff attorney for Austin’s Save Our Springs Alliance, an organization that was arguing for increased environmental regulations over the charter schools.

The charter school land use loophole was originally brought to Council’s attention after a conflict over the construction of the Austin Achieve charter school off of Manor Road in the University Hills neighborhood. Neighborhood residents complained that the building of the school led to months of construction noise, which was followed by severe traffic problems and other issues that they were unable to get help from the city in addressing.

In an attempt to prevent conflicts like this in the future, Council is proposing to impose equal development restrictions on all public schools, including charters. But this approach has touched on a number of thorny issues, including the question of impervious cover.

The amount of impervious cover in Austin has become a key issue because an increase in paved surfaces prevents rainwater from being absorbed into the ground, which leads to the severe flooding seen in the city over the past few years as well as other environmental problems.

“Impervious cover limits are one way to protect water quality and habitats from runoff, pollution and erosion,” Ice said. “They’re one way to help reduce localized flooding and preserve green space and open space.”

City staff has proposed that new charter schools limit the amount of impervious cover in a new school development to 50 percent. But charter schools say that this restriction could have unintended consequences.

Traci Berry, the president of community engagement for Goodwill Central Texas, said the proposed requirements push charter schools to purchase more land than they may be able to afford and limit the locations where they can open new schools, thus restricting their ability to serve at-risk students.

“By law, every charter school is different and innovative and cannot be pigeonholed into the same way a traditional (school district) is built,” Berry said.

Goodwill operates the Excel Center, the only program in Texas that allows students over 26 years old to earn a high school diploma instead of a GED. Excel serves approximately 500 students in Austin.

Berry pointed out that a school that provides adult education, such as hers, doesn’t have the same programming requirements as a school serving children and teenagers. She said it makes sense for schools like Excel to build their campuses in commercial areas, which can allow for impervious cover of 70 percent or above. She said that the conflicts over the Austin Achieve School don’t necessarily apply to schools like hers.

“Please do not let this be about one charter school,” she said. “Politics really makes bad policy. And we cannot just react to what has happened within one charter school and throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Because of the remaining debate over the impervious cover requirements, Mayor Steve Adler asked staff members to take another week to work out possible solutions. He said he hopes to develop an impervious cover requirement that would apply equally to public, private and charter schools. Ideally, the new ordinance would require schools to fit into the land use requirements for the neighborhood in which they’re built, whether that area is residential or commercial.

Stakeholders on both sides said they’re generally happy with the city’s proposals and hope they can build on the momentum to reach agreement on the issue at the Council meeting on June 23.

“What I think is important is that something is done quickly to close the loophole now,” Ice said. The new ordinance won’t have an effect on charter schools that have already been approved, only on future applications. “So it’s important to take action quickly,” she said.

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