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Council reaches compromise on charter school land use debate

Monday, June 27, 2016 by Cate Malek

Last week, City Council voted to apply the same development standards to charter schools that were already required of local public schools, ending months of emotionally charged debate on the issue.

In a 7-1-2 vote, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair opposed, Council members Sheri Gallo and Don Zimmerman abstaining and Council Member Delia Garza off the dais, Council passed the ordinance at its meeting on June 23.

Although the discussion of the ordinance touched on the contentious debate over whether charter schools are threatening traditional public schools, this decision focused solely on land use issues. The amended ordinance closes a loophole that allowed charter schools to follow less strict development guidelines.

After several months of divisive discussions, stakeholders, including representatives from local charter schools, the Austin Independent School District, environmental groups, neighborhood coalitions and others, were able to reach a compromise on almost all the issues addressed by the ordinance. The only outstanding issue was impervious cover — or, the amount of pavement, such as sidewalks, driveways and parking lots, allowed in a new school development.

Although Council wasn’t in full agreement over the impervious cover requirements, it voted to take advantage of the momentum generated by the stakeholder discussions and pass the ordinance.

“I think Council is 90 to 95 percent in agreement despite this issue,” said Council Member Greg Casar.

The new ordinance will not affect the 50 charter schools already approved in Austin, which will be grandfathered in. But for future schools, it will regulate development, especially in residential areas where school directors will now be required to conduct a traffic analysis and limit buildings to a height of 30 to 40 feet.

As for impervious cover requirements, all public schools are now limited to 50 percent impervious cover in most areas. The ordinance allows for higher impervious cover in commercial areas and sets stricter limits in protected areas like the Barton Springs Zone.

The final deliberations over impervious cover provoked a sharp exchange that revealed how divided Council is over the issue of charter schools. In response to a proposed amendment from Troxclair that would allow for charter schools to increase the amount of impervious cover on their campuses, Council Member Leslie Pool strongly opposed what she saw as an attempt to favor charter schools.

“The land on the East Side is most likely to be developed by the charter schools, and I deeply worry about the fate of our public schools on the East Side,” Pool said. “I don’t want to be part of an effort on this Council to unravel the excellent and top-notch education that our students get in the Austin Independent School District.”

Zimmerman countered just as sharply. “The government comes in and rigs the game to try to shut down the (charter school) competition because (charter schools) have such huge waiting lists,” he said. “(The) government shouldn’t be picking favorites and rigging the rules to support government monopoly in schools.”

Troxclair’s amendment was voted down in favor of the original draft ordinance that had been recommended by Council staff, although Troxclair said her intention was not to favor charter schools. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo spoke in favor of the staff ordinance.

“I support the staff recommendation as it is without amendments,” she said. “I think it’s taken us a long time to get here, and what we’ve got in front of us is a good measure.”

Photo by CedorrisOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38970422

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