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Declining enrollment, segregation dominate AISD board meeting

Wednesday, September 26, 2018 by Jack Craver

The Austin Independent School Board’s unanimous decision to spend $25 million modernizing Sanchez Elementary School was welcomed by a substantial contingent of those who packed the board’s chambers Monday night, but it hardly assuaged long-term concerns from east side activists who say that the school district is allowing East Austin schools to flounder.

The first two hours of the evening, which was dedicated to citizen communication, featured numerous speakers denouncing the school board’s alleged neglect of the east side and complicity in a district where schools are starkly divided on economic and racial lines.

“We have been separated and set apart,” said Lila Valencia. “You can see how we are set apart by the choices that are offered to our parents.”

Valencia said the idea, floated by AISD Trustee Ted Gordon, of East Austin breaking off to form its own school district was a “scary thought,” but that a district that condemns students in some areas of town to a lower quality of education was “even scarier.”

Former AISD Trustee Paul Saldaña addressed reports that members of the school board were caught off guard and disappointed by the manifesto promoted by Gordon and a group of activists that called for a number of changes, including redrawing school zone lines to increase racial and economic integration.

“It should not have come as a surprise to anybody on this board,” said Saldaña, adding that advocates have been decrying “hypersegregation” and neglect of East Austin schools for years.

Jim Harrington, the former longtime executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that advocates were prepared to sue if the district doesn’t act.

“You have to convince us that we don’t have to take you to court,” he said.

Interspersed with the denunciations of general neglect of the east side were calls from supporters of Sanchez or Metz that their school be the one to receive the $25 million upgrades and thus be less likely to be closed.

Carolyn Estrada, a teacher at Metz, said that her school is the more appropriate site to be modernized, noting that it is “surrounded by homes on all sides” and is in a safe area.

The money they are arguing over was part of the $1 billion AISD bond voters approved last fall. One of the bond’s line items was $25 million to consolidate Metz, Zavala and Sanchez elementary schools on one of those campuses, which would be upgraded. The bond said the focus is on providing improvements for students in the Eastside Memorial High School “vertical team,” the group of elementary and middle schools that tend to feed into that high school. In reality students at those schools will often be assigned to several different high schools based on their addresses. Sanchez is in the Austin High School vertical team, but many of its students go to Travis High School.

Some Metz supporters said that by putting the money into Sanchez, the district is reneging on its promise to invest in students destined for Eastside Memorial. However, the district has said it plans on putting the “modernized” Sanchez into the Eastside Memorial vertical team.

Leslie Inman, whose granddaughter attends Sanchez, said that that school is a more appropriate site for modernization. It will take far more than $25 million to modernize Zavala, she said. In addition, she said,  Metz is on a smaller site and has limitations on impervious cover due to stormwater concerns.

Bertha Delgado said that the fight between Metz and Sanchez supporters is a logical result of a bond package that she and a contingent of activists on the east side had opposed. Many voters had been misled by the bond’s supporters into believing that the $25 million would target all three of the elementary schools, she said.

“We knew that our schools were going to be closed,” said Delgado.

She also had words for Trustee Jayme Mathias, who represents District 2, where all three schools are located.

“If you don’t take our schools off the chopping block, we’re going to ask for your resignation,” she said.

Mathias later praised the modernization plan for Sanchez and pushed back on claims that school closings were imminent. “I am presuming that Metz will remain open 15 or 20 years from now,” he said.

Superintendent Paul Cruz also stressed that the district had prioritized the bond projects slated for east side schools, including major renovations at Govalle Elementary, the construction of a new middle school in Northeast Austin and the upcoming Sanchez project.

“We wanted to make sure that our kids in East Austin were going to get these opportunities first,” said Cruz.

Gordon suggested that Mathias’ optimism for Metz’s future might be misplaced. The funds approved in the bond won’t cover all of the projects outlined in the bond package. It seems likely that school closures will be a part of the equation, he said.

Gordon also pressed Cruz on whether the district is going to seriously consider boundary changes in order to foster integration and to boost enrollment at east side schools, which have lost students to charter schools, transfers, and the ongoing displacement of low-income populations from the city.

Cruz said that boundary changes are part of a larger conversation about boosting East Austin schools but stressed that he doesn’t want that to be the sole focus. He emphasized the new programs that the district has implemented at schools that are predominantly low-income. Students at Eastside Memorial and Lanier High School are now able to take college courses and graduate from high school with an associate’s degree, he noted.

Gordon said that he is grateful for those changes, but that the key to him is a serious conversation about boundary changes.

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