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Human Rights Commission seeks apology from AISD

Wednesday, November 27, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Last week the Austin Independent School District’s chief equity officer, Stephanie Hawley, called the board of trustees’ vote to close four elementary schools racist and inequitable.

In an effort to improve the district’s financial situation, the board was faced with a list of 12 proposed school closures. The list was whittled down to four elementary schools – Brooke, Metz, Sims and Pease – that will be closed in the upcoming school year. Three of the four are located in East Austin.

“It seems as if again the district already has this plan,” Commissioner Jared Breckenridge said at the Nov. 25 meeting of the Human Rights Commission. He said that the final decision was not surprising and merely a “trick,” as “Austin has a very distinct history with their maps.” He was referring to the 1928 Master Plan.

Breckenridge and Commissioner Jamarr Brown sponsored a resolution recommending that City Council submit a request for the AISD Board of Trustees and the superintendent to issue a public letter of apology acknowledging the damage to the community that would result from these closures. The resolution asked the letter to acknowledge that the trustees had disregarded Hawley’s expert opinion that the choice was inequitable.

Additionally, the recommendation asked the district and the district’s chief equity officer to collaborate in order to determine how the closed schools will be used in the future.

The resolution passed unanimously with commissioners Kristian Caballero, Maram Museitif, Alicia Weigel and Nathan White absent.

“It’s just odd to me that 80 people spoke in opposition and their voices weren’t heard,” said Brown. He explained that he had not heard anyone at the meetings speaking in favor of the school closures.

The district has not outlined reasons for the decision to close the four schools beyond the need for consolidation. “A lot of people have to read between the lines,” Brown told the Austin Monitor. “People have really inferred a lot of the economic and systemic racism kind of pieces.”

Breckenridge offered his assessment at the commission meeting, saying, “That is a speculation I’d like to make … it’s for money.”

Commissioners also expressed concern about what would happen to the individual campuses after they close. There is not yet a decision on how to proceed, but AISD is working to gather public input to determine potential alternative solutions.

Brown told the commissioners that it is imperative a plan is developed so the land is not “misused.”

An AISD spokesperson said there is a moratorium on the properties and they will remain in district control for at least two years.

Council Member Kathie Tovo told the Monitor that she has previously put forth resolutions that have passed to ensure that AISD knows the city is a committed partner in identifying alternative or joint use functions for school campuses. “We stand ready to work with the district in making sure whatever happens on those campuses meets the different community needs,” she said. “I hope that the two entities will get together and talk about if there are opportunities on those specific sites.”

In the hopes of incorporating the affected communities’ opinions and alleviating mistrust in the district going forward, the commission voted unanimously to send its recommendation for a letter of apology to Council.

Tovo said that working with the school district to reimagine the uses for the campuses is consistent with the resolutions that Council has voted for in the past. “I didn’t support the closures, but I am absolutely committed to making sure that we all work together to achieve the best outcomes for those communities,” she said.

“I think this is another watershed moment for AISD,” said Commissioner Garry Brown. “People still talk about the original Anderson High School.”

Anderson High was closed in 1971 in order to comply with a federal ruling to desegregate the district.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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