By Scott Thomas
The theme struck by community organizers and the Superintendent alike at Monday’s community meeting was reckoning with past mistakes so Austin ISD could move forward.
“This is about giving the community the space to tell us how we’ve eroded trust in the past, and how we can earn it back,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said. “We want you — our community — to not just hear that this time is going to be different, but rather to actually feel it.”
The meeting, called Looking Back and Moving Forward: Austin ISD Community Conversations, began with remarks from Elizalde as well as a presentation from Associate Superintendent Laura Stout on the district’s long-range planning efforts, which cover investments including buildings, safety, transportation, technology, and more. These plans could lead to a future bond.
However, most of the evening was focused on the voices of community members and education advocates Roxanne Evans, Gabriel Estrada and Gloria Vera-Bedolla. Each member brought up specific issues they felt had eroded trust between Austin ISD and the community, including the legacies of bussing, the closing of the original L.C. Anderson, and Austin ISD fighting the Brown v. Board of Education ruling as recently as the 1980s.
The issue that dominated most of the evening was the 2019 decision to close four schools in Austin ISD following the passage of the 2017 bond, a process that was called School Changes.
Panelists expressed feeling disappointed or even betrayed in the district’s school changes process. They also said they felt the district wasn't transparent about the possibility of school closures when they asked voters to support the 2017 bond.
“Families were told repeatedly that the Facilities Master Plan was not a closing plan,” said Evans, a community activist and former journalist.
Evans said despite this, it wasn't long before Austin ISD officials started talking about closing schools.
"The trust was broken with those who supported the bond," she said.
Estrada, an advocate and former Austin ISD teacher, said he was on the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, and the members were “blown away” by the school changes plan after the committee worked on proposals to keep schools open.
“We worked with the district to come up with these plans, the TUP plan, the idea that we’re going to do something for these schools that have always been neglected,” he said. “I had my bullhorn saying, ‘we’re going to do this right,’ and I got sideswiped. That was very disappointing, very disheartening.”
Vera-Bedolla, an education advocate, Austin ISD parent and former parent support specialist at Brooke Elementary, said she received notification of Brooke’s possible closing during their back-to-school night.
“It stunned me. It put me in a very strange place because I had a child there. It was an awful situation,” she said. “We were asked if we were being bold enough as they were taking our school away.”
Moderator Claire McInerny of KUT News asked the panelists what could make them trust the district again.
Vera-Bedolla said she needs to see more transparency from the district.
“We were told, ‘well there’s a possibility of stopping this,’ but I feel like there was never really a possibility,” she said. “For me to feel comfortable inviting all my brothers and sisters in the community who are parents of Austin ISD, I need to know we’re going to be honest. If you say, ‘we’re not going to close schools,’ good, we’re not going to close schools.”
Evans said she’d like to see community engagement, and not just over Zoom.
“Getting voter support for another bond, it’s a long and slow process that involves a lot of community engagement,” she said. “Going to schools, going to CAC meetings, going to campus events, and talking to people one on one and getting their support.”
Estrada said he hopes the district can address the issues discussed that night, because “there’s a lot of issues that need to be fixed.
“Facilities are one of those things,” he said. “How can we allow an entire grade level of sixth graders [at Burnet Middle School] to be in portables where there are no restrooms in those portables except for one portable that’s outside[...] The needs are there. Kids are waiting for us, families are waiting for us.”
About long-range planning
The long-range plan is a document that outlines investments from buildings to technology to school buses.
“So why are we planning for the future? Because our students deserve academic programming and learning spaces that promote high achievement, and that requires a significant investment,” said Laura Stout, associate superintendent of secondary schools. “We have many schools that are in need of major investments.”
The investments aren’t just to fix the physical condition of the building, but also to provide the necessary spaces for students to learn, Stout said.
“I don’t know about you, but I like to work in nice, neat, clean new spaces, and students thrive in those environments, and that’s what we want to do for our kiddos,” she said.
During the 2017 planning effort, more than $4 billion of repairs and improvements were identified, and the 2017 Bond Program only addressed $1.05 billion of those needs.
Addressing what’s different in the bond planning process this time, Stout said Austin ISD is using a community-based approach called Equity by Design. She said the approach puts the emphasis on working with underserved communities to understand the issues and generate solutions together.
Stout also said the long-range plan “will not include recommendations for school closures.”
To learn more about the long-range plan, visit www.austinisd.org/plans.
Another community meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Spanish, and 10:30 a.m. Saturday in English. You can also join a long-range planning committee to help guide the process moving forward by completing an interest form by 11:59 p.m. Sept. 19.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Austin ISD officials discussed consolidating schools on the same night the Facilities Master Plan was approved. The article has been fixed.