AUSTIN (KXAN) — Four days before the Austin ISD Board of Trustees voted to close four schools, the district’s first-ever equity officer wrote the closure plan was created in a racist environment and emphasized money and buildings instead of the well-being of students and communities of color.
The report was controversially not included in the discussion on the night of the vote, preventing the board and the public from seeing it.
KXAN has obtained that report.
In “Austin ISD 2019 School Closures Proposal: Equity Analysis of Process, Principles & Practices,” Stephanie Hawley, argues against closing Pease, Brooke, Metz, and Sims elementary schools, writing “school closures and consolidations are not equity strategies. They are short-term and often short-sighted approaches to cost savings.”
Hawley wrote the AISD board rushed the process, did not get enough input from the community, and did not have time to go through enough anti-racism training before making such a large decision about a historically under-served area of the district.
“Paternalism remains a persistent attitude by leaders who ‘believe they know best’ for communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities in order to realize cost savings to reinvest into programming,” wrote Hawley.
Austin ISD leaders argue they are closing and consolidating schools to fix a chronic problem of under-enrolled schools. They say those demographics are the problem — they argue — not racism; there are simply not enough students and families in east Austin to support the number of schools there.
In her report, Hawley recommends redirecting bond money to restoring and modernizing the schools, change school boundaries and feeder patterns to bring students from other areas of town to east Austin, and bring in an external auditor to look at academics, finance, facilities and bond projects in the past decade.
“Developing hearts and minds for authentic collaboration may help us to identify better solutions than the top-down, white supremacy culture to which we have all been socialized,” wrote Hawley.
In a cover letter to the report released after KXAN requested a comment, Dr. Hawley wrote this report was supposed to be an internal document.
“The analysis is now public, however, it is not the report I had initially planned to release publicly. Having worked closely with the Austin ISD leadership team since August, I was preparing to finalize a comprehensive report about the process after the board vote and before the winter break this month. The report was intended to be used internally for introspection and reflection. The published report was rushed due to an urgent request from a board member and mounting public demands from families and the media,” wrote Dr. Hawley.
The night of the vote
On November 18, this report was not included in materials for public input and discussion despite some board members’ requests. AISD submits documents to be publically discussed a week before a board meeting. A district spokeswoman tells KXAN this report did not meet that deadline and was originally proposed to be an internal document before releasing it to the public.
The night of, Trustee Arati Singh called Hawley to speak to the report’s broad topics instead.
“The map that you have of the closures is a map of what 21st-Century racism looks like,” Hawley told the Board.
Hawley was hired by the district in June to raise the concerns of communities of color and immigrants. The board voted 6-to-3 to move forward with the closure and consolidation plan.
Eighty-nine people signed up to speak during the public comment session at the Monday board meeting. All of them spoke out against the plan.
Trustees Arati Singh, Ann Teich and LaTisha Anderson voted against the closures. The district said the closures and consolidations will allow it to save $3.78 million.
“Magnified the lack of trust”
Hawley wrote, “The School Changes process itself revealed and magnified the lack of trust the community has for the district.”
In her opinion, the process did not address, “the years of the school to prison pipeline culture for children of color, inequitable disbursement of resources, deep segregation, and most importantly, the specific academic and social-emotional needs of students, who have been systemically under-served.”
She writes that Spanish translation documents were not readily available, that those documents had incorrect information, and that a small number of black families were engaged in the process.
“School closure recommendations emerged through what some community members perceived as an “opaque process” without a clear methodology or the names of staff and personnel who made the decisions,” she wrote.
What is not in the report?
AISD has grappled with changing district demographics, closures, and consolidations for years. State officials and consultants have recommended shuttering schools as an option since at least the early 1990s. Six-thousand students have left the district in recent years. The public backlash has always led district leaders to delay those plans.
Hawley’s report was not meant to be an over-arching, district-wide snapshot on the closing plan.
Instead, she was hired and worked to specifically look at the issue through a racial equity lens. She did not include information on the district-wide initiatives to boost Austin’s east side or the slight boundary changes in southwest Austin, which has also irked parents there.
AISD is also implementing new districtwide initiatives to coincide with the closure and consolidation plan. They include bonuses and hiring changes to get more experienced teachers in low-income and underserved schools.
One of the largest districtwide initiatives, childcare from 6 am to 6:30 pm, will be prioritized in east Austin according to an AISD spokeswoman.
“We understand the difficulties families face trying to secure reliable, engaging, and fun before- and after-school care for their children, and we want to help all of our families. AISD will meet the needs of all families of all socio-economic backgrounds by expanding the school hours from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. across the entire district, ensuring all students have safe, engaging, and reliable care before and after school,” AISD staff wrote in documents on the school changes.
“Holistically the school changes process has a lot of aspects that we should be discussing and be excited about quite frankly,” said Reyne Telles, Executive Director of Engagement and Communication for AISD, “School closures are not an equity strategy themselves. School changes were part of a larger process.”
More to come
The original school closure and consolidation plan was released in September and had twelve schools, 10 elementary, and two middle schools.
In a revised plan, Metz, Pease, Sims, and Brooke elementary schools were chosen to close at the end of this school year. Students at Brooke will be split up between two schools.
Under the plan, students from Sims will now go to Norman, students from Metz will now go to Sanchez Elementary, students from Pease will go to Zavala Elementary and operate as a separate school within the building, and students from Brooke will go to either Govalle or Linder elementary schools, depending on which side of Lady Bird Lake they live on.
There will be a two-year moratorium on requests for proposals for the commercial sale of each newly vacated property.
The plan calls for Superintendent Cruz to prioritize community use or affordable housing for teachers or staff in the vacated buildings.
AISD staff said the eight remaining schools on the original list shared in September are still under consideration for closure. Those conversations are expected to resume in January.