AISD’s own equity officer calls school closure plan ’21st century racism’

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin ISD’s Chief Equity Officer called the district’s plan to close four schools — including three in historically black East Austin — racist. The district then chose to move forward with its plan to shutter those schools anyway.

“The map that you have of the closures is a map of what 21st century racism looks like,” said Stephanie Hawley, who the district hired in June as AISD’s very first equity officer.

Hawley then detailed what she calls inequities in the district’s plan to close Metz, Sims, and Brooke elementary schools in East Austin and Pease Elementary School in downtown Austin.

During her passionate speech, which was met with bursts of applause, Hawley explained that she had not found documentation or satisfactory reasons for the schools selected to possibly close.

“I’m an old teacher,” said Hawley. “And I need to see your work. And I didn’t see it.”

The district cited poor facilities and declining enrollment as two reasons behind the closures.

Hawley says she’s heard different data and different stories regarding the proposed closures, but she says whatever the process was, it was flawed.

“This is what well-meaning racism looks like,” said Hawley. “I believe we can do better.”

Conversely, in a September panel discussion, the school board said that the proposals actually aimed to combat systemic inequality.

AISD laid out in its plans for the closures that in the case of consolidating Brooke and Sims with other schools, minority students and those from low socioeconomic households would actually get better opportunities, with more resources to help with literacy, suspensions, gifted and talented placement and graduation rates.

While east side schools are known for being made up of mostly black or hispanic students, KXAN compared the east side to other parts of town and found most Austin ISD schools have a majority of minority students. Only 24 are listed as being predominately white.

While AISD listed under-enrollment as a big factor, KXAN found 32 schools across town were listed as being under-enrolled in the 2018-19 school year, according to AISD’s 2019 Demographics report. Any school that’s at 75% capacity or less is considered under-enrolled.

Hawley said that the district needs to have more contact with the communities it is disrupting, adding that the district has the ability to “bring humility to this process.”

In September, AISD staff released a plan that called for 12 schools to close. District staff said all schools on that original list are still under consideration, adding the community conversations around closures are expected to resume in January.

The district says the closures and consolidations will allow it to save $3.78 million.

Equity Officer, a new position within AISD

Hawley is the district’s first-ever Equity Officer. She was hired in June.

In a job description posted in March, AISD laid out that the Equity Officer is responsible for operationalizing the board’s equity policy.

She was also hired to provide innovative leadership and management oversight, and she’s charged with ensuring “equitable practices are aligned with the strategic plan”.

The posted salary range is between $114,000 and $127,000.

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