School and community leaders Wednesday night debated whether the Austin school district’s $1.1 billion bond measure would benefit students equally across the district, and raised issues such as the bond’s tax impact, segregation in the schools and how to address underenrolled schools.
Trustee Ted Gordon said that while he has concerns with aspects of the bond, its failure would leave the school district in a dire financial situation.
He said that voting for the bond does not equate to voting for the closure of underenrolled schools, an argument some opponents have made. Campus closures and consolidations might be on the table regardless of whether the bond passes, he said.
“I’m not in favor of closing down any schools,” Gordon said. “I would rather have $25 million in the bond in case the decision is made to close the schools so that we can build something better on one of those sites.”
Wednesday’s forum, hosted by the East Austin Coalition for Quality Education at Austin’s Huston-Tillotson University, came about two weeks before early voting will start on the bond. Election Day is Nov. 7. Proponents say the bond, which aims to construct new or rebuild schools and make hundreds of improvements, is needed to help maintain, and even boost, the district’s dwindling enrollment.
But a recently formed political action group, among other opponents, says it will worsen segregation and disproportionately benefit students from the city’s west side.
Peggy Vasquez, representing the anti-bond Save East Austin Schools PAC, recalled historical segregation in the district and said she is fighting against further segregation that would be caused by moving the Liberal Arts and Science Academy and Eastside Memorial High School. Under the bond proposal, Eastside Memorial would relocate from its current home on the former Johnston High School campus to the original Anderson High School, making room for the LASA to expand as a stand-alone campus in the Johnston location.
As for changing school boundaries to add more students to underenrolled campuses, both Gordon and former Trustee Paul Saldaña said it’s not even a consideration.
“The political power, where it lies in Austin, Texas, is perfectly happy to leave school boundaries as they are,” Gordon said. “So even tinkering with the school boundaries is basically a no-no. It would take a monumental mobilization of political power, political and economic power, in this city to get those school boundaries drawn back to zero and rebuilt in an equitable way. Because Austin, despite the fact that it’s a progressive city, is not equitable. People have interests that they are bound to protect, and some of those interests have to do with where those school boundaries are constructed.”
Tam Hawkins, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, said arguments could be made for redrawing boundaries or modernizing and building new schools, but “at the end of the day, it’s about the students.”
“If our students are not given the support that they need to be successful and eradicate some disparity outcomes for black and brown students, none of this will matter,” Hawkins said, noting that business community members supported passage of the bond but must continue to fight to ensure inequities aren’t passed on. “I don’t care what line we draw. For me it’s a moot point.”
Trustee Jayme Mathias said the LASA-Eastside Memorial shift offers another solution, giving the chronically underenrolled Eastside Memorial a brand new-facility, while providing LASA room to grow.
But Saldaña said he continues to have lingering concerns, including that the LASA and Eastside Memorial moves worsen segregation in Gordon’s area.
“I do not support initiatives that perpetuate inequities, racism, segregation and classism,” he said. “I’m really struggling with the bond package because there’s some inequities.”
During the forum, the panelists also weighed in on the tax impact of the bond package. Among the selling points for the bond, Mathias said the district can cover the costs of the bond projects without raising the tax rate. Critics, however, have been quick to point out that taxes would continue to climb, as property values rise.
Hawkins said most people don’t mind paying the tax, but they mind not getting a good product for that tax.