An unlikely alliance has formed to oppose the Austin school district’s $1.1 billion bond measure in November.
The Save East Austin Schools political action committee, which says the bond proposal will worsen segregation and do little for the district’s neediest students, says one of the group’s stronger allies is the Travis County Taxpayers Union, led by former Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman, a staunch conservative. Their reasons for opposing the measure couldn’t be more different.
The Save East Austin Schools group is pushing against the closure of schools that serve mostly low-income minority students, opposes the relocation of an East Austin high school and is calling for more bond money for campuses on the east side of the district. The taxpayers’ union is calling for more fiscal transparency and less spending.
“Sometimes in politics you’re going to have strange bedfellows,” said Monica Sanchez, co-founder of Save East Austin Schools. “We’re not in it to support other causes; we’re in it to show voters why they shouldn’t vote for the bond.”
“The opposition is diverse, and it’s real, and it’s pretty passionate,” Zimmerman said.
Voters in November will determine the fate of the $1.05 billion ballot measure. The bulk of the funds in the bond package is earmarked to construct new schools, rebuild several campuses and ease overcrowding in pockets of the 83,000-student district.
But critics point out that more funds are designated to projects west of Interstate 35, the historical boundary between the city’s east and west sides, and its poor and affluent students.
A per-capita breakdown of bond projects shows more money is going to schools with high numbers of low-income students. District officials also are quick to point out that the city’s poverty is not isolated to East Austin.
Opposition to the bond plan also has been fueled by the possibility of shuttering some low-enrolled schools and consolidating them into new or modernized campuses. Internal district documents obtained by the American-Statesman show the district is considering consolidating four schools on the east side and using funds from sales of those schools to reduce the total bond cost.
The bond measure has received support across the city, including from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Sanchez and some of her group’s members have called the bond plan racist and questioned the district’s school closure plans, saying schools on the east side have been targeted, even though campuses in other areas of the district struggle with low enrollment as well.
It’s another of the group’s differences with Zimmerman, who sees the school closures as economic decisions.
“I don’t think the executive decisions have anything to do with racism,” Zimmerman said. “I think they’re economic decisions because so many East Austin children and families have lost faith in the district and have left. … They want to close (schools) because they’re empty, not because they’re racist. But since (other groups) have their own frustrations, we’re joined in the cause of knocking down the bond, so we’re working together.”
Zimmerman said his group is weighing a financial donation to the Save East Austin Schools PAC.
Some in East Austin remember Zimmerman’s controversial remarks to a group of mostly Hispanic students who pressed city leaders in 2016 to continue funding after-school programs. He asked them to pledge to finish school and “do something useful and produce something in your society so you don’t have to live off others.”
On Tuesday, a group of diverse community members and leaders gathered for a news conference organized by Zimmerman at LBJ High School to voice opposition to the bond measure. They included an activist for gun rights, activists for economic equality and social justice, and groups from Mexican-American neighborhoods.
“This is not an east side versus west side thing,” said Pete Salazar, of the Johnston High School alumni group, who is opposed to school closures and relocating Eastside Memorial High School. “This is a not a Republican versus Democrat thing. This is about doing the right thing.”
Austin school bond forum
The East Austin Coalition for Quality Education will host a forum at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Huston-Tillotson University on the Austin school district’s bond measure.
The Equity by Design: Educational Equity, Bonds & School Funding forum’s panelists include:
• Austin district Trustee Ted Gordon, representing East and Northeast Austin’s District 1
• Peggy Vasquez, representing Save East Austin Schools PAC
• Austin district Trustee Jayme Mathias, representing East and Southeast Austin’s District 2
• Former Austin district Trustee Paul Saldana, who represented South Austin’s District 6
• Tam Hawkins, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce
Moderator: Alberta Phillips of the American-Statesman