School, community leaders debate equity in $1.1B Austin district bond


8:20 p.m. UPDATE:

School and community leaders Wednesday night debated whether there is equity in the Austin school district’s $1.1 billion bond measure, and raised issues such as district segregation, the tax impact of the bond and school closures.

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 schools, an argument some opponents have made. Campus consolidations may on be the table regardless of whether the bond passes, he said, and he would rather have the funds to rebuild dilapidated schools instead of leaving them in poor facilities if that happens.

“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.”

Trustee Jayme Mathias addressed concerns about relocating Eastside Memorial High School from the former Johnston High School campus to the original Anderson High School, making room for the Liberal Arts and Science Academy to expand as stand-alone campus in the Johnston location. Many have criticized the proposal saying that the school, which houses largely low-income Hispanic and black students, is being displaced by a magnet program that serves largely middle-to-upper class students, the majority of whom are white. He said the district’s shrinking enrollment, about 6,000 since he was elected to the board in 2012, would mean the district could eliminate multiple campuses for the number of students who have left the district.

“For us to right-size some of these schools is a tremendous opportunity,” said Mathias, saying school communities win with the passage. “Lets give our kids and grandkids the schools they deserve.”

Stopping short of directly coming out against the bond, former Trustee Paul Saldaña said he had lingering concerns about it. He said the bond goes against the school board directive to work to desegregate District 1, the east and northeast part of the district that Gordon represents. Moving LASA into District 2, the south and southeast part of the district Mathias represents, perpetuates 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.”

Peggy Vasquez, representing the Save East Austin Schools PAC, recalled historical inequities of segregation in the district. She said her mother was forced to attend the Baker School, with other Mexican-American children. District leaders at the time said it was because the children did not speak English, but her mother was bilingual, and it was later documented that students with Hispanic surnames were placed into a handful of campuses because they were Latino.

She said the move violated their civil rights. She said she is fighting against the further segregation that the LASA and Eastside Memorial moves would cause.

During the forum, the panelists also weighed in on the tax impact of the bond package. Among the selling points of the bond, Mathias said the district absorb the costs of the bond projects without the need of raising the tax rate. Critics, however, have been quick to point out that taxes would continue to climb, as property values rise.

Tam Hawkins, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, said most people don’t mind pay the tax, but they mind not getting a good product for that tax.

EARLIER:

The East Austin Coalition for Quality Education tonight is hosting a forum on the Austin school district’s $1.1 billion bond measure that will go before voters in November.

The forum begins at 6 p.m. in the King-Seabrook Chapel at Huston-Tillotson University, 900 Chicon St. About 300 are expected to attend.

Two current sitting school board members and one former school board member are among the panelists and will be joined by a business leader whose group endorsed the bond and a leader in an organization fighting against the bond’s passage.

Much of the $1.05 billion bond package will go toward the construction of new schools or the rebuilds of existing campuses, as well as multiple improvement projects. The bond is expected to be the first in a series aimed at modernizing all of the district’s schools and facilities.

The bond has received support across the city, including endorsements from the business community and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

But opposition against the bond has grown and critics have questioned the equity of the projects and raises concerns about the tax impact to homeowners. Event organizers said they hope the forum fosters multiple perspectives and a robust exchange of ideas on the issues.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.



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