Austin is a generous, tech-savvy, diverse, world-class city that offers an incredible economic and social quality of life. We value inclusion, trust and honest listening to many voices and are proud of our track record of community innovation and leadership on many fronts.
In that context, we expect of the kind of public school system that will be ready to take full advantage of the new Google Fiber when it arrives. A system where most schools are exemplary and where most graduates are rock-star ready. A system where the whole community feels heard, then rolls up its sleeves toward a common vision.
Those of us who believe in Austin and have high hopes for our public schools are having a hard time getting behind the enormous bond package. Why?
The Austin school district management team has not presented a plan for its facilities investment that aligns with strong academic goals. It hasn’t earned community trust, and until it does both, we are wary of voting for such a large amount of money to implement an agenda that is unclear at best and at worst perpetuates mediocrity.
Many parents and taxpayers who are not sure about the answers to their most fundamental questions are sending a message by voting “no” on the bonds.
If the bonds don’t pass, school trustees may become more determined to deal swiftly with its management issues, reconfigure the package and bring it back to voters as soon as possible.
Accountability starts at the top. Many voters — including those who always vote for school bonds — are conflicted about this package because the school district’s current management has alienated many in the community with a toxic combination of disdain for parents and teachers, a lack of transparency, poor communication and an inability to learn from mistakes.
The district’s aging infrastructure is in need of repair, of course. But much of the package goes to nonessentials including seemingly random new construction costs, new performing arts facilities, gyms, and a disproportionate amount for controversial same-sex schools.
Some of the practical questions raised about this package can be summed up as follows:
Why did the Austin school district put out a rushed, complex bond package riddled with errors and fuzzy math, heavily backed by school building contractors who stand to benefit, and choose an election date that ensures the lowest possible voter turnout?
But the strategic questions about what benefit the bonds will bring are most urgent and compelling:
•Will these funds do anything to boost our graduation rate or any other strategic benchmark metrics?
•Does this bond package perpetuate the longstanding and unacceptable academic inequality between schools? Do these bonds do anything at all to boost our underperforming schools so that every neighborhood in Austin has excellent schools and every homeowner has an equal shot at increasing the value of their property?
•What is the rationale that some schools (Zilker Elementary, West Austin, $9 million) get very large sums of money compared to other schools (Pecan Springs Elementary, East Austin $2 million)?
•Has the district done what it said it would do — quantify how the bonds meet the district’s goal of creating “delivery models and strategies to educate an increasingly diverse student demographic where today, two of three students are economically disadvantaged and one out of every three is an English Language Learner? ”
• How much of this bond package rewards investment in costly suburban development over the Edwards Aquifer at the expense of efficient central city schools? How do these bonds line up with the density and growth guidelines contained in the “Imagine Austin” plan?
•Are these bonds a gateway to implementing more of the insidious national “corporate reform movement” that the current management team stubbornly embraces?
• Just two years ago, this management team proposed an intensely unpopular and misguided plan to close up to 12 center city schools, saying they were “inefficient.” Now those same schools are getting $30 million in this bond package. Does this mean some or all the schools will stay open? What is the plan for facilities moving forward? Is the district moving away from small, neighborhood schools towards fewer, bigger schools?
We live in a time of dramatically reduced federal, state and local fiscal resources. Every single dime counts.
As a city protecting its economic prosperity and creativity, Austin deserves nothing but the best. And the K-12 students of Austin who are the light of our lives and at the core of our future deserve it even more.