Commentary: An apology, and a call for a second chance

  • Ted Gordon
  • Special to the American-Statesman
12:36 a.m. Friday, Dec. 8, 2017 Opinion
Families make their way from Lanier High School Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016 after meeting with Austin school district officials about T. A. Brown Elementary school’s indefinite closure after an engineer found serious structural problems with the building’s floor. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

For the better part of the past two years, I looked with skepticism at the whole Facility Master Plan process and what it meant for East and Northeast Austin, particularly in terms of equity for my district, District 1.

Although I voted against the FMP for reasons related to my concerns about equity, I ultimately supported the $1 billion school bond proposition when it became painfully apparent that District 1 schools would be in worse shape should the bonds fail. My support of the bonds, however, was predicated on funding to build a new East Austin elementary school if there were no consolidations. The schools most likely to be considered for consolidation were Norman and Sims. Their enrollment numbers have made them vulnerable to consolidation for years.

VIEWPOINTS: Austin ISD’s plan to close, consolidate schools shreds public trust.

However, my support for the bond was also predicated on an understanding that the bond was not a school closure plan. I knew this to be a fact because, frankly, neither the superintendent nor the board of trustees need a bond to make closing decisions. Case in point: T.A. Browne Elementary School, which was shuttered in the middle of the school year.

Despite my assurances to community members who trusted me that a vote for the proposed school bond was not a vote for closure, among the first post-bond actions the Austin Independent School District administration has engaged in was a “unification” plan for Norman and Sims that looked and felt like a closure plan.

I sincerely regret this — and I apologize to anyone who felt betrayed by that action. I, too, felt betrayed by that sequence of events and empathize with the sense of loss of trust the community has felt over how this was presented.

Austin deserves better, particularly those who were the most skeptical of this bond process in the first place, our communities of color.

NEW DETAILS: Austin schools superintendent issues apology, rethinks school closure timelines.

In the aftermath of this communications debacle, Superintendent Paul Cruz has explained that his intent was to put the modernization of East Austin schools on the same fast track as that of West Austin schools that are being built and rebuilt. A noble nod toward equity, certainly. But a lot was lost in the translation.

If it looks like closure, sounds like closure. In the minds of many, it is closure, even if it was a first step conceived in the spirit of equity, rather than the actual closing process itself.

The public trust in Austin ISD is a fragile thing. Despite a 72-percent passage rate on Election Day, one cannot take that support for granted, especially in communities where trust has been so easily betrayed in the past.

The district administration may have interpreted that 72-percent win as an indication of a new era of trust in Austin ISD and strong support for public education. However, as declining enrollment and the proliferation of charters indicate, we as a district still have a long way to go. In this context, public trust is a currency that should not be squandered. Yet, the district did just that with this rollout of school unification plans in a manner that flouts the best communication practices we developed during the two years of Facility Master Plan preparation leading up to the bond.

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: Viewpoints delivers the latest perspectives on current events.

It is my sincere hope that the people who supported the bond, at least in part because of my encouragement, will bear with me. I know that we did the right thing by supporting the bond. It includes many fundamentally important improvements for our children and our schools.

Moving forward I will make sure the district takes a more inclusive, transparent, thoughtful and sensitive approach on all decisions related to schools in District 1 that affect the lives of children, parents, and families, as well as the livelihoods of teachers and staff.

I ask the community to not let this misstep — serious as it was — permanently damage the trust our public-school system deserves, for all its foibles and flaws.