Commentary: Why East Austin should have its own school district

Along with many of our colleagues and student parents, we believe the time has come to split off East Austin from Austin ISD to form its own school district, Capitol ISD. We already have two de facto districts divided by Interstate 35, Austin’s historical demarcation of segregation. We should legally separate them — to the benefit of both. There also are sound financial reasons for this.

Having spent nearly a year organizing community support to keep Norman and Sims Elementary schools open has given us insight into the painful neglect with which Austin ISD deals with East Austin schools.

The Nation’s Report Card and the Houston-based Children at Risk, which ranks Texas schools, have underscored severe deficiencies in reading and math proficiency in East Austin schools. These scores break out by race, ethnicity and income: Austin ISD’s high-performing schools serve middle-class and upper-class families in typically white neighborhoods, while lower-income families, which are mostly Latino or African-American, are relegated to underperforming schools.

EDITORIAL: Why Austin ISD is reviewing 62 schools named since 1960s.

Forbes magazine last year noted that Austin ISD set aside $4 million for a public relations effort to stem student attrition to charter schools circling East Austin with little result. That $4 million in tax money would have been better spent improving East Austin schools. The quality of schools, not a fancy PR campaign, attracts families. Parents know the difference.

Austin ISD knows how to do better — but it chooses not to.

Much of the reason is that the school board tilts away from East Austin. Most trustees do not represent East Austin constituents. Their attention focuses west of I-35. The recent $1.1 billion bond, for example, heavily favored schools in their area over those on the east side.

Austin ISD is singularly lacking in vision for East Austin schools and stuck in a central office bureaucratic morass. Until East Austin has its own district, it will continue to suffer from Austin ISD’s decadeslong neglect.

Capitol ISD would be established along Austin ISD’s historical lines of discrimination: east of I-35 to the Texas 130 toll road; north to Walnut Creek; and south to Texas 45. It would encompass the property along both sides of I-35 and include North Austin to Lamar Boulevard.

Instead of Austin ISD transferring the expanding wealth from new housing developments and businesses in East Austin to west of I-35, Capitol ISD would have access to that wealth. It would have funds to refurbish buildings, reward dedicated teachers, unleash education creativity, create community school hubs from 7 a.m.-8 p.m., and disperse administrative staff throughout local schools, so every day they would see the kids they serve. There would be no behemoth administrative temple like Austin ISD’s.

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Capitol ISD’s governance would be attuned to the community. People could run for trustee positions from far smaller districts, which would be more appropriate to individuals’ resources in East Austin. The trustees would be diverse, look like the people they serve, and understand their needs.

The Texas Education Code allows for separating an area from an independent school district into a new one. The easiest way is for Austin ISD trustees to vote to do so under Chapter 41, which allows separation for purposes of reducing property tax wealth. .

Here’s the financial plus for Austin ISD: If Capitol ISD took a while to get on its financial feet, it would benefit from “internal recapture” of money that Austin ISD must send to the state to distribute to poorer districts. In other words, Austin ISD’s payment to the state would come back to the Austin area rather than to elsewhere in Texas.

Let’s create Capitol ISD for the sake of the kids and their families. That, after all, is what a school district is all about.

Harrington is a human rights attorney in East Austin. Spigner is the parent of a Norman Elementary School student.

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