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Phillips: How Austin ISD botched decision to move an acclaimed academy

It is a simple question: Who made the decision to move the Liberal Arts and Science Academy from the campus of Lyndon Baines Johnson High School in East Austin?

We now know the answer: It was Austin school district Superintendent Paul Cruz.

But until Wednesday, the answer had been elusive, as Austin ISD District 1 Trustee Edmund “Ted” Gordon can tell you. For two months, he had been asking that question — including at last Monday’s meeting in which the board approved a $4.6 billion facilities master plan that included moving the school out of his district.

Responses have varied widely, with district officials telling trustees and the public that the decision to move LASA was made by consultants, or by a facilities advisory committee, or by a South Austin planning magnet team, or by LASA and LBJ principals, or by the two schools’ campus advisory committees — or all of the above. In one case, trustees were told they probably made the decision, but that notion was quickly nullified by the fact that trustees never voted on the sole question to move LASA.

The question is important because it encompasses more than moving a school or the $90 million to $122 million associated with rebuilding LASA in a central location. It goes to a promise the Austin school district made decades ago to East Austin, stipulating that a high-performing science magnet would be placed at the LBJ campus in a show of the district’s commitment to integration.

The deal was crafted to sweeten a bitter pill East Austin swallowed regarding school trustees’ decision to end court-ordered busing to desegregate Austin district schools. Aside from the benefits of bringing together students of different backgrounds, the infusion of West Austin white students to East Austin schools steered more resources into campuses that had been badly neglected by the district.

To fulfill a similar promise to East Austin’s Latino community, the district placed its Liberal Arts Academy on the then-Johnston High School campus. In 2001, the district broke its promise to the Hispanic community, moving Johnston’s high-performing gem to LBJ to form LASA.

The move gutted Johnston, now Eastside Memorial, which has yet to recover its reputation and enrollment, which has plummeted to under 600.

Against that backdrop, the answer to who made the call to sever LASA from LBJ’s campus takes on greater importance as it illustrates a brazenness to break another key promise with the East Austin community without so much as a public hearing or even the courtesy of informing Gordon, whose district includes both LASA and LBJ. The insult is not lost on Gordon, a professor at the University of Texas.

“I feel like a token Negro,” Gordon told me. “No one was willing to own up to how the decision was made and where it was made from.”

After Monday’s board meeting, Cruz conceded to me that he made the call.

I asked Cruz whether he alone had the authority to decide to move a school, as heretofore such decisions have been made by the school board.

Cruz replied: “These items still come to the board for a vote.”

Here’s how Cruz explained his decision: Cruz, with input from select committees, such as the South Austin magnet planning team, made the decision to move LASA from LJB’s campus. That decision was forwarded to the facilities advisory committee as a directive to recommend where LASA should be moved. The facilities advisory committee recommended that LASA should be moved to a more central location, as one of hundreds of recommendations for modernizing facilities and building new schools, which the board voted on last week.

“I’m particularly incensed that the superintendent did not come to me as the District 1 representative and at least give me a heads-up that the district wanted to move an entire high school out of my district,” Gordon told me, after learning Cruz made the decision.

The goal in moving LASA was to build it bigger in a central location to meet demand for magnet seats. Expanding magnets is a truly worthy investment in preparing the next generation of innovators and inventors. But solutions could have focused on opening a second LASA-type magnet south of Lady Bird Lake in an expansion that would have located a magnet closer to families in the district’s southern sectors.

In going through a back door, Cruz bypassed Gordon’s and other trustees’ policymaking authority — as well as meaningful community engagement — over a hot-button issue. Such maneuvering set up the ugly confrontation we witnessed last week in which six trustees, who are white, voted to approve recommendations over the objections of three trustees who represent East Austin and, collectively, the highest concentration of minority students.

The three — Gordon, Jayme Mathias and Paul Saldaña — said the facilities recommendations, including the LASA one, were not equitable for East Austin schools and kids.

It’s no wonder the vote on facilities became a referendum on the district’s commitment to integration and equity. Since the vote, Saldaña has resigned, citing personal reasons.

The fallout casts a cloud over the district’s next big initiative: building support for a November bond election. Instead of doing damage control, Cruz and trustees should find a way to get things back on track — and honor the promise to East Austin.

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