Viewpoints: Cruz must do more to fix trust damaged from closure plans

We welcome Austin Independent School District Superintendent Paul Cruz’s efforts to assuage concerns and fears that several East Austin schools will be closed or consolidated by next August based on timelines the district established without input from the people most affected by the potential closures.

“I realize the excitement and eagerness to work coupled with aggressive project timelines have created misunderstandings about the future of some of our schools and the process for parent and community engagement. I accept responsibility, and I apologize for the confusion,” Cruz said in a statement Thursday.

“To that end, we are listening and will work with you to modify our timelines and engagement process. Like you, I want our new modernized learning spaces sooner than later, and I believe we want to get back to our focus on our vision.”

That comes a week after fierce public pushback, with Cruz moving away from controversial plans to close and consolidate six East Austin schools.

Cruz’s actions are a solid step in restoring the public trust he and his team squandered after voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.05 billion bond package to modernize Austin district schools.

But those actions don’t go far enough in setting matters right.

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

What is needed is full transparency and clarity about the next steps and whether the district will follow through on promises by Cruz’s bosses — the elected school trustees — to provide help and resources to chronically under-enrolled schools so they have a meaningful opportunity to meet enrollment benchmarks to keep them open. That needs to happen before the district moves to shut them down.

That kind of support to those ailing schools was supposed to happen in an independent process to assure many residents that the school district’s motives were not part of a covert plan to sacrifice largely minority campuses in East Austin for the benefit of largely white schools in West Austin — as historically has been done.

Cruz and company have yet to explain why they set up timelines that gave some schools just six weeks that include the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays to figure out which elementary campus – Norman or Sims — would be shut down and which of the two would remain open in a merger unifying the two campuses in a modernized school building.

District officials also should explain why they took such actions less than a month following voters’ overwhelming approval of a billion-dollar-plus bond package – the highest amount in the history of AISD. As we noted, school closures and consolidations were not on the ballot. Cruz and other district officials said as much many times when critics accused the district of having ulterior motives regarding East Austin schools.

In passing the bond package, voters clearly were focused on the district’s message that those bonds were needed to modernize, rebuild and retool Austin district schools so its 82,000 students would be better prepared for technological and medical jobs in the Central Texas and global economy. That was the primary reason this editorial board endorsed the bond package, despite a significant tax increase on homeowners.

It is wrong for Cruz or bond consultants to interpret passage – even by a 72 percent vote — as a license to shut down or consolidate schools, as they apparently have done.

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

Certainly, the district has been direct in its message that school closures and consolidations might well be necessary if – and that is an important distinction – 75 percent of seats in those schools aren’t filled over a reasonable length of time. That is understandable, given financial pressures facing the district as well as taxpayers. But that time frame certainly was not represented in recent weeks or months.

Along with Norman and Sims, other mergers showed up on an AISD timeline that caught even school trustees off guard last week. Those would have consolidated Metz, Sanchez and Zavala Elementary schools, meaning two campuses would no longer exist after the merger. Another East Austin school, Brooke Elementary, would close by August, when its students would be reassigned to Govalle, Ortega and Linder/Uphaus Elementary schools.

After the pushback, Cruz has modified plans, saying that closures and consolidations are off the table for now, though Norman and Sims might share a campus for a while as design work and renovations are being done on one of the campuses. Ultimately it would be the planning teams of those schools that decide whether to stay under the same roof or remain independent in separate locations.

That is an important first step. We remind district officials that trust is fragile. What is almost incomprehensible is why Cruz, knowing the district’s history of decades of inequitable treatment of East Austin schools, further strained that trust with plans prematurely calling for closures and consolidations.

At this point, Cruz must initiate several trust-building steps. Taking closures and consolidations off the table is just one. Transparency is another. Implementing an independent process that takes bold steps to help schools stay open — before moving to shut them down – is another.

We urge the district to respect and honor the promises made to the community leading up to the bond election in words and actions as the public’s trust, once damaged, now must be earned.

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