Emotions ran high at the first of two public meetings last night intended to give people an opportunity to respond to school closure options developed by an Austin Independent School District task force.
But task force members have also noted an occasional disconnect between perception and reality when it comes to discussing the hard choices in front of them. In advance of tonight's meeting, some task force members are trying to get AISD financial chief Nicole Conley-Abrams to address the crowd and explain why the district must chop $54 million from its budget.
One woman tearfully lambasted the school district last night over one of the most recent closures, saying, "We have not forgotten that you closed Johnston down. Don't do it! The wounds don't heal." But Johnston was closed by the state in 2008, not the ISD.
Other misperceptions relate to timing. Some people were surprised to learn the school district was even considering school closures. But public meetings have been held since March 2010 on the issue, and Dr. Meria Carstarphen began talking about the possibility of school closures almost from the moment she arrived to AISD in the summer of 2009.
What is new this week is the specific list of schools that could be closed. The task force thought it would be a good idea to hold a public conversation as soon as that list was announced. But some people perceived the "sudden" community meetings (which had been planned for weeks) as an attempt to stymie opposition to the proposals.
"Y'all are all monsters, because y'all are trying to destroy our kids' educations, which is also destroying our futures," an angry parent of an Ortega Elementary student said to task force members last night.
But task force members insist they have pained for months to find ways to consolidate schools that minimizes overall disruption to the district.
"Principals and administrators have been aware of our process since it began, and a broader net of community folks have been involved in our process as well," task force co-chair Janet Mitchell told KUT News.
"The other big misconception that came across last night was the perception that if we do as a community go ahead with consolidation, that it would be effective in September, and that would not be the case," Mitchell said. Closures, if they happen, would begin in September 2012.
Another important misunderstanding, according to task force member Susan Moffat, is the financial underpinning for the district's desperate cash crunch.
"It's very important for people to understand that the architect of our misery is the state legislature," she said. "The school board, the superintendent, they're doing the best job they can, but we're looking at a $54 million hole in our budget because of how Texas finances its public education."
Moffat said the state underfunds education, and leaves property-rich school districts like Austin to subsidize property-poor districts. It was a design developed in response to a Texas Supreme Court ruling that said the state must provide an equitable level of education across Texas.
Austin ISD sent $127 million to the state this school year in Chapter 41 recapture payments, money distributed to other districts with a lower property tax base. But Moffat says the funding system doesn't recognize the unique challenges of an urban district like AISD, where 59 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and a sizeable proportion speak English as a second language.
Finally, some people dreaded that schools would be permanently shuttered or perhaps even razed, but Mitchell said schools could be reopened as more families move into the attendance zones.
"Part of our recommendations are to maintain all of those facilities and keep them in the inventory of the district, and not sell facilities or raze buildings," she said.
Reasonable and well-informed people can disagree on the school closure options on the table, but the AISD School Facilities Task Force still has a lot of work to communicate the context of those options to the families they will ultimately affect.
Let the school district know what you think about closure options by attending tonight's forum from 6 pm to 8 pm at the Toney Burger Center, or fill out AISD's online survey.