IDEA resolved; focus on graduation
school district trustees opted for a quick divorce with IDEA Public Schools rather than a compromise that would have allowed mutual custody of the students.
We had advocated the latter to give both sides time to work toward mutually beneficial arrangements in the shotgun marriage, which created IDEA Allan last year. But that was not to be as relations between the Austin school board and IDEA were strained to the breaking point by November election results and actions of IDEA’s executive leadership. Adding to the stress were culture clashes driven by differences in public school governance and charter school autonomy. As Gina Hinojosa, vice president of the school board, stated, it was evident the partnership was headed for divorce. The question that remained was how soon it would happen. The answer was now.
IDEA Allan Academy opened in August, but will be dissolved in its first year of operation, at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Though the charter will vacate the building at the district’s East Austin campus, it will continue its program for its 544 students at another site to be announced in the coming weeks. When it opens next year, it will operate as an independent charter school with a different mission than transforming Eastside Memorial High School. That job now falls to Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.
The breakup offers some benefits, but presents tough, new challenges.
Monday’s 5-4 decision to end IDEA’s contract with the Austin district reverses a controversial board decision last year for the charter to take over a beloved neighborhood school, Allan Elementary in East Austin. Then, six trustees led by Carstarphen rammed through the contract over the objections of many parents, teachers, students and residents who staged protests at board meetings. Many East Austin residents were forced to stand outside in cold weather at those meetings as decisions were made about their children, neighborhoods and tax dollars. Such actions triggered a backlash that swept four new trustees into office in November, changing the makeup of the board. Three of those, Hinojosa, Jayme Mathias and Ann Teich, joined veteran trustees Tamala Barksdale and Robert Schneider to end IDEA’s contract.
Monday’s decision helps the district move swiftly beyond an issue that drained time, resources and attention from many other more pressing concerns, such as improving high school graduation rates. Ending the IDEA contract permits the board to find its voice, pace and purpose as a team. The IDEA decision had greatly undermined the former board’s ability to work together because it thrust trustees into two camps — those supporting Carstarphen’s IDEA initiative and those opposing it. Those divisions blocked progress on key issues.
Comments of IDEA founder and CEO Tom Torkelson also strained relations. Last year, Torkelson called those who opposed the deal “professional protesters.” Then last week, he boasted that a $29 million federal grant IDEA received validated its approach and cast doubt on the judgment of the Austin school trustees who opposed IDEA: “I would hate to see the board go down as the most knee-jerk reactionary board in the nation.”
Both comments were mentioned as factors in dissolving the partnership. Mathias described the recent comments as “talking smack” about trustees.
Torkelson’s comments were insightful for what they illustrate about IDEA’s governance. While public schools are accountable to elected trustees as well as to local voters and taxpayers who pay the bills, charter schools operate in a much less transparent environment. Only after we raised concerns last year did IDEA agree to post past and future board meetings and minutes online, as Austin and other public districts do.
State charter schools that are financed by public school dollars are accountable to the state that regulates them and a board of directors whose members are not elected. Oftentimes, the CEO sits on the board, as Torkelson