IDEA re­solved; fo­cus on grad­u­a­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS -

Austin

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

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