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Austin Mayor Kirk Watson helped secure charter school permits for governor staffer

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson listens to public comments on changes to the city's land use code during a joint hearing with the Planning Commission on Oct. 26, 2023, at Austin City Hall.
Michael Minasi
Austin Mayor Kirk Watson listens to public comments on changes to the city's land use code during a joint hearing with the Planning Commission on Thursday at Austin City Hall.

When Gov. Greg Abbott’s deputy chief of staff, Toby Baker, heard his sons’ charter school was having trouble getting a permit to build a new campus in Austin, he knew who to ask for help.

Baker texted Austin Mayor Kirk Watson.

On Aug. 11, Baker told the mayor the school his kids attend, Valor Education, had encountered significant permitting delays. He worried teachers and staff would not be able to welcome students to the new school for the start of the 2024-2025 academic year.

“Do you or your staff have some time next week for me and possibly two others to come in and visit?” Baker texted and emailed Watson this summer. “Hoping the city staff can get a little nudge. Thank you! And I’m hoping you got up to Taos this summer!”

The “little nudge” would help Valor Texas Education Foundation, which operates charter schools throughout Central Texas, expand its presence in Austin. It hoped to build its seventh school on 25 acres of land the foundation bought last year in Southwest Austin.

But like any entity wanting to build, Valor needed to submit building plans to the city. It had to wait for staff to review these plans, give feedback and then, hopefully, grant the foundation permission to build. This process can often take months, even years, and has long been a thorn in the side of developers.

Valor originally applied for a site plan permit in June 2022. When it still hadn't been approved by the next year, a spokesperson for Valor said the school asked Baker to intervene. "[W]e reached out to Mr. Baker to see if he could assist us in navigating this challenging situation," Erin Fonner wrote in an email.

Valor Education currently runs two charter schools in Austin, including this one in Southeast Austin.
Ivy Fowler
Valor Education currently runs two charter schools in Austin, including this one in Southeast Austin.

According to text messages and emails obtained by KUT, Watson responded to Baker the same day saying he would help. “You bet,” the mayor texted back. “I just walked out of a meeting and walking into another. Will get us scheduled.”

Watson’s willingness to use his power to help a high-level state employee comes after he fielded criticism of his relationship with state officials during his first year as Austin mayor. A Texas senator before he was elected mayor in 2022, Watson brokered a partnership earlier this year between the Austin Police Department and state police to provide additional patrols in the city. That agreement, which was made without the input of other members of the council, ended in July after accusations of racial bias against state police.

A spokesperson for Watson’s office said he was not available for an interview. In a statement, the mayor said he sees it as his job to help people navigate the building process.

“We try to help every constituent who reaches out with an issue navigating the City by getting them to the right people or explaining a process or simply getting a status update on the project. It’s the job,” Watson said. He added that he was working to fix problems within the city’s permit office.

He said he has helped many constituents through the permitting process, including the Austin Independent School District, Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Texas French Bread, a historic campus bakery destroyed in a fire last year. KUT asked a spokesperson for the mayor's office to clarify what kind of help Watson and his staff provided these organizations, but she did not provide details.

It's unclear how Baker and Watson know each other. But a spokesperson for the governor's office said Baker has known Watson since 2007. He did not say how they first met or the nature of the relationship.

"The city permitting process for the school's construction was significantly delayed, which would have impacted over 1,000 Austin-area families and children,” Andrew Mahaleris, press secretary for Gov. Abbott, said.

A couple of hours after Baker initially reached out in August, Watson said he had asked city staff to update him on the school’s permitting woes. He then enlisted a colleague, Laura Huffman, to help.

Huffman worked as an assistant city manager in the 2000s and more recently as the head of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. In March, Interim City Manager Jesús Garza announced Huffman would be rejoining the city, this time as a consultant for “change management." The announcement came two weeks after council members fired then-City Manager Spencer Cronk and appointed Garza as the city’s top executive.

But according to The Austin Chronicle, it’s not entirely clear what Huffman’s work for the city entails. Over a period of six months earlier this year, the city paid her $150,000 to do wide-ranging tasks, including supporting the executive team and helping with labor relations, the Chronicle reported.

Huffman jumped in quickly to help Baker at Watson’s request. The three discussed the school’s permitting in a group text.

“I’m flagging this in our system so that we can all know if at any point in the coming months anything gets stuck in process,” Huffman wrote. “I will keep you both updated on key benchmark dates and for sure if something is off track.”

The mayor chimed in. “We’re here to help,” he assured Baker.

Over the next week, Huffman met with representatives from Kimley-Horn, an engineering firm working on the new charter school. One big issue with the project appears to have been the school’s plans for water lines, which staff wrote in a review did not comply with city code. Because the school will be in Southwest Austin, builders must abide by additional development restrictions since water from this part of the city flows into Barton Springs.

When Baker asked if he should join a meeting with the engineers, Huffman assured him she would handle it.

“Nope you have enough on your plate–we will do that on our end,” she said.

The next day, Huffman updated Baker.

“Just met with Kimley-Horn folks and we have a gameplan for getting the site plan wrapped up quickly,” she texted the Governor’s staffer and Watson. Watson thanked her.

A day later on Aug. 18, just a week after Baker first texted and emailed the mayor, he replied to the group chat: “Valor has their permit. Thank you for all of your help! Drinks on me at your convenience!”

“Happy to be helpful,” the mayor responded. “We should schedule seeing each other soon. Would be so fun!!”

Valor Texas Education Foundation recently started construction on a new school campus in Southwest Austin.
Ivy Fowler
Valor Texas Education Foundation recently started construction on a new school campus in Southwest Austin.

In a statement sent to KUT from a city spokesperson, Huffman echoed the mayor and said part of her and the city manager’s job is to help people navigate the permitting process. She said because the building in this case was a school, it became a higher priority.

“Schools in particular are priority projects for the City, both because of the essential mission they serve and because their timelines are precise to line up with the school year and cause the least possible disruption to students,” Huffman said. While charter schools like Valor receive public funding, they are not subject to the same level of oversight as public schools. “No matter who had been contacted by representatives from Valor, the outcome would’ve been the same.”

It’s not clear from the city’s permitting database which permit Baker was talking about when he texted Watson and Huffman to say the school had received theirs. Valor’s plans for the new school site weren’t approved by city staff until Oct. 4, although it's possible Baker was referring to a preliminary step in the process.

Regardless, on Oct. 20 a post on Valor Education’s Instagram page showed a photo of a bulldozer clearing dirt and plants from a swath of land. The caption read: “We have broken ground on Valor South Austin’s new campus!”

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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