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In Austin's Mueller Development, a Possible School Raises a Lot of Questions

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon for KUT News
Across the street from a row of partially constructed homes lies ten acres of land designated for a public school, but it could be months before Austin ISD decides what kind of school it may build there.

There are 10 acres in the quickly expanding Mueller development that haven't been touched yet. The land is set aside for a public school. But what will that school look like and who will attend it? Right now, those are questions few people are willing to answer.

"I don't want to say too much right now," says Austin School Board Member Ted Gordon, who represents northeast and East Austin schools. "I don't want to get myself dragged in prematurely to what is ultimately, probably, going to be some kind of political fight one way or the other."  

Why doesn’t Gordon want to talk about it? A school at Mueller could be a major opportunity. The developer, Catellus, is giving Austin ISD free land to build a new, state of the art school.   Most of the nearby schools are more than 50 years old.

“They’re expensive to maintain and to constantly repair, whether it’s their AC units or new technology," says Chief Officer for Teaching and Learning Edmund Oropez with Austin ISD. "They weren’t designed for wireless technology.  The classrooms tend to be smaller as well.”

A new school would solve these problems, as long as voters approve an eventual bond for construction. But Oropez wouldn’t give specifics either.

“It’s really in the beginning stages," he says.

Without specifics, parents and the community are filling the void with questions, rumors and worries. Kim Mitchell lives in northeast Austin, just north of the Mueller development. She says the nonexistent school is already causing controversy in her neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of animosity, there’s a lot of arguing, there’s a lot of back and forth," Mitchell says.

Mitchell’s kids go to public school on Austin’s west side because she doesn’t like the options in her neighborhood. She wants the district to build a middle school at Mueller.

“The east side does not have good middle schools," Mitchell says. "We don’t have a good option.”

Last year, Mitchell's neighborhood middle school turned into an all-girl’s school, a specialized program AISD officials hope with bring students back to East Austin and to the district overall. 

“People gravitate toward attractive programming," Oropez says. "If we continually go down the path in really enhancing our programming, we think it will yield additional students.”

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon for KUT News
Catellus, the company in charge of the Mueller development project, designated ten acres of the project for a public school. But it's still unclear what the school would look like and who would attend the school.

Think of it as an “If you build it, they will come,” approach. This year, the district lost 1,100 students and is projected to lose more than 6,000 in the next decade. It’s unclear what program would go in a school at Mueller, but the district has discussed science and technology or a medical education program.

There are larger questions that also need to be answered: What happens to my school when you build a new one next door?

“The moment you say rebuild or create something new, people automatically gravitate: ‘Are you closing my school?," says Oropez. "I want to make it clear. We're not saying we're going to close any schools."  

Closing schools. Neither Oropez nor Gordon wanted to discuss the possibility.

"I would never," Gordon says. "It would be political suicide for me to come out and say I'm in favor of closing schools in North or East Austin."

Historically, closing schools has been nothing but bad news for East Austin. In the 1970's, a federal judge ordered Anderson High School, the black high school, to close as part of desegregation. The school was re-opened in northwest Austin, a white neighborhood.  Gordon says the black community was crushed and the relationship with the school district never quite recovered. Even recently, Gordon says East Austin schools have been ignored.

“AISD, under its previous superintendent [Meria Carstarphen], was prepared—for a bunch of complex reasons—prepared to see Northeast and East Austin to charter schools.”

For five years, Gordon says there was no investment or innovation.

“So it was much easier for them to say…we’ll leave those schools the way they are and not try to think innovatively about what could be done and leave it to charters to enter that space," Gordon says.

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon for KUT News
AISD School Board Trustee Ted Gordon represents Northeast and East Austin. He says whatever is built at Mueller needs to be part of a larger plan for students in the neighborhood.

The biggest challenge will be convincing long-time East Austin residents a new school in Mueller isn’t there to serve just those who live in the development.  Whatever happens at Mueller, Gordon says it has to be part of a something bigger.

“A plan for Mueller needs to be developed within context for east and northeast Austin," Gordon says. "Without that I don’t think it makes sense to implement anything at Mueller.”

Oropez agrees that the new school has to serve all East Austin students, but all that does is raise another question: how would the district guarantee diversity? That—and all the other questions could start to be answered as early this month, when Austin ISD plans to hold community engagement meetings. The board could vote on a possible concept for a school at Mueller in May. 

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