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Loophole Allows Charter Schools to Skirt School-Related Building Regulations

Mengwen Cao
Workers take a break outside Jaime D. Padron Elementary School in North Austin on July 22, 2014. AISD schools like Padron must comply with construction regulations under the district’s interlocal agreement that charter schools don’t have to follow.";s:

There’s a fight brewing at City Hall over what regulations Austin charter schools must abide by to build new facilities. City staff says there are loopholes that allow charters to construct buildings without the same regulations as other public school districts, but charter schools disagree.

Two years ago, the charter school Austin Achieve built a school in Windsor Park. The construction surprised residents; the school was built directly next to homes—sixteen feet away from some.

And, since it opened, the drop-off and pick-up activity has clogged streets. It’s why residents like Amy Davis asked the city’s Planning Commission this week to recommend that the council change the city code.

“This is not about charter schools. This is about land use,” Davis said. “This is about these archaic codes set in place years ago in neighborhoods where people are really being affected.”

Right now, public school districts like Austin ISD or Eanes ISD are in individual interlocal agreements with the city which include specific development regulations – how far a school is built from homes, for instance. But charter schools aren’t taxing entities, so they can’t make those agreements, and no agreement means fewer building restrictions. Now, City of Austin staff wrote a new ordinance for charter schools to match those interlocal agreements as much as possible. One change would require charters to provide some kind of traffic plan for the area around the school.

“The schools, AISD and surrounding districts, go through lengthy process to establish a school, from a bond package to many years of community involvement before they arrive at a school, or they bring us a plan,” says city engineer Andrew Linseinsen. “They often bring us proposed improvements. Today, we don’t get that from a charter school. They’re not required to provide it.”

Traci Berry is the superintendent of the charter school Goodwill Excel Center. She was one of many charter school representatives who voiced their opposition to the ordinance. Berry asked the commission not to let one charter school’s clash with a neighborhood cloud their judgment of all charters:

“Please don’t assume that we all don’t have open or neighborly process,” Berry said

Berry says, since the state doesn’t provide charter schools with facility funding like it does for traditional ISDs, many charters don’t have extra money for the proposed requirements.

The planning commission still recommended the ordinance in a 7-4 vote, but staff says it will continue to meet with stakeholders to see if they can come to an agreement. The ordinance comes before the full council for a public hearing on June 9. 

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