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Charter Schools Worry New Zoning Regulations for Schools Could Curb Growth

Mengwen Cao for KUT
Construction on the Jaime D. Padron from 2014.

For some Austin residents in the Windsor Park neighborhood, the problems began two years ago. That's when charter school Austin Achieve built a new school right next to the neighborhood — 16 feet away from some homes, to be exact. 

Beth Castello lived in the neighborhood. At an Austin City Council meeting this month, she testified that construction started without alerting neighbors. Workers often violated city code, she said, and construction continued late into the night. When students started attending the school, the street was clogged with traffic during pick-up and drop-off times. 

“The school had the option to conduct their own traffic study," Castello said. "And as a result, they made decisions in the best interest of their own financial bottom line without the experience needed to predict the resulting problems or the responsibility to its students, the city, or residents of the neighborhood, in order to responsibly plan a safe and efficient solution.”

Others who testified said they were forced to leave the neighborhood because of the construction and constant traffic. 

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

In the past, public school building construction often took years. Sometimes it required a bond election, and it usually included public input and years of building. As taxing entities, public schools had a responsibility to those who paid taxes, and being a good neighbor was good business. 

In Austin, public school districts are bound by zoning and development regulations in individual interlocal agreements established years ago. The agreements include rules like how close a school can be to a residential home or how tall a school building can be. It also includes rules about impervious cover – how much a plot of land can be covered in pavement that prevents water from filtering into the soil. 

But, charter schools aren't taxing entities and therefore cannot create interlocal agreements. As charter schools began to rapidly open in Austin, they weren't bound by those rules. They could construct buildings without many restrictions.  

"When this discussion first started months ago, it definitely felt a lot like a referendum on charter schools."

Last week, the Austin City Council changed that. The council approved a set of rules and regulations for charter schools to construct school buildings within the city. The rules mirror current development agreements between various local public school districts and the city. The goal is to level the playing field between public schools and charters. 

While many charter schools said the new regulations were a workable compromise, some charters are worried at least one regulation will curb their ability to build schools and grow within the city: impervious cover.

The new regulations say charter schools can only build on 50 percent of a lot, which is the same percentage as Austin public schools. But Matt Abbott, CEO of Wayside Charter Schools, says the requirement is arbitrary and outdated, especially if a charter wants to build a school in a commercial zone. According to the City of Austin's zoning guidelines, office spaces and businesses can build on up to 80 percent of commercial space.

“Why would we want to limit a school’s ability to build a facility that best meets their needs based on an interlocal agreement that was adopted in the mid '90s when the fabric and the construction of Austin has changed quite a bit since then?" Abbott asked.

During last week's city council meeting, Council Member Ellen Troxclair proposed an amendment that would've allowed all schools to increase impervious cover percentage in commercial zones.

"Any fiscally sound charter should be able to meet basic standards."

"I had trouble wrapping my mind around how we can allow something like a Walmart to buy a piece of [commercial] property and build up to 80 percent impervious cover, but we wouldn't allow a school to do the same thing," Troxclair said. "It just didn't make sense."

But other council members, including Council Member Leslie Pool, rejected that amendment.

"This really has to be level playing field, and this still gives an advantage to the public charter schools in large part because of smaller units they can be in," Pool said. "Land on the east side is most likely to be developed by the charter schools, and I deeply worry about the fate of our public schools on the east side. I don't want to be a part of an effort on this council to unravel the most excellent and top notch education our students get in our Austin Independent School District." 

Abbott at Wayside Charter Schools and other charter operators also wonder if these new restrictions are not just about where a school can be built or how tall a school building can be, but a way to stop the growth of charter schools, which have pulled students from local public schools over the years.

"When this discussion first started months ago, it definitely felt a lot like a referendum on charter schools," Abbott said. "And this regulation could be used to limit [the ability] to grow [and] to serve more students, and I felt that was definitely part of it. I know opponents all along have said that's not the case – that they're seeking parity. But, when you look at what was passed, it is going to be a tool to limit where charter schools serve students."

Those who support the new requirements, including Austin ISD board members and most Austin City Council members, also reject that argument. 

"This is not a referendum on charter schools," Austin resident Susan Moffat testified to the city council last week. Moffat was involved in the zoning negotiations. "Some charters claim good works and financial hardship should entitle them to more," she said, referencing the common complaint that charter schools do not receive money from the state for facilities like public schools.

"But that's not a sound basis for extra development rights, especially for schools that while publicly funded, are privately operated and are not accountable to Austin voters. Any fiscally sound charter should be able to meet basic standards."

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