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Despite Support for a Middle School at Mueller, Austin ISD Considers an Elementary School

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
As the Austin Independent School District mulls a possible school in Mueller, residents and district staff are divided over what kind of school to build.

Last week, Austin ISD released a proposal that suggests building an elementary school on a 10-acre tract in the Mueller neighborhood. That surprised a lot of people involved in the discussion, which has been going on for the past year, and last week’s conversations show just how delicate this situation is.

Cherrywood resident Jennifer Potter-Miller has a child in first grade at Maplewood Elementary. She has another child about to enter kindergarten and she wants to send her kid to public school. But, she has no idea where her kids will go once they get to middle school.

Maplewood students feed into Kealing Middle School, and Potter-Miller isn’t thrilled to send her kids there.  Kealing houses a magnet program and a neighborhood school. Most of the white students are in the magnet program, while the neighborhood school is predominantly students of color.

“It’s overtly racial and I don’t want to teach my children that that’s okay,” she said. “But, I don’t want to drive an hour to Fulmore or a half hour to Lamar. There’s no good options.”

Potter-Miller was excited by a possible middle school at Mueller, but she grew concerned after attending a meeting last week where the plans were discussed.

Austin ISD is now proposing an elementary school there, but many people wanted a middle school. She says she wasn’t the only unhappy person at the meeting:

“It was this extremely down energy at the table, because most of them had attended many meetings,” she said. “Somebody said ‘I attended seven two-hour-long meetings and there is nothing to show for it in this document.’”

"We can’t do things the way we’ve done in the past. They haven’t worked out for us."

That energy is what inspired her to come speak to members of the Facility and Bond Planning Advisory Committee (FABPAC) last week. That committee has embarked on the daunting task of recommending what Austin ISD should do with its school buildings over the next two decades – which ones to close, which ones to renovate and where to build new campuses.

At the table with parents and community members from Northeast Austin, a few people were also upset about a possible elementary at Mueller. Some were worried about how a brand new neighborhood school in a brand new development will look to the rest of Northeast Austin – a historically neglected area where trust in Austin ISD is already pretty low. 

"This is where it was going and it's almost like someone took away the football at the last minute, "FABPAC member Cynthia McCollom told a table of Northeast Austin residents and AISD staff at that meeting. "The perception of putting a neighborhood school for those kids in Mueller, which is exactly what you hear is,  'They're just going to make a bubble for them.' When you're talking about an elementary school, it's like, 'Oh, they're going to build a new school for the gentry."

Austin School Board Trustee Ted Gordon, who represents the area, says putting resources for an elementary school for an already privileged community doesn’t seem reasonable.

“I don’t think it’s efficient politically and I don’t think it’s efficient in other kind of ways either,” Gordon said.

"There’s only 10 acres of land out there, which isn’t ideal for a middle school."

He says whatever is built at Mueller needs to benefit all the people who live in Northeast Austin, and residents there aren’t going to be happy if building a school in Mueller means closing a school elsewhere in the neighborhood.

“That still raises the same issue that they only are willing to accept Mueller if it’s additive, not if it’s a replacement because their historical experience is when you replace, somebody wins, somebody loses,” said Kevin Foster, who’s been tapped by Austin ISD to develop a plan for the region through community engagement.

That plan proposed two middle school options for a kindergarten through 8th grade program. Another Northeast Austin planning team, which met over the summer, also supported a middle school at Mueller. Minutes from an August meeting show opinions were mixed, but there was more support for a middle school, rather than an elementary school.

So why is Austin ISD proposing an elementary school there?

The district’s Northeast Austin plan has gone through more than a dozen drafts. The change happened in late October. The most recent version – the 17th, so far – says the Mueller land will be the site of a new elementary school that may serve middle school grades. But version 15, dated five days earlier than the recent version, says the site could “provide a co-ed middle school option to families in the LBJ vertical team.”

“When we first put out [the plan for a] middle school, there was reaction to it,” Gordon said. “‘Well, why are we doing a middle school? Maybe we should do an elementary.’”

He says, ultimately, the changes in the plan are handled by Edmund Oropez, who heads the district's Office of Teaching and Learning.

Oropez says opposition to a middle school came from AISD staff. He says the plan could switch to a middle school-centric plan, but he says the district doesn’t think there’s enough land at Mueller for a middle school.

“There’s only 10 acres of land out there, which isn’t ideal for a middle school. So, that had another reason why it morphed into which is version 17 of the Northeast Plan, and it will continually morph into other things,” Oropez said.

Usually, Austin ISD looks for larger pieces of land to build a middle school, but Gordon suggests it might be time to look at non-traditional ways of building schools.

“Tradition hasn’t worked. The tradition here is racial and socioeconomic marginalization, so I’m definitely looking for non-traditional ways of approaching the situation here,” Gordon said. “We can’t do things the way we’ve done in the past. They haven’t worked out for us.”

No decisions have been made yet, and there are plenty of opportunities for community input in the next few months. The Austin School Board is scheduled to approve a new Facility Master Plan, which would include plans for the Mueller site, in March of next year.

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