Austin ISD Fields Criticisms of Plan to Replace Nonprofit

Members of education nonprofit Austin Voices (Courtesy of Austin Voices for Education and Youth)

Local political leaders, including county commissioners and at least two members of City Council, are engaging in back-channel discussions with Austin ISD’s board of trustees.

They are questioning an Austin ISD contract-bid process that threatens to remove a respected nonprofit partner, Austin Voices for Education and Youth, from five of the six schools where it currently works.

“I’m aware of the issue and trying to find a way to keep Austin Voices engaged,” Chito Vela, whose district includes three of the schools, told us. “They do good work, and I’d hate to lose them. Especially in the Rundberg area.”

Fifteen years ago, Austin Voices partnered with AISD to create service centers and has run them ever since. Known as family resource centers or FRCs, the centers provide help for economically disadvantaged families in Austin’s poorer neighborhoods with things like food assistance, rent assistance, and health care. The goal is to stabilize families so kids can stay in school.

AISD administrators recommended that the centers be taken over by a different nonprofit – Communities In Schools of Central Texas – at an April 4 meeting. CIS is highly regarded for its programs mentoring and counseling students, but opponents say it has little experience running FRCs. As of Friday afternoon the group had not responded to a request for comment. The board of trustees will vote next Thursday, April 25, on whether to approve the administration’s proposal.

That gives Allen Weeks, the executive director of Austin Voices, seven more days to try to save his FRCs. Weeks is prohibited from communicating directly with the district or the board during the bid process but has been in contact with other local leaders to suggest an alternative to the district’s proposal. Under Weeks’ proposal, the city and county money currently allocated for Austin Voices’ FRCs would stay with the group. But the approximately $200,000 that AISD kicks in would go to CIS. Such an arrangement would let Austin Voices continue to run its FRCs with its own money, while allowing Communities In Schools to open new FRCs in schools of their choosing. “We believe that there is a win-win here that does not reduce services to families but actually increases them, including supporting new campuses and communities,” Weeks said.

Weeks told the Chronicle the proposal would work within the wording of AISD’s request for proposal and keep services from being cut, something he and others believe will happen if the district goes forward with the current plan. “We think this is very fair, and it honors AISD’s process,” he said. “It would be an expansion of services – just give CIS the money and have them start new centers. That exactly fits the RFP, which said that the district has the right to put these centers in places of greatest need.”

Board President Arati Singh said the board is considering its options. “We understand that students do better academically when their families have stable finances, housing, and health care – as well as a strong school community,” Singh said in a text. “The board is doing its due diligence.”

Meanwhile, an email is making the rounds which accuses three AISD administrators of a conflict of interest in the request for proposal process. The message is from Ann Teich, a retired AISD teacher and an elected trustee from 2012-2020. It is addressed to just about every state, city, and county politico in Central Texas, as well as the leaders of AISD and the three administrators Teich criticizes.

In the email, Teich points out that one administrator associated with the selection process is a member of the board of directors for CIS. She also condemns the RFP process in general.

“I am extremely disappointed – no, extremely angry – that this corrupt process is allowed to continue,” Teich writes. “This corrupt RFP process is hurting our students, and supporting the education of and mental health of AISD students is your core work as trustees per the Texas Constitution.” Teich challenges Superintendent Matias Segura in her message, asking if he is working to change the process and saying, “I can provide evidence that it is corrupt, should you need it.” She also directly addresses the administrators criticized in the email, offering to put them in touch with her attorney.

Despite multiple requests for comment from the Chronicle, administrators and trustees have not provided a detailed denial of Teich’s criticisms. The most anyone has said comes from Singh, who told us that board counsel has decided that “no legal conflict of interest appears to be present in this case.”