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Austin TIF: Warehouse or High School?

West Side activists will take their fight for construction of a neighborhood high school to City Hall.

The Austin Community Education Network will hold a press conference June 11 prior to the City Council Finance Committee's meeting on approval of a TIF that would subsidize a warehouse project on land ACEN wants for a new school.

A hundred parents, students and community leaders supporting ACEN's call for a new Austin High School attended a June 6 Finance Committee hearing, said Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority. Testimony was overwhelmingly opposed to the TIF, he said.

But the committee recessed without voting. Crawford predicts a quick vote in favor of the TIF June 11 so the matter can be considered when the full council meets later in the day.

"We will continue to fight," he said. "We're very concerned about the parliamentary procedure when the finance committee can reconvene and move the item to the full council without proper public notification."

He said other sites on the Northwest Industrial Corridor could accommodate the warehouse project, but Ald. Ed Smith (28th) has been unwilling to discuss alternatives.

"We're dealing with a very stubborn alderman who thinks he knows what's best for the community despite hundreds of people who have called and written him to oppose the subsidy," Crawford said. "Instead he's supporting an outside developer with taxpayer dollars to build a warehouse that is not going to bring any benefit to the community."

Smith and the city are proposing a $10.6 million TIF subsidy for ML Realty of Itaska to develop a warehouse and distribution center at the site of the former Brach candy factory at 401 N. Cicero. The subsidy amounts to nearly a quarter of the total budget for the project, said Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority.

In a proposed contract with the city, the developer "estimates" that 75 jobs will be created, but the TIF funding includes no guarantees about jobs or local hiring, Crawford said.

"It's just a handful of jobs" with "no real guarantees," said Bob Vondrasek of the South Austin Coalition. "It's a lot of truck traffic."

The same developer built a Coca-Cola distribution center at Division and Cicero two years ago, and "nobody in Austin knows anybody who works there," Crawford said. That development "still has significant unleased space, two years later," he added.

The Austin Community Education Network, a coalition of community groups, students, parents and educators, has worked with CPS to find a site for a new neighborhood high school since Austin High School closed in 2006. While several small schools and charter schools, and two converted middle schools serve Austin high school students, 70 percent have to attend schools out of the neighborhood, Crawford said.

"Right now you have a situation where there is no high school in the Austin community that the children of Austin are entitled to attend," said retired educator Grady Jordan.

ACEN envisions a state-of-the-art school on the 27-acre site with full athletic and cultural facilities — "an educational complex and innovation center" that might include construction trades and green technology training, Crawford said.

A smaller site identified by CPS at Kenton and Jackson — part of which is being developed for senior housing — was not central to the community and could accommodate less than half of the 3,000 students which the coalition believes need to be served, he said. And it didn't have room for a full complement of facilities.

"We need a comprehensive high school in Austin so that the children of Austin will have all the options, academic and extracurricular," said Jordan, who was Collins High principal for ten years and superintendent of CPS high schools for another ten.

Ald. Smith has come under some pressure. "To give priority to a private developer subsidized by TIF funds over the future education of our children is treacherous," said Crawford.

"We think the process used by Smith was very flawed," Vondrasek said. He thinks an alternative site can be found for the warehouse.

Public Schools & Education West Side
austin tif west side health authority

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