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AISD Struggling With Capacity

Redrawing all school boundaries inevitable, but not imminent
Richard Whittaker, 1:22pm, Fri. Dec. 20, 2013

Every year, Austin ISD trustees contend with the problem of overcrowding. This week, they locked off a slate of campuses to transfers and continued the process of opening their next elementary. However, these are Band Aids compared to the major surgery the district faces in the next few years: A complete redrawing of every school's attendance zone.

On Dec. 16, the board announced the annual list of campuses that will be closed to transfers in the upcoming school year. In total, 27 campuses are completely frozen: Two more are locked for specific grades; And 24 more are under evaluation. That means over a third of all AISD campuses are so far above capacity that they cannot take any more kids, or so close to bursting that they too may be frozen to transfers.

Yet at the same time, there are multiple campuses around the district that are cripplingly under capacity.

Filling schools is not just about total number of kids and total number of seats. It's simple geography. No one in their right mind would suggest shipping students the 23 miles from Clayton (currently so far over capacity that it made the frozen list) to Hart, which is still open to transfers. Ultimately, the modern district is being pulled in seemingly contradictory directions.

Think of the district like a balloon. When you're blowing it up, some parts fill out faster than others. If you let some air out, some parts shrink faster. AISD is both expanding and contracting, depending where you stand.

Two years ago, in the middle of the Facilities Master Plan Debacle, Austin ISD blanched at closing neighborhood schools because they had too few students. Now the district is contending with schools that are bursting at the seams. Surprising as it may seem, there's no contradiction in that.

First, there's the decline in school-age populations in the central city and East Austin, especially in the elementary grades. That's why the Allan campus, which was an elementary until the disastrous flirtation with IDEA Public Schools, will likely re-open as a bilingual middle school.

Then there's the explosion in population in North, North-West and South-West Travis. There's incredible tension to add more campuses in those areas, and on Monday the board voted to set the attendance zones for the new North Central elementary. However, it passed on a 8-0-1 vote. Trustee Robert Schneider abstained, as he has made it very clear that he wanted the elementary in his South-West Travis district.

There's a third complicating factor. Local voters don't seem eager to give AISD money to fix the problem.

To put this into context, in 2004 voters approved $184 million for seven new schools (six elementary, one middle) plus classroom additions and land for two middle and one elementary. Four years later, voters approved a total of $107 million for more new schools, additions and land acquisitions. However, last May voters blanched at the latest request from AISD. Prop. 2, if it had passed, would have provided $92 million for three new elementaries, $47 million for classroom additions, and another $12 million for land acquisitions. So far, according to Trustee Lori Moya, the board has yet to discuss the impact of that defeat.

So with no major construction cash imminent, the district faces a grisly specter that they have avoided for years: A complete and district-wide redrawing of attendance zones. This idea came up after the original 2011 Facility Master Plan, and Schneider raised the issue again during Monday's meeting.

It sounds simple enough. Look at where the kids are, look where the seats are, and try to configure something that looks halfway sensible.

However, there's a slight problem with that. Every year, the district tinkers with attendance zones. For example, to make space for the new elementary, the board changed the maps for Cook and Wooldridge (even with that redrawing, all three campuses are still on the watch list.) But as board meeting regulars know, nothing gets a bigger crowd at the Caruth Administration Center than parents fighting for or against a boundary change.

It's not just about proximity or number of desks. A child may live within a short crow's flight of a campus, but add in every loop, twist and one-way street of Austin's road system, and that short walk becomes a long commute. Then there's the re-staffing that comes with redrawing, especially if the district wants a campus to provide specific programs or bilingual education (the same applies for support staff, such as bilingual advisers.) And never forget the sentimental attachment many families have to certain campuses.

Scale that all up to a district-wide process, and it's a political time bomb – one that trustees and administration have avoided for nearly two decades. According to Moya, there hasn't been one on her seven years on the board, nor (to the best of her knowledge) did one happen under the 10 year superintendency of Pat Forgione.

Two years ago, the board looked like it would finally grasp the nettle after the first facility master plan, but it still seems no nearer. At Monday's meeting, Schneider challenged Superintendent Meria Carstarphen on the timeline, and had specific examples that cannot be readily solved by some minor adjustments. He pointed to the Grayrock Ridge subdivision at the south end of MoPac: The students there are zoned to attend Baranof, even though this means passing multiple elementary schools on the way.

However, he got little immediate comfort from Carstarphen, who simply stated that the tweaking will continue. She said there may be some recommendations coming out of the ongoing Facility Master Plan process when it is delivered in June 2014, but there is no indication of when a major redrawing may happen.

As far as Moya is concerned, there is no sign of solid progress. While the boundary committee is doing "some minor work," it's barely scratching the surface of the bigger issue. The community engagement alone will be a gargantuan and thankless process. Moya said, "It's going to be very difficult and it's going to cause a lot of anxiety for a lot of people." However, she added, "It's something that we need to do."

AISD Campuses Closed to Transfers in 2014-15

High schools: Akins, Anderson, Austin, Bowie and McCallum

Middle schools: Burnet, Gorzycki, Murchison, O. Henry and Paredes

Elementary schools: Baldwin, Baranoff, Blazier, Brentwood, Casey, Casis, Clayton, Doss, Graham, Highland Park, Hill, Kiker, Langford, Menchaca, Pickle, Rodriguez and Travis Heights. Also: Bryker Woods (grade 5 only) and Lee (grades 3 and 5 only).

The district is also keeping an eye on capacity issues at seven middle schools (Bedichek, Dobie, Kealing, Lamar, Martin, Small and Webb) and 17 elementary schools (Andrews, Cook, Davis, Gullett, Harris, Hart, Houston, McBee, New North Central Elementary, Odom, Palm, Patton, Perez, Ridgetop, Summitt, Sunset Valley and Wooldridge.)

So, right off the bat, the district's newest school may already be over capacity.

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