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What the Task Force Wrought

AISD's facilities review became a panic drill of cuts, closings, and contradictions

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 27, 2011

Richard Frazier
Richard Frazier
Photo by John Anderson

It was hour three of the meeting, and the Austin Independent School District board of trustees was bogged down with questions about the future of the district's facilities. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen was looking for guidance from board members on what they wanted in her official response to all 108 recommendations contained in the report of the district's Facility Master Plan Task Force. District legal counsel Mel Waxler was wandering through a forest of notepads mounted on easels, taking notes on the structure the trustees wanted and the priorities they sought, while the trustees themselves flipped back and forth through the 191-page document and its multiple appendices.

This was May 16 – nearly two months after the task force had submitted its report to the board. The process was about getting to the next stage in producing a districtwide and campus-by-campus vision of the district's 10-year facility future. Yet after a yearlong series of task force discussions, public meetings, data collection, brutal fights over school closures, and poor public consultation, the district ended up with a bloody nose. Now it's trying to take what came out of that process and turn it into a real plan for the future. For now, the board and the administration are still caught in the bitter story of how they ended up in this mess.

Dancing With Who Brung Ya

On Nov. 16, 2009, trustees voted to develop a districtwide facility master plan, but the decision was a long time coming. Facilities Executive Director Paul Turner said, "We first started talking about it in the late Nineties," but the trigger to finally start the process was twofold. First, the district was a month away from adopting its 2010-2015 strategic plan and needed to reorganize existing facilities to match its new priorities. Second, there was the 2009 districtwide efficiency study by MGT of America. Board President Mark Williams said that study highlighted "the utilization aspect. We've got schools that are under capacity, schools that are over capacity; we have demographic trends that show us that kids are showing up where there's not enough seats, and there's not enough kids where we do have seats." In addition, the report highlighted operational inefficiencies and cost savings that could come from facilities investment. The district was and is still working on a real-time database to track required maintenance, but that would tackle only the symptoms not the underlying facilities failures. "This imbalance-of-utilization issue didn't happen overnight," Williams said, nor did the disrepair. So the board went to its traditional solution: establish a consulting body, in this case a task force, to help work out the next step.

With that Nov. 16, 2009, vote, Carstarphen said: "The board would approve us – meaning the administration – getting started on a facility master plan. But what was also clear is that they wanted us to have a third-party expert organization to work with us." The district hired Ohio-based educational facility consultants DeJong Richter to lead the project, but that was only part of the external equation. Engineering firm Parsons prepared a facility condition study recording the state of every building in the district. Magellan Con­sulting, based in Conroe, Texas, was hired to turn that data into what is called a facility condition index – put simply, a scorecard on the state of the buildings. DeJong Richter also hired BLGY Architecture, a firm specializing in school design and construction. In total, DeJong Richter and its subcontractors were paid $893,796 by the district for their services. In addition, local public relations firm Hahn, Texas was paid $37,642 for "communications services."

Next up was deciding the composition of the task force. Working from DeJong Richter's recommendations, Carstarphen said, the administration put together a wish list comprising seats for "key staff, like teachers, principals, transportation, technology, at the table for staff, and then an equal part of community." Importantly, no member of the district leadership – neither trustees nor Carstarphen – would sit on the task force. Carstarphen said, "That was in the spirit of trying to not micromanage what the community would want to work on."

So who picked the members? According to Williams, they were staff choices, based on advice from DeJong Richter and drawing from the Office of Planning and Community Rela­tions' long list of regular volunteers. Facility Master Plan Task Force co-Chair Janet Mitchell had recently graduated from AISD's UpClose community engagement program; Richard Frazier, her co-chair, teaches orchestra at Anderson High School and was selected because staff decided they needed more voices from arts departments; and Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan got the call when the district realized that it needed some city involvement. Sullivan had also dabbled in district politics, writing an op-ed in support of an earlier bond vote; in addition, fellow planning commissioner, task force member, and future City Council candidate Kathie Tovo had previously interviewed him about joining a different district committee so, he said, "My name is in one of the earlier reports."

Though unusual for a district body, staff members were also brought onto the task force board as voting members rather than serving in a purely advisory capacity. Mitchell called their expert input "invaluable" and rejected the notion that they swayed the decision process to protect their own departments. "When they came into committee meetings," she said, "they put on their committee hats."

The board decided to let each trustee name an appointee as well. By that one act, Williams said, "there became some uncertainty. Was this the superintendent's task force, or was this the board's task force?" Inevitably, that created a task force design problem: It was an unwieldy body with dozens of members and too many masters, creating the kernel of some serious structural problems with substantial consequences down the line. Williams said: "We probably didn't collectively, the 10 of us, make it clear: 'OK, superintendent, this is your committee. You own the Facility Master Plan.'" Instead, the task force was receiving instruction, both first- and secondhand, from multiple sources. Because no one was quite sure who was in charge, Williams said, when things went wrong, "it went on too long without an intervention."

By picking from the pool of regular volunteers and experts, old patterns were re-established. For example, in a district that is now majority-minority and contains a large Spanish-speaking student population, there were almost no Hispanic people in the room. Carstarphen says the task force received input from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and via school visits, but others describe the situation as indicative of a broader problem. At the May 16 discussion, board secretary Lori Moya warned that when it comes to high minority population areas, consultation is sorely lacking. In poorer and more diverse communities like East and North Austin, she told her fellow trustees, "We don't ask; we tell." Three weeks earlier, at the April 25 trustee meeting, East Austin activist Cynthia Valadez noted that such committees "have a huge vacuum, in that English-language learners' families are not present at the table."

The district's top priority had been finding people that it thought combined an understanding of the issues with an interest in the district. Frazier said: "The folks were people who had expertise in different areas, whether it be bonds or they'd worked for the city, whatever. It was just trying to get a representation of the whole community." Of the original list of 72 members, 10 dropped out, and only one was replaced. That left 63 members formally involved in drafting the final report, but after 22 meetings over the course of a year, a core group of 20 to 40 active members were driving the process. The co-chairs tried to keep everyone involved via email listservs; even ideas that were rejected at the subcommittee level were recorded and could be brought back later. However, Frazier said, "I wish we could have all been actively involved all the way through, but when we'd determined that this was such a great, large amount of work to do and we were going to take more time than we had initially anticipated, there was no way folks could stay in."

The Wheels Come Off

According to Frazier, the task force initially saw its job as having "a limited scope," effectively just collecting and collating data. It would be up to other entities within the administration and future bond advisory committees to turn that into spending proposals. Then he reached what he called "the a-ha! moment" – when it became clear that the task force could not really talk about a true facility master plan without tackling thorny policy issues like attendance zone boundaries and transfers and vertical team alignments. So the job expanded. It also became clear that there was no way the task force could get everything done in the time allotted. So the timeline lengthened.

Then the district's budget came crashing down around everyone's ears, and everything changed.

The task force steadily turned from being a nuts-and-bolts advisory body to creating specific campus-by-campus cost-saving recommendations. The change came about incrementally, in part because the group had access to better and more detailed data than just about anyone else – much of it with dollar values attached. Mitchell said: "We operated like every school district task force, as consensus driven. Most of the time, it was purely getting the points of the group. 'Are we good with that? Uh-huh, uh-huh.' And that's how we managed the whole thing." The end result targeted some areas of town for potential school closures – to eventually broad public opposition – but Mitchell says the proposals could in fact have been more damaging to more communities. Instead, she said, they worked on the principal of disrupting as few students as possible. After that, she said, "The process was: evaluate many options, reduce to a more significant few lesser-evils on a gut-level check, and then ask members of the task force, 'Which ones do you want to move forward with?'"

What the Task Force Wrought
Illustration by Jason Stout

There were yet other criteria. Somewhere along the line, the task force had set a target of finding $5 million in facilities savings for the 2012-13 school year. Along the way, the talk turned to school closures and consolidations – again, Mitchell said, driven by the consensus of a plurality of members, but with the specter of budget collapse over their shoulders. Up to that point, the task force had been acting very much under the radar – after all, conceptual talk about long-term facility planning is not exactly headline-grabbing stuff. When the task force settled on a list of nine city-center schools to close or consolidate, that was bad enough. When the community realized they were all "high-achieving" schools under state accountability standards, chaos ensued – and the bigger task of creating a master plan got swallowed up. Rather than talking about all 108 options, Mitchell said: "We came to the community with a tiny handful of what the options are, and very understandably they experienced that to be recommendations. They weren't, but how could they have understood that when we showed them a small view?"

Public Explosion

On Thursday, Jan. 6, the district announced two public meetings: one on Jan. 12 at the Delco Center and one the next night at the Toney Burger Center. There was no mention at all on either the flier or the accompanying press release that the task force was even talking about closures. Jason Sabo is senior vice president of public policy for United Way of Texas and has a fifth-grader at Barton Hills Elementary. He said, "The bomb we saw was the Thursday folder." Once a week his son comes home with a folder filled with his assignments and school fliers. This time, Sabo said, "Tucked in that Thursday folder was, 'Oh, just so you know, they're potentially going to close our school.'" With less than a week before the meetings, the community scrambled into action. Sabo said, "By Sunday night, I sat in a house down the street with 12 moms and me, and we got everybody together at a school meeting by Monday morning." In quick order, a districtwide pressure group, Save Austin Schools, was formed. "I'm pretty proud of the fact that our immediate reaction wasn't, 'No, we've got to protect our own,'" Sabo said. "The overwhelming sentiment right from the beginning was that we owe it to the rest of the city not to make it just about our kids."

The January meetings highlighted a core confusion: Was the task force making plans, making recommendations, or just raising ideas for discussion? Frazier has repeatedly said that the idea was to allow the community to blow holes in the proposals – but the end result was two nights of angry, scared parents venting their frustrations. As far as the community was concerned, this body most parents had never heard of wanted to shut their high-performing schools, and there was particular fury reserved for DeJong Richter. Sabo said, "You come into our town, you nuke our community, you throw our entire school and all of our children and families into absolute panic, and you give us two days to come up with and provide solutions."

It was not just parents at the affected schools coming out against the list. State Rep. Elliott Naishtat and Congressman Lloyd Doggett both publicly criticized the proposal, while Mayor Lee Leffingwell broke the traditional respectful distance between the city and district by issuing a statement on Jan. 13 opposing closing inner-city schools. City Council was already concerned that families with kids have been leaving the urban core – a fear confirmed in March by U.S. Census numbers – and closing schools could exacerbate that suburban flight. While acknowledging that this was district business, Leffingwell wrote, "We know that families with children will not move into Austin neighborhoods – or stay in Austin neighborhoods – where there are not good public schools."

For Council Member Laura Morrison, the report revealed a profound philosophical difference between the two government bodies about how to handle shifting populations. She said, "The district is chasing rooftops while the city is trying to prevent sprawl."

Members of the task force started to panic; they had gone from developing a long-term facilities philosophy for the district to becoming a school-closure committee, and in the process were becoming public pariahs. Late on Jan. 21, Carstarphen called them in for an emergency "debrief session" the next day in the board room at the Carruth Administration Center. By the end of that meeting, the list of schools on the potential closure/consolidation list had swollen to 15, and the $5 million in savings for 2012-13 had changed to $3.1 million for 2011-12. In short order again, the idea of listing target schools dropped completely off the table, and the process went back to just talking about campuses in terms of repairs and classroom sizes.

What triggered the intervention? Carstarphen said she only met with the co-chairs twice – both times after the board asked questions – and that there was no agenda handed down from her office. Instead, those meetings were just to get the task force back on target, dealing with the whole 10-year plan rather than getting bogged down in school closures. Whatever decisions they made, she said, "Our guys didn't get taken to the woodshed to do it our way." When she did give guidance to the task force, she added, whether "it was taken, accepted, not accepted, discussed, not discussed – it wasn't a deal breaker."

However, board Vice President Vince Torres was frustrated that the belated intervention was necessary. Even though this was Car­starphen's task force, he said, the board still needed to shoulder some of the blame. Torres said: "We thought someone else was making sure they weren't going awry and were focused on the budget issues once they hit, and somehow it turned out that committee just got so off-focus. Their job should never have been to discuss specific school closures."

District 7 trustee Robert Schneider was equally concerned about how the task force was put back on track. He said, "We went from an initial presentation to the Facility Master Plan Task Force on a Monday night, and the following Saturday, Meria's effectively telling them to 'sit down and shut up,' that 'we'll do the identification of schools [for closing], and that's not your thing.' That's a fine approach with me – but how she got direction to do that, I have no idea."

The Condition of the Facility Condition Index

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the battle was lost.

For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost.

All for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Jason Sabo
Jason Sabo
Photo by Jana Birchum

– Traditional proverb

There is a simple equation underlying all facilities decisions: Firms like Magellan rely on a "facility condition index": Take the cost of repairing the building, divide it by the cost of just replacing it, and that's your FCI. Sullivan said: "Pease Elementary, for example, has an FCI of .7, so you would have to spend 70 percent of what it costs to rebuild the school to bring the school up to brand-new condition. Generally, the rule of thumb is that when you're around 30 or 40 percent, then you start to think about tearing down or rebuilding, because it implies higher maintenance costs over time."

The FCI numbers used by the task force have become the pivotal battleground in this debate. Parsons had prepared a facility condition study recording the state of repair of every building in the district. Magellan then undertook what is called an educational adequacy study, which AISD Facilities Executive Director Turner called "a look at each classroom to see if they are outfitted in a way that supports the instructional program. ... They then took all of this and they put it into their database." What came out was the FCI score for each building, which Turner conceded, was inevitably imperfect. He said, "There were 60 [thousand] to 70 thousand individual entries, so whether or not there was some human error some of the time, I wouldn't be surprised." But the bigger problem was that, in the time between Parsons collecting the data and Magellan running the numbers, a lot of bond money had been spent and a lot of repairs and renovations had been made, throwing a long shadow over the accuracy of those FCI scores.

That was pivotal because, when combined with student population, the FCI numbers were a key part of the task force's reasoning in picking the nine schools to contemplate closing. Sabo said, "It became pretty clear pretty fast that we needed to have a professional-level response that would match the unprofessional manner in which DeJong Richter was conducting the whole operation." Drawing from the large number of professionals that live in the neighborhood, the Barton Hills parents did their own calculations. What they found was deeply disturbing. "Even after less than three days of analysis, it was Swiss cheese," Sabo said. Some of the errors seemed almost comical, like a recommendation about the staircase for single-story Zilker Elementary (Turner has blamed that on a cutting-and-pasting error in the report). Others are more contentious calculations, like differing calculations on how much full compliance with Americans With Disabilities Act would cost.

Sullivan said: "That caught us short. We hadn't done that study. Some professionals had done it, and now some citizens, some parents, are being critical of the professionals. However, those citizens, they're not just random citizens. They're citizens that know that school. They're there every day with their kids; they're on the campus advisory committee or the PTA. So if you're a decision maker, you scratch your head and say: 'Which experts do I believe? The amateurs who are there every day or the professionals who stopped in and took some photos?'"

What Next?

Ultimately, even with all those criticisms, concerns, and question marks, the task force did what was originally expected of it: create a 10-year timeline of proposals for facilities, bonds, and investment based on its analysis of the data and forecasts of need (see "What's in the Report?"). However, the effort came at an extraordinary real cost. Sullivan said: "We thought we were doing the public a favor by turning on the lights and showing them the skeletons and the dust and the bones and the broken glass and the fact that we have empty public coffers. But instead we just got beat up." While the controversial school closures are not off the table for 2012 and 2013, that comes with an important clarification. Sullivan said, "We recommended closing or consolidating schools in an area, but we took out the names of those schools."

That argument cut no ice with Sabo. Since the old, controversial FCI numbers are still in there like a target, he said, "Don't go telling us there's no schools named in this report." Because of that data, Save Austin Schools has asked the board to reject the report completely. Sabo said, "It's obvious that the community has rejected the numbers, and it's obvious that the school board and the superintendent themselves have personally no faith in the report."

However, the task force report remains only a series of recommendations. It still has to go through a review by the superintendent, who will make her own recommendations to the board, which will give its input before a final vote in November. Carstarphen said, "The board will have to decide what it wants to keep and not keep, and whatever they retain becomes the final Facility Master Plan."

The board, however, knows how people feel about the FCI data, and that could become a critical blow to any final report. At the trustees' May 16 meeting, board secretary Moya told her fellow trustees that she was "embarrassed" by how many people were telling her there were problems with the data. "There's no confidence," she said. Williams was more forgiving about the report, saying it was "certainly directionally correct. ... When it came to school closures, their data wasn't 100 percent right, but it wasn't 100 percent wrong either." The district has brought Parsons back in to revise the FCI data, a move that could placate board members like Schneider and Torres, who support FCI numbers as a decision-making tool, if not the current numbers.

However, Moya has argued that the underlying data is unfixable, while District 1 trustee Cheryl Bradley says the whole process has undercut the board's credibility: "The Facility Master Plan became controversial when we named those schools – and then we could not explain why we named those schools."

Some task force recommendations, such as reducing the dependence on portables and letting off-campus office leases expire, are already being implemented for the upcoming year as part of the budget process. On May 18, the district announced that, as the task force proposed, it will be selling off the Carruth Administration Center on West Sixth and the Baker Center in Hyde Park. Those sales alone should net nearly $40 million in cash but immediately raise questions about where the board and administration will go if the buildings are sold. The problem is not just about whose name is on which door, but more complex management issues – for example, administrators could be spread out across the district instead of being in one central location.

Those are just the kind of big-picture questions that Williams still wants answered in the final draft of the report. If the board ends up with its ideal facility plan, then it can work out where it is falling short or cutting corners. "Just like the strategic plan," Williams said, "we're not funding everything we said we were going to fund, because we don't have the money to do it."

Ultimately, the task force was distracted by the currently proposed state budget and how the fiscal wrangling at the state level would hurt the district. For Sabo, the greatest sin is that the school closure suggestions distracted everyone else from fighting those cuts. He said: "I'm a do-gooder advocate by training and by choice. I know how to move public systems to make good things happen on behalf of kids, and instead of moving the public system I should have been focused on, which is the one up the street" – he gestured to the Capitol – "instead" – he pointed to the AISD offices – "I had to focus my energies at the temple at Fifth and Lamar."

Rocky as the process had been, both Mitchell and Frazier take comfort in the fact that it has raised community awareness of the importance of school conditions. Frazier said: "The emotion is still there. Those pages are still up on Facebook. They're not as active as they were, but I still get a call or a follow-up. They're just waiting to find out what will happen next, because they're still interested, and that's the good thing." Mitchell added, "There are facilities issues and decisions that have been decades in the making and are going to have to be looked at, and they need to be looked at across the district." She argued that means a facility plan for each campus. But if the district ever does anything like this again, whether it is districtwide or campus-by-campus, she said, "This must be led by the educational vision and programmatic plan at a campus, not only from a facility perspective."

Cutting spending is not enough; to avoid this kind of dogfight in the future, the district must prove that its plans will mean kids get a better education. Mitchell said, "I had a parent say to me, 'I'd be willing to sacrifice if I knew it was in my child's best interest.'" That places the onus on the district to explain to people why their children have to walk farther, or why they cannot go to the same school as their siblings, she said. "The 'why' can't just be, 'Because the district is going to save money.'"

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