The Austin Chronicle

School Closings Under Fire

By Michael King, January 12, 2011, 9:54pm, Newsdesk

Several hundred people crowded the Delco Activity Center Wednesday night, essentially unanimous in opposition to draft proposals by the Austin ISD's Facility Master Plan Task Force to close several elementary and middle schools.

Following a brief summary of the current master plan proposals, dozens of people – parents, teachers, a few students – rose to speak against closing any schools. A group of Task Force members – from among the 72-member group of parents, teachers, administrators, and community representatives who have been developing the master plan proposals for consideration by the school board – sat quietly on the stage listening to the public response.

In brief, it was overwhelmingly negative. Prior to this meeting, the most organized opposition has been heard from the Barton Hills Elementary and Zilker Elementary communities. They were here in force – but so were defenders of Pease, Brooke, Ortega, Oak Springs, Sanchez elementaries, as well as Pearce Middle School, all of them listed as options for closing, under the Task Force charge to find savings in the strained school district budget, almost certain to be targeted for even more cuts during the current legislative session.

Emotions were high – some speakers broke into tears, others raged that the Task Force members had not considered how important each school was to its neighborhood and community. "Our country cannot survive without an educated population," said one; “Closing a school that is exemplifying the district's mission and ambitions does not make sense,” said another. Virtually all of the speakers declared the quality or "exemplary" status of their schools, and decried the Task Force decision to focus solely on efficient facility utilization across the district without accounting for the educational success of individual neighborhood schools.

A few speakers pointed at the Legislature and the Capitol, declaring the real target is a state budget process that has structurally underfunded public education for years. "Blow up the Rainy Day Fund," cried one speaker, hoping that the $9 billion in state savings might make a sufficient dent in the deficit that is squeezing school districts all across the state.

Beyond suggestions that administrators accept lower salaries or that AISD sell its Central Administration building, little was offered from the audience in budgetary alternatives. Exactly one speaker spoke in defense of "teachers, not buildings," noting that without consolidation of schools to save money, the Task Force projected that perhaps 2,000 teachers would have to be laid off instead.

This was the first of two public forums on the Task Force proposals. The second is to be held Thursday night, Jan. 13, at Burger Activity Center, 6-8 p.m. People can also comment on line, where much more documentation on the proposals and the process is also available.

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