Of Facilities and Communities

AISD facility master plan task force makes last draft changes

AISD chief operating officer Lawrence Fryer, Facility Master Plan Task Force co-chairs Janet Mitchell and Richard Frazier, and Staskiewicz of consultants DeJong-Richter present the draft of the AISD facility master plan on Feb. 14
AISD chief operating officer Lawrence Fryer, Facility Master Plan Task Force co-chairs Janet Mitchell and Richard Frazier, and Staskiewicz of consultants DeJong-Richter present the draft of the AISD facility master plan on Feb. 14 (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

So, after last night's presentation to the Board of Trustees, the AISD Facility Master Plan is a done deal. No schools named for closure, a shortened repair list, and a sense of direction for the next decade in Austin's biggest school district. Now the task force just has to dot the i's and cross the t's before finally handing it over on March 28.

The process for this final month has changed dramatically from what was originally planned. What was supposed to happen at the last presentation on Feb. 14 was a feedback session. The board was to take notes on the draft plan, give suggestions and request clarification. That did not happen. Instead, the board took the presentation, nodded, and sent the task force to correct typos. The workload was so much less than expected that the task force even canceled one scheduled meeting.

It's no surprise the board is wary of any boat-rocking. The last big shift came in January after the body caused district-wide panic by floating the list of nine schools that could be closed in 2012. After the task force completely botched that presentation, there was frantic backpedaling. However, task force co-chair Janet Mitchell tried to smooth that over as a messaging issue. She told the board, "One confusing part for the community, which I completely understand, is that we brought a very small, limited group of [options] to the community, and that was experienced by them to be recommendations. We totally understand that, but we are not making recommendations."

In lieu of major shifts from the last draft, there minor tweaks and clerical corrections. Pease Elementary has been moved from the central district to the central-west, and several missing facilities, including some special schools such as Ann Richards and Garza Independence, were included.

The big shift is in the numbers. Many of the task force presumptions about individual buildings were based on outstanding top priority repairs. However, those were old numbers, and once complete work was taken into account, deferred spending dropped by $47 million to $320 million. That dropped the district's Facility Conditions Index (FCI, a score that reflects, well, the condition of their facilities) from 26.4% to 22.8%. That's the kind of dropping score the board likes, because lower is better.

Yet that shift, and the potential for further future shifts, was a concern for Trustee Robert Schneider. If the board is going to make major decisions about schools based on that number, he wanted them to know that's a moving target. He was also concerned about the master plan's list of 108 cost-cutting options. Since none came as a recommendation, he warned that they would need "a lot more vetting and airing" by staff before anything happens with them. However, since the board is likely only going to hand the report straight to staff for administrative review, that's the next step anyway.

At-Large trustee Tamala Barksdale raised the real specter over the report: That the data in the report may just be plain wrong. Facilities director Paul Turner said that, while he is talking to those community members about their concerns he stood by their reports.

However, that may not be enough to satisfy parents that have spent weeks studying the data. Mitchell's co-chair Richard Frazier was open to the idea that the task force, and whatever comes after, needs that sort of on-the-ground experience. He had already met with parents from Zilker elementary and, he said, "We take our FCI data and our work we have done, put it on the table. They bring theirs, put it on the table and we just do it. If there's disagreement, you can work through it." He added, "When we left the room, we were both a lot better informed."

But that raises a serious process question. The logic for creating a large joint staff/community body was to allow outreach into every neighborhood. Nine months later, with the report functionally complete, that process is still ongoing and is now deeply adversarial. Why? Partly because people are always sensitive about their schools, but also because parents – many of whom are experts in the specific fields in questions – found what they say are glaring errors and omissions.

Combined with the threatened reduction in force, this has left staff on-edge and highly dispirited. Frazier accepted that the task force was somewhat responsible for the disruption to the academic process. As a teacher himself, he explained, "Any time that schools are distracted, teachers are distracted, students become distracted." The way the task force has caused ructions rather than brought the community together "is something that I shall regret for a long time."

He boiled the problem down to trying to do too much, too late. In the future, he warned the board, "You have to communicate effectively, you have to do in enough time that people have a chance to come back at you, and you have to listen to them and listen carefully."

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AISD, Janet Mitchell, FCI, Richard Frazier, Facilities Condition Index, Annette LoVoi, Mark Williams, AISD Board of Trustees, Robert Schneider, Vince Torres, Tamala Barksdale, Facilities Master Plan Task Force

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