Ready to Bond

AISD Tries to Ease Overcrowding

by Roseana Auten If you live within the Austin Independent School District (AISD), a bond election is in your future. It may come as soon as December, or it may not come until early next year, but AISD trustees will most certainly be coming to the voters soon - asking them to authorize somewhere around a third of a billion dollars in bonds. If voters do approve a bond package, it would be only the third time in over 25 years that they've done so. Any debate over the bonds will likely go beyond questions of whether taxpayers will pay for them and into questions of the entire city's future.

After a year of work and study, a 19-member, board-appointed, citizens' bond advisory committee issued a report in June, in which some $370 million in school needs are outlined. Committee chair Mel Waxler said the report does not constitute a recommendation for a dollar figure on the bond package, but merely pinpoints costs associated with needs the group identified.

That $370 million is helpfully stratified into "Tier 1" (must-do), "Tier 2" (should-do), and "Other" (someday-do) categories, and accordingly, the greatest weight has been given to the $332.7 million in Tier 1 expenses (see graph). Of the $332.7 million, nearly $124 million is recommended for renovating existing facilities, $101 million goes toward new schools (or "relief schools," as they're termed in the report), and $22.6 million would go toward classroom additions. Another $85.1 million is proposed for security enhancements, technology, district facilities, and land acquisition.

But only the AISD Board of Trustees can total up a tab for the taxpayers and set a bond election. At press time, the second of three work sessions and a public hearing on the bond proposal was scheduled for September 6, at 6pm at the Carruth Administration Building, 1111 W. Sixth Street.

The dollar figures, the proposed renovations, and the possible locations of new schools - which are typically points of contention in any school bond issue - serve as a backdrop for some of the biggest questions surrounding the future of Austin. Namely, will the district's strategy to relieve overcrowded schools simply promote more growth and sprawl in Southwest Austin? And at the same time, is AISD willing to save older and smaller schools in the city's core, or the "hole" of the suburban Austin doughnut?

Of the six new elementary schools proposed by the bond committee, three are slated for Southwest Austin (a zone that represents nearly one-third of AISD's 230.7 square miles). Another would be built in South Central Austin, one in the southeast area, and one in North Central/Northeast Austin. Also added would be two middle schools - one southwest, one south - as well as another high school on the south side of town. This, the committee decided (though some members did so with reluctance), is what the future demands.

How does AISD project its student population growth in the first place? District planners know, for example, that AISD has been gaining 1,500-2,000 students per year over the last several years. Last year, enrollment topped out at 73,342 by the end of the first six weeks; the six weeks' enrollment for this year is expected at 74,885. (The six week yardstick is important because school districts report the number to the State of Texas to receive their funding.) Projections obtained from AISD indicate that by 1998-99, growth will slow a little bit to 900-1,000 new students per year. For the 2004-05 school year, enrollment is projected at 85,399.

The new growth seems to be coming from the youngest members of the new generation - the elementary grades. The older, empty-nested generations tend to turn over core city neighborhoods to new, starter generations, and underused schools become needed again. But at the same time, economic good times spark mobility - when they get more money, people buy a house and move. New families move into the dwellings the old families vacate. But mostly, new suburban housing development, so attractive to many, simply rushes populations beyond the schools' target enrollments. Although this situation exists in several areas of the district, the southwest area is the most celebrated example.

AISD Director of Planning Dan Robertson says that the present overcrowding at southwest schools such as Bailey and Covington middle schools, and Patton and Kiker elementaries - which serve subdivisions such as Circle C, Maple Run, Shady Hollow, and others - is the main impetus to build new schools there. He's aware of the perception that such a proposal will just promote even more growth. But he says that AISD hasn't properly accommodated the population that now exists, never mind future populations. He offers a quick run-down of the enrollment of the nine elementary schools in the area. All have far exceeded their target levels (Patton and Kiker both have over 1,000 students, when they were really built for 650-750) - proof that new schools are needed for relief. "We're behind, we're not leading anything," he says.

But he concedes that the present situation isn't the only thing factoring into the district's plans. AISD is, in fact, planning for students who aren't there yet. Only the numbers are in debate, not the fact that the kids will be there some day.

Dennis Harner, an independent school district demographer hired by the bond advisory committee to evaluate Robertson's projections, says that AISD's view of future growth is essentially correct. In no area of town are numbers of school-age children going to drop; all are going to experience a rise in that young population.

"I didn't find any situation where the district is cooking the numbers," he says, "and I've found it before in other school districts." If anything, Harner says, "they've underestimated what's happening on the southwest side." After looking at the heavy concentration of single-family building permits granted by the City of Austin between 1990 and 1994, Harner projected numbers for the southwest that are higher than those Robertson came up with. By the year 2000, Harner believes, Southwest Austin will have 1,532 more students; Robertson projects 899.

Bailey Middle School, constructed above the Edwards Aquifer under the 1991 Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance, nearly wasn't built at all. Believing that the numbers they were given weren't reliable, a 1989 citizens' bond advisory committee was disinclined to build a middle school that far south. But bond funds for construction were approved in 1990. Bailey opened in 1993, with portable buildings on its brand-new campus. Originally built for 850-950 students, Bailey's enrollment was 1,616 students as of last week. It was, in other words, obsolete from the start.

The current bond committee's emphasis on locating of "relief" schools in environmentally sensitive areas in the southwest - which, in turn, tends to support suburban sprawl away from Austin's core, prompted a decision by bond committee member Max Woodfin not to sign off on the committee report. (Fellow committee member Gavino Fernandez joined Woodfin in dissent. A few others "very nearly" declined to sign the report, or signed reluctantly.)

Woodfin has expressed a lack of confidence in the high growth projections for the southwest. Moreover, he says, AISD "should not reward people for contributing to the degradation of the environment" by building schools over the recharge and contributing zones of the aquifer. Placing schools in far-flung corners of the southwest region would also exacerbate the racial and economic segregation that already thrives here, Woodfin says. In his view, Bowie High School on Slaughter Lane should be the outer limit for high school construction. Bailey, located on Lost Oasis Hollow and Covington, on Convict Hill, should comprise the border for middle schools. "I think the district must be willing to take the heat and adopt a policy of not contributing to urban sprawl," Woodfin says.

Another member of the committee, Kent Butler, Ph.D, said that he "enthusiastically" signed off on the report, because he believes the plan offers solutions for equity and equalization of resources among AISD's 90-plus campuses. He positions himself as not opposed to growth, and recognizes that overcrowding in Southwest Austin schools should be relieved. If the schools are small and compactly built, potential harm to the aquifer can be mitigated, Butler says.

But while Butler embraces the bond committee's report, oddly enough, he argues against promoting urban sprawl. The question, he says, is: Can relief schools be built to respond to growth in such a way that they don't reinvigorate costly, low-density sprawl? As an urban planner (he's a professor of community and regional planning at the University of Texas), he's concerned about the financial tolls that future growth may have on the rest of Austin.

"I have serious questions about the cost-effectiveness of providing a full pallet of urban services, if we are to continue to grow at low or medium densities out to the west, given the significantly higher costs of providing those services," Butler said. "We can't be blind to the cost of that." As long as the impact on existing neighborhoods is minimized, promoting urban "in-filling," either by building new schools or renovating old ones, "is far more cost-effective," he says.

The bond issue doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, committee member Melissa Knippa maintains. "We can do something for everybody." Knippa, who is also on the AISD Board of Trustees, was first inspired to run for office after she worked to pass an $80 million bond issue in 1990. Knippa represents Southwest Austin. As she drives around in her district, she says, she notices more and more signs for new subdivisions. She readily admits that she is beginning to panic. She wants the bond election to be held as soon as possible, which, according to AISD officicials, would be this December, about 90 days away.

"The fact is, the lots are there," Knippa says. "They're plotted, approved, ready to build on, money on the table. I guarantee you they'll be built on in the next five years." Despite her anxiety about the rapid development, she's not opposed to growth - far from it. Commercial development in particular helps offset the property tax burden on homeowners, she says.

This does not mean, Knippa maintains, that inner-city, small schools will get short shrift in a bond issue. (Again, the bond committee identified almost $124 million in renovations - more than it would spend on new schools.) She says she's emphatic about wanting to totally renovate Austin's smaller, older schools, and not just do cosmetic changes and emergency maintenance that were part of the 1990 bond issue. A conscious decision was made at that time, she says, to keep those schools viable and help promote in-fill and refill from the surrounding neighborhoods. "I've been part of that from the beginning," Knippa says.

The next several weeks of work sessions and public comment will prove whether AISD residents share Knippa's vision of an expedient, equitable issue of school bonds - or whether the pie is just a whole lot smaller than that. n

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