Back to the Drawing Board

Process for Mapping School Boundary Lines Improved, Still Difficult

AISD's hired demographer Dennis Harner spends his days developing attendance zone plans for the district, only to have a new concern voiced by a parent or a board member send him back to square one.
photograph by Jana Birchum

Taylor Parks doesn't understand the politics of school boundary lines. She doesn't know about socio-economic factors, projected enrollment, development hot-spots, or preferred growth corridors. All the Davis Elementary fourth-grader knows is that she wants to go to the same school as her best friend next year, and the rumor on the bus is that she and her neighbors in the Northwood section of town may be shifted elsewhere. "I don't think you realize all the stress that's on the kids because of this," said Taylor's mom, Beth Parks, at a community meeting on AISD's boundary changes at Anderson High School last Thursday. "It's all the talk on the bus: Who is going to move to a new school and who is going to stay?"

The Parks are one of 625 families living in Northwood - the latest neighborhood to mobilize over proposed attendance zone changes. The North Austin community is a shining example of a neighborhood's involvement in a school. In the six years since Davis Elementary opened, Northwood residents have invested time and energy and money, bought library books, been active in the PTA, and purchased and installed playground equipment. When neighbors learned that one proposal on the table calls for their children to change from Davis to Summitt Elementary, the neighborhood of 625 homes quickly gained over 600 signatures on a petition stating residents' objections to the move. Over 50 parents who attended the meeting at Anderson High School last week said the elementary school, as well as their children, will suffer if their energetic, involved group is moved elsewhere.

"We paid for the playground, we bought books," said Pete Clark, Northwood Neighborhood Association vice president. "I kind of get the feeling like I'm being run out of my home. I want to take the swing-set with me."

In theory, this whole thing should be simple: build a whole bunch of schools and just assign children to the one closest to them. Problem solved. What's all the fuss about?

But the reality is that sending children to the school closest to them would simply exacerbate overcrowding in some schools, and not even begin to help AISD achieve its diversity goals. So, the AISD Board of Trustees has until May to master a puzzle with about 77,000 pieces, trying to create attendance zones that can withstand at least the next five years, yet tick off the fewest parents.


A Game of Dominoes



Two new schools will relieve overcrowding in this northeastern neighborhood. The St. John's neighborhood (dark gray), has long been split between four elementary school zones, but it will get its own school in 1999 - 2000. Bernice Hart Elementary (light gray) will open this fall.

In the weeks to come, the board will set new boundaries to accommodate the 11 new AISD schools slated to open in the next two years. The new construction, undertaken to alleviate overcrowding in the old schools, is funded by the $369 million bond package voters approved in 1996. The board's task is to juggle the desire of parents to preserve neighborhood integrity - presumably by sending children to schools near their homes - with the need to integrate Austin's school campuses. The Anderson High meeting last Thursday was the third of ten community meetings slated to give residents the opportunity to question and criticize maps of elementary, middle school, and high school attendance zones before a final draft is drawn for Board of Trustees approval at the end of the month (see schedule, p.21).

Demographer Dennis Harner calls it a game of dominoes. Everything is connected: every child, every school, every neighborhood. Shift a boundary line a block or two and every part of the elaborate scheme comes tumbling down.

"I've done this in a lot of places but this [district] is the hardest place I've ever seen," says Harner. One problem, he said, is that the district is spread out, with many neighborhoods boxed in by major highways or located far away from any school. "When you work in Lubbock it's clean. This isn't clean," Harner observed. "There are pieces that don't fit."

Harner spends his days developing a myriad of attendance zone plans for the district, only to have a new concern voiced by a parent or a board member send him back to square one. He has moved boundary lines to appease 100 parents one week, only to have 200 parents show up at the next week's meeting seething because the new line now negatively impacts their children. It's a time-consuming practice - but it's the price the district pays for opening up the boundary process to the public. In the past, the district has worked in secret, but the subsequent outcry prompted the district this time around to hire MGT of America, an Austin-based consulting group, and Harner of Harner and Associates, to shepherd parents through the emotional and complicated process. Each of Harner's plans is presented to the public as a rough draft, something he invites them to change. "Nothing's cast in stone," the genial Harner tells parents, inviting them to identify their neighborhoods on giant cross sections of the city in the front of the room. "Why don't you come here and show me on the map?" During one meeting, Harner's white hair and glasses and his manner of talking to anxious parents prompted MGT's Greg Hartman to jokingly compare the demographer to Phil Donahue.

He's the guy you really want to blame if you're angry about these maps," Hartman teased. "But he's also the guy whose gonna change them, so you want to keep him as your friend."

While some may complain about the decisions being made, most give high marks to the process itself. "We've had a lot more input than we thought we would have," said Joyee Godall, who has two children at Kiker Elementary. "The board has been very good at listening."

Board President Kathy Rider said it was important to the trustees to make every step of the complicated process public. "I think many of us [board members] lived through the boundary process as parents when historically it was held behind closed doors," said Rider. "The board would present their plan only when they were finished, and usually it was something parents were not pleased with. This time around, we wanted to give parents the opportunity to share their concerns throughout the process."

Openness and flexibility is good for public relations, but it can be tricky when you're undertaking such an enormous project on a tight deadline. As May creeps closer, the tension becomes more palpable with every board meeting - no doubt exacerbated by the recent board decision to buy out Superintendent Jim Fox's contract, and by the upcoming trustee elections. Recent meetings have been marathons into the wee hours of the next day, as the board members cram like students for midterms, trying to digest every piece of the puzzle. The clock is ticking.

"We're in a difficult situation," acknowledged Harner.


Broken Promises, Bitter Compromises



Under the plan for this southwestern area, the Legend Oaks neighborhood (dark gray) will be split between Patton and the new Joe Dan Mills Elementary (vertical lines) - but kids in Lewis Mountain Ranch and Granada Hills (light gray) will attend Kiker (horizontal lines) and Mills, instead of commuting past those schools to get to Patton.

"All of us would like to draw boundaries that reflect what most people in the community would like to see," said board member Melissa Knippa at a recent meeting. But it becomes clear rather quickly that no matter how open the process, it's impossible to appease everyone because everyone wants the same thing. What everyone wants is a neighborhood school to which their child can walk or ride his bike, where class sizes are manageable, and facilities are top-notch. They want elementary schools where their children will stay until they move on to middle school, without annual adjustments and readjustments due to overcrowding. They want to protect their children from the upheaval of suddenly changing schools.

"The kids are worried about this," said Bobby Clarke, whose children attend Davis Elementary. "It's the idea of losing your friends that bothers them. We're telling them not to worry about it, but the adults are whispering among ourselves. When you're eight, you're not equipped to deal with this."

It is a process many parents know all too well. Between 1972 and 1991 the district, because of growth and court-ordered desegregation initiatives, seemed to constantly be adjusting and readjusting boundaries, said Rider. There are stories about families living in the same house with four kids having attended four different elementary schools. Parents who themselves went through the Austin public schools talk about the pain of being shuffled from school to school. They don't want that for their children. They want stability in a growing city. They want promises that are difficult to make.

Of course, part of the problem, particularly in Southwest neighborhoods like Legend Oaks, is someone did make them promises. During recent public meetings to decide attendance zones on the two elementary schools slated to open in the fall, scores of Southwest parents said they chose their current home because they believed they would be close to a specific school and were angry that that could now change. Developers and real estate agents sold them on the idea that they were moving into a good old-fashioned neighborhood, and folks in the same neighborhoods attend the same schools, right?

At least that's what the families of Legend Oaks were led to believe. For all the board's talk of preserving neighborhood integrity, Legend Oaks is one neighborhood that is not pleased with where the district decided to draw the boundary line for Joe Dan Mills Elementary, opening in the fall - right through the middle of its development. Legend Oaks families wanted a plan that would stretch the boundary to include the entire Legend Oaks neighborhood between William Cannon, MoPac, and Slaughter Creek, and send the entire neighborhood to the new school, located in the middle of their neighborhood on Escarpment Boulevard and Davis Lane. At their request, Harner drafted a plan to stretch the northern boundary for Mills Elementary to Convict Hill, and include almost the entire Legend Oaks development. But no sooner was that plan unveiled than the dominoes started to topple.

The plan to unify Legend Oaks, known as "Plan 3," required children further west in the Lewis Mountain Ranch and Granada Hills neighborhoods to attend Patton Elementary school, located far east of Kiker, the school many attend now, and east of the new school. Parents from Lewis Mountain Ranch and Granada Hills turned out in full force, wearing pink cards with "No Plan 3" emblazoned on their chests, incredulous that the board was even considering busing their children at least 45 minutes along US290, past three other schools, so that the Legend Oaks kids could walk to class.

Does it make any sense - demanded Lewis Mountain resident Shelby Walden during a March 5 public hearing - to drive past three schools to get to our so-called neighborhood school, in order to appease residents of a "manufactured" neighborhood? "Whose interests are we looking out for?" Walden asked. "It's not fair to our children."

Meanwhile, the Legend Oaks parents were not completely satisfied either, because there were still about 20 families from their neighborhood not included in the boundary for their neighborhood's school. Rather than cause a war between the Legend Oaks residents and their western neighbors, the board voted to keep Lewis Mountain Ranch children at Kiker and send Granada Hills children to Mills. This plan splits Legend Oaks in half, sending part to Mills and part to Patton. Legend Oaks parents and some neighborhood association members said the board missed an opportunity to have a school where the entire student population could walk and where community involvement in that school would blossom.

"I don't understand why the board wasn't able to come up with a fourth plan that would have satisfied Legend Oaks and our neighbors to the west," said Larry Casto, president of the Legend Oaks Homeowners' Association. "Actions like this have a negative impact on [residents'] sense of community. When you start interfering with this bond, you disrupt the passion that makes people want to contribute to their neighborhood."


Victory Through Vigilance



Parents take a look at the latest drafts of AISD's school boundary maps at Anderson High last week.

photograph by Jana Birchum

But while one neighborhood is frustrated, another is hopeful. For years, students sandwiched in the triangle between I-35, US290, and US183 - known as the St. John's neighborhood - have been shipped to four different schools, including Harris and Andrews, where kids are now eating lunch in the crowded cafeterias in shifts starting as early as 10:30am. Parents also complain about portable classrooms that encroach upon the playgrounds. In this long-neglected area of town, parents have been watching the boundary-drawing process carefully and participating faithfully, making every effort to ensure that the board will hear their voices. Several parents bring translators to the public meetings and signs in English and Spanish, reading "Estamos Aqui!" - We are here.

The neighborhood was finally heard on March 9, when the board agreed to build a new school to serve the children in the St. John's neighborhood - a school that might not have been planned had this process of setting boundaries been run the traditional way. It was the St. John's parents' input during community forums that prompted Harner to draw the plan which the board ultimately approved. Under the plan, children living between I-35 and Cameron, and between Anderson and Rundberg, will attend the new school opening in the fall, named after former board member and teacher Bernice Hart. This school will help the crowding at Graham and Barrington elementaries. The second part of the plan will phase in the St. John's neighborhood school and finally help ease overcrowding at Harris and Andrews - though not until 1999 or 2000.

"We don't like the idea of waiting until the year 2000 for our children at Harris and Andrews to be relieved," noted Harris PTA president Jennifer Biggs, who was a leader in proposing the St. John's neighborhood school. "But this is also a big victory for our neighborhood. It brings a real sense of community for the St. John's neighborhood to have a school."

Indeed, a neighborhood school is desirable everywhere, but in the northeast, where socio-economic factors make parental involvement difficult, and therefore even more important, a neighborhood school is seen as something of a savior. The more integrated the school is into the community, the more inviting it is for parents to participate, and the more participation, the better for students, said Biggs. "We've waited a long time for this," she said.

The future site of the St. John's neighborhood's school will likely be Clifton School on Coronado Hills Drive, a facility currently used by high school students citywide for special education and vocational courses. Rider said Clifton was the desirable location for a new elementary school because AISD already owns the property and there is infrastructure already in place, so the school could go up faster than if the district was starting from scratch. But true to Harner's domino theory, a whole other set of students will be affected by the decision to make Clifton an elementary school. The district is proposing to offer the high school kids now taking special ed and vocational programs at Clifton the same courses through their neighborhood schools. Several parents with children in those programs have given their support to the idea, but say they want written assurances from the board that their children's programs will not suffer with the change.

When all is said and done, there will be more parents from neighborhoods like Legend Oaks who are disgruntled, and more like those from St. John's who are pleased with the decisions the board is making. There will still be parents who feel betrayed because their child's school is still crowded, or because their child will be bussed to a new school altogether. There will still be schools over capacity and there will still be portable classrooms on some campuses. It could be a long time before parents can relax. Some board members acknowledge that the next (albeit smaller) bond initiative to fund more schools is less than four years away, which means this whole process could start all over again.

"There will be some winners, and some losers," concedes board member Geoff Rips. "What we're trying to do is minimize the number of losers."

Parents like Beth Parks hope that whatever happens, the losers won't be children like her daughter Taylor, who f eels so strongly about staying at her elementary school that she recently wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees.

"Even though this is my second year at Davis, I have made many friends," Taylor wrote. "What I'm trying to get to is that you please think about how the children feel about it. It's us you're moving, not the boundaries."

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