Schools, Sprawl, and Citizenship
Vote Begins on $520 Million School Bond Package
Early voting began this week on the first major AISD bond initiative since 1996, with the election itself set for Sept. 11. Austin voters will decide whether the school district should spend $520 million (or some fraction thereof) to build eight new schools and upgrade, expand, and repair the rest. Should all six propositions pass, it would increase the property taxes on a median-priced ($157,000) house by roughly $6 a month.
Many voters, even those who can swing the six bucks, may have a hard time deciding how to vote. Building and improving schools sounds nearly as wholesome as putting a free-range chicken in every pot but figuring out where to build and improve, especially in a politically charged venue like Our Fair City, is much, much harder.
The placement of schools undeniably influences urban growth but it's hard to say how much. On the one hand, people move where the schools are. On the other, districts build where the people are. But with ever more people moving into Austin's fringes, some Austinites would like to ensure that AISD does not encourage unnecessary or ill-planned growth and some say that public institutions should actively provide disincentives to moving to the Outer Boondockia.
A related concern, reflecting the passage of time as well as diminishing urban space, is whether renovations at older schools can keep them on an educational par with new facilities. This tension is often expressed with all the attendant emotional reverberations as a conflict of interest between "inner-city" and "suburban" schools. However, Austin's changing demographics, and its rising cost of living, mean that more and more low-income families are now choosing to live in the outer suburbs. Increasingly, it follows that the kids who will suffer if suburban schools aren't built include rich and poor alike.
Although every piece of the bond package would generate some degree of tax hike, of the six propositions on the ballot, only two have thus far generated much public controversy. The other four to renovate existing buildings (Proposition 2), provide environmental, safety, and security upgrades (Proposition 3), upgrade the athletics facilities (Proposition 4), and pay up-front costs to refinance AISD's debt (Proposition 6) appear to enjoy a broad consensus from school supporters. There was a late-hour but very brief public dispute over whether the district would pay tradesmen "prevailing wages" an admittedly slippery concept on the roughly $400 million of bond construction projects. That was resolved, at least in a preliminary fashion, when the board of trustees agreed to commission an independent wage study, overseen by a committee including labor representatives. Local labor groups now endorse the entire bond package.
Two propositions have run into heavy if fairly narrow opposition. Proposition 1 is a $183 million proposal to build seven new schools and classroom additions districtwide and to acquire land for four future schools. Proposition 5 (which was not included in the original proposals from the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee; see "Proposition 5," p.32) proposes a district performing arts center location to be determined and pairs it with a middle school in southwest Austin. Propositions 1 and 5, in differing degrees, face opposition from advocates who argue that the new schools will increase suburban sprawl and decrease district equity.
The bond package attempts a balancing act among the visible and undeniable needs of a large urban school district and also among the competing political interests of the larger Austin community. On Sept. 11, the voters will determine whether the acrobatics have succeeded.
Drive by nearly any AISD school, and you'll see colonies of portables chock-a-block with the permanent buildings. AISD has about 1,200 portable classrooms handling "overflow" in its 107 schools. The district, in other words, is seriously overcrowded and expects 10,000 additional students over the next decade. Overcrowding is so rampant that the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee, which developed the package, decided that the district couldn't afford to address all of it at once. They recommended a new school in a given area only when a) the existing school would be at or above 125% capacity by 2007, and b) the problem could not be solved by boundary adjustments (i.e., sending some kids to less crowded schools nearby).
Which Came First: School or Suburb?
The schools that fit this classification are on the fringes of town: four elementaries in the far northeast, southeast, south-central, and southwest; middle schools in the northeast and southwest (the package also includes funds for two more elementaries that will be located where they're most needed when other construction is completed.)
Opponents to Propositions 1 and 5 argue that AISD lacks clear evidence that the neighborhoods feeding these outer-fringe schools will continue to grow, and therefore that AISD's decision to build now is effectively encouraging further sprawl. If, on the other hand, AISD decides to bus kids in the outer suburbs into central schools, they argue, parents are less likely to move there and developers less likely to build. "The fact is that if we build the infrastructure, they will come," says Jeff Jack of the South Austin Democrats, which narrowly voted to oppose Propositions 1 and 5.
The committee and trustees developed the plan through enrollment projections developed by demographer Dennis Harner. A simplified summary of his method runs like this: For existing neighborhoods, Harner counted birth rates and existing kids; if 100 people in a given area gave birth in 2004, you can figure about 100 kids should end up in kindergarten five years later. Meanwhile, the existing kindergarteners will be nearing middle school. However, that direct count doesn't work in brand-new developments, where he used averages such as 0.4 elementary-aged kids per new house. But when do you count a "house"? When the developer buys the land to build them, or when they're actually on the market?
Harner's report admits that this is a fuzzy area. "Some subjectivity is involved in this part of the projections to account for projects very likely to develop in the near future, but not yet active," he wrote. And in fact, his projections were often based on building permits and utility hookups in outer Austin, not necessarily existing houses. This leads anti-sprawl activists like SOS Alliance's Bill Bunch to refer to plans for a southwest elementary as "speculative." "We support building schools to serve current residents," Bunch said at a public forum held by the South Austin Democrats.
However, Harner says basing projections on permits makes sense.
"For a house not to be built after you've taken out a permit is highly unusual," he said, explaining that it usually takes only three to six months for a house to be completed after a permit is issued. "Those tract houses go up in a hurry," he said.
Some connection between sprawl and schools is undeniable: Developers often donate land for schools, because proximity to schools sells houses. The southeast and southwest elementaries will be built on land donated by the developers of the surrounding subdivisions, and if the district decides to build the other elementaries in the far southeast or southwest, that land will likely be developer-donated as well. For example, Stratus has donated land for a school in the Bear Lake PUD and has given AISD a window of more than 10 years in which the district can decide to build. Shooting down Propositions 1 and 5, in this context, might be considered a way to send a message to developers: They can't just expect AISD to build schools because they unilaterally decide to build houses.
Nevertheless, some question whether the school-building stage is any longer the right time to fight this battle. Mike Blizzard, a consultant working with Southwest residents to promote the bond package and specifically the new middle school proposed in Proposition 5 is a longtime ally of the SOS Alliance in its defense of the aquifer and its big-box battles. But he says he's fully behind the new schools.
"When we've already approved zoning and construction and water lines and wastewater lines, and people are living in those homes," he said, "it seems almost cruel to then say, 'But you're not going to get any schools.'"
"Sprawl" is an environmental challenge for many reasons that have nothing to do with any aquifer, including straining public resources, exacerbating the car culture and traffic congestion, and institutionally polarizing the community. But in Austin, the local anti-sprawl debate revolves primarily around the Edwards Aquifer, whose recharge zone lies under the lovely southwestern hill country, where (in convenient stereotype) the Rich White Folks presumably live.
Whose Sprawl Is It?
Bond supporters insist that Proposition 1 would benefit many more residents than just the Pottery Barn crowd. "If you vote against Proposition 1, you're penalizing middle- and working-class kids white, black, and brown and their parents," says AISD at-large trustee John Fitzpatrick. That's because "sprawl" is happening all over the city, and it's not simply characterized by the "white flight" of decades past. Many of Austin's most remote neighborhoods are now also among its poorest. Texas Education Agency statistics reflect, for example, that Jordan Elementary (150% overenrolled, and one of the northeast schools scheduled for relief in Proposition 1), is 91% economically disadvantaged. Langford, one of the southeast schools, is 115% overenrolled and 85% economically disadvantaged.
These families are moving outward because closer-in housing prices are going up the average home price in the Langford neighborhood, for example, is $83,000, compared to much tonier prices closer to Downtown. That's a trend that has serious reverberations for central-city schools. "We're seeing population growth in the urban core for the first time in a long time," says city demographer Ryan Robinson. "But what we're seeing is that a decreasing share of this population is school-aged."
In other words, exploding enrollment on Austin's fringes is matched by declining enrollment in the center and that "revitalization" (or gentrification) of the central city, when undertaken without affordable-housing measures in place, effectively contributes to a sprawling student body. On the whole, affluent couples have fewer children than less affluent ones, and on average, Anglos have fewer children than Hispanics. As young, working-class, and Hispanic families buy cheaper houses on Austin's fringes, they either leave behind their empty-nest parents or are replaced by more affluent, predominantly Anglo families who simply have smaller households.
In keeping with that demographic trend, many central Austin schools are now well under capacity. Ridgetop Elementary, just northeast of Hyde Park, for example, is at 84% capacity, while Zavala, in East Austin, is at 68%. These older schools are also often smaller than newer ones, and hence more costly to operate. So while bond opponents argue that the district could bus fringe-area students into more central schools, trustee Fitzpatrick says such a policy would be hard to justify financially. "The most fiscally conservative thing to do would be to consolidate or close under-enrolled schools and bus kids all over the district," he said. "But we're not doing that in this bond because we're committed to neighborhood schools in every part of AISD."
And to the board, that means a commitment to Travis Heights and Circle C neighborhoods alike which brings us to the question of equity.
Opponents of the new schools worry that in its rush to build spiffy new schools, the AISD is neglecting its older ones. This is an argument that recalls the white-flight years, when many cities saw well-educated and organized suburbanites exercising their political clout to suck up school-building dollars, while central city schools were left to crumble.
The Function of Equity
"I'm very familiar with sentiment in the East Austin community that whenever bond propositions or highways or any kind of public funds come through, that they are not treated fairly," said Sheryl Cole, one of the CBAC chairs. "I did not want that to be said of this bond package."
But "equity" can be a slippery concept at an extreme, absolute equity would mean if there's a brand-new school for anyone, there should be a brand-new school for everyone. Instead, the CBAC set common quality standards for the features they prioritized roofs, HVAC systems, kitchens, and so on and if one school would be brought up to standard, all would be. "Everyone has the same quality roof, the same play slab, the same quality air conditioner, the same security monitors for the high schools," Cole says. "The same vendors are putting them all in."
But Jack says the committee is missing the kind of equity that really matters: "functional equity." This is an educational term of art, and refers to TEA requirements that any schoolroom that serves a given "function" (e.g., a classroom, a nurse's station, a janitor's closet) should be a certain size; a 22-student second-grade classroom, for example, must be 925 square feet. Smaller classrooms, it is assumed, limit a teacher's ability to teach. "For example, if a brand-new school has an art room that is a certain size and an older school has an art room half its size, you can't assume you're getting the same level of instruction," said Jack. (Needless to say, in Texas, equity of any kind is a value honored much more in principle than in fact.)
After the 1996 bonds were passed, concerns were raised that they didn't sufficiently take functional equity into account. So in 1997 the district conducted a study that identified around $100 million of functional equity deficiencies in older schools (depending on job costs, the actual range was from $80 million to $127 million). Only $21 million of those deficiencies have thus far been directly addressed, so Jack believes that the $40 million allocated for functional equity in the new bond package is not enough. Leaving deficiencies is not only unfair, he says, but it encourages more out-migration. "We need to bring all schools up to the level of the new schools, so when the new schools are built, they're not in competition with existing ones," said Jack.
However, it's hard to argue that every measurable deficiency for example, the 124-square-foot deficiency in the textbook storage area at Lanier High School substantively affects instruction. The committee says it was forced to prioritize. "The committee was really only looking at the academic core areas and at the most egregious of square-footage deficiencies," explained Curt Shaw, the district's facilities manager.
But Jack says they aren't addressing everything. His most common example is Zilker Elementary, a blue-ribbon school in Travis Heights. Zilker will receive about $1 million in renovations under the bond package, including a roof, a bus loop, a restroom, electrical and sanitary system upgrades, and other repairs. Zilker parents say they really just need more space. "We're busting at the seams, and they're putting in a bus loop," said parent Brian King. "I'd much rather have a lunchroom that accommodates all our kids." Because of Zilker's small cafeteria, students currently eat lunch in shifts starting at 10:30am (indeed a fairly common central-school complaint); King also pointed to Zilker's six portables as evidence the school needs a new permanent wing.
But the very reason that these particular needs aren't being addressed is, ironically, the way the CBAC defined equity. The functional equity report does show the Zilker lunchroom as being half of its required size (although size requirements are based on an 800-student elementary school, while Zilker has only 500). But many schools have the same issue, and the committee simply decided other problems were more pressing this go-round. "That's a great example of how equity came into this," said Cole. "We had so many schools that needed [lunchroom expansions], and we knew we couldn't afford it for everyone, so we didn't want to fix it for just a loud few."
The committee instead recommended the district start studying the issue now to prepare to expand a lot of lunchrooms in the next bond package. (And if the Zilker parents still want to swap their bus loop for a lunchroom expansion, they are allowed to petition the district to do so once the bonds are passed.)
As for crowding, Zilker at "only" 102% capacity just doesn't make the 125% cut. Zilker parents insist the school will grow. However, 78704 is just the kind of high-cost, high-population-growth, transitioning-to-smaller-family-size neighborhood that AISD's demographers project will lose children over the next several years. (Moreover, about a quarter of Zilker's current students are transfers from other neighborhoods counting only neighborhood students, Zilker is actually below capacity.)
Environmental concerns lead some to argue that what Austin needs is not equity per se, but preferential treatment for central-city schools like Zilker, as part of an urban-planning strategy that discourages sprawl. But as positive as that may appear, it could also start to look a lot like the mirror-image of the old white-flight scenario, where the well-off folks still have the favored schools it's just that now they're in the central city. In theory, the AISD could apply anti-sprawl school-denial measures only to zip codes directly over the aquifer, or with an above-average per capita Pottery Barn saturation rate, or both but the point is, given current demographic trends, simultaneously fighting sprawl and promoting equity is more difficult than it might first appear.
In the long run, that means that whatever comes of the Sept. 11 election, work on the next bond package needs to start now for trustees, but also for community members who envision a better way to build Austin's infrastructure and to educate Austin's kids. (For more on the AISD bond proposal process, see Rebonding the Process)