AISD: Matching Buildings to Kids, or Vice Versa?

AISD aims to resolve under- and overcrowding issues with its facilities master plan

A long-range master plan includes review of these AISD sectors.
A long-range master plan includes review of these AISD sectors.

For the first time, Austin Independent School District is working on a facilities master plan, intended to take stock of both the buildings it has and those it needs, and then create a long-term vision of what to do with them. A series of public hearings will be held next week to give AISD residents the opportunity to provide insight on the proposals, but the board of trustees is already bracing itself for a potential backlash.

The need for long-range planning was originally proposed by the district's 2008 Citizens' Bond Advisory Committee and again in 2009 in MGT of America's districtwide efficiency study. (See "AISD 'Efficiency' Study: Not Exactly What the Doctor Ordered?," June 12, 2009.) On Feb. 22, the district hired Ohio-based educational facility planning firm DeJong-Richter to draw up a 10-year outline plan, restructuring the district's building inventory to fit with the five-year strategic plan adopted last December. Since April, the firm has been meeting with a 72-member advisory task force made up of teachers, administrators, parents, and community representatives. The current plan is to finalize the task force's recommendations on Oct. 19, for presentation to and approval by the board of trustees as early as November.

So far the task force's biggest job has been designing an educational framework establishing long-term needs and targets. Task force co-chair Janet Mitchell called it "our north star" that they will use to create "a facilities plan that provides educational adequacy for all students at all facilities throughout the district." She described the group as being "in the options business," but the options offered could stretch from simple renovations and infrastructure investments to more radical shakeups, like redrawing attendance zones or repurposing, consolidating, or even closing schools. Because of the enormity of any potential changes, she said, "We want to really take our time and hear from the community what's important to them." When they have that feedback, Mitchell said, the task force will return to the community "with a specific set of potential options and get their vote, if you will. Then we'll know what recommendations will be feasible."

The community input may counterbalance the input from staff and consultants, who have already had their say. The headline figure for the district is that there are 99,900 permanent seats on AISD campuses serving 84,700 enrolled students. Beyond those are another 16,000 seats in the ubiquitous portable classrooms that provide relief on the most crowded campuses. MGT's study took note of "underutilized" schools like Allan Elementary – which ran at 45% of permanent capacity in 2008-09 – and proposed a "conservative approach" of closing seven elementaries and one middle school. According to the study, that would reduce the district's excess capacity by 50% and save $7.1 million a year. Board President Mark Williams acknowledged that closures are not off the table but described the discussion as still "hypothetical" – while adding that "to reduce spending, we may have to do some school consolidations and/or boundary adjustments in order to realign our facility resources with where the kids are."

On Sept. 7, district staff presented new figures to the task force reflecting that between 12 and 15 campuses are underutilized. However, for every Allan, there's an overcrowded campus like Linder Elementary (at 125% capacity), Wooldridge Elementary (127%), or Mills Elementary (135%). Additionally, "permanent capacity" doesn't tell the whole story; AISD also calculates "functional capacity," adding in portables but subtracting rooms dedicated to special education and districtwide administration. Under those calculations, Allan went from operating at 45% capacity to 47%. Portables can also disguise overstretched permanent facilities: In 2008 Andrews Elementary had only 594 permanent seats for 630 students, but throw in the portables and its 78% functional capacity makes it appear it has space to spare.

With so little clarity about what the numbers might actually mean in a particular case, any changes may well depend on whose ox (or neighborhood school) is selected to be gored. Drew Scheberle, the Great­er Austin Chamber of Commerce vice president for education and work force development, said that any facilities decisions become "small-'p' political." That is, "Are people showing up and banging on the table in greater numbers for, say, the McCallum performing arts center than Eastside structural improvements?"

While some areas of the district are expected to see shrinking student populations for the foreseeable future, both North­west and South Austin are forecast to see extra pressures on classroom space. While the Sept. 7 presentation kept closures under discussion, staff also backed continuing plans for a South Austin high school, a North Central elementary, a Southeast early learning center, and an additional undesignated elementary. The funding for all of those was approved by voters in the 2004 and 2008 bond packages, but staff recommended an extra middle school and another elementary – putting the district in the seemingly contradictory position of closing some campuses while building others.

Not that the other big option – redrawing attendance zones – always goes smoothly. District 7 trustee Robert Schneider and his challenger Warren Faulkner agreed that old tensions over attendance zone realignments (see "Proposed Southwest School Boundaries Spark Con­cerns," Nov. 14, 2008) for Gorzycki Middle School and Baldwin Elemen­tary survived into May's board elections. Williams called attendance zones "the holy war of school districts, in that it always raises everybody's temperatures." However, both he and Mitchell said they hoped the meetings will lower the heat. Mitchell said, "The most important thing we can do for our community is to walk through the thinking process of what the options are."

AISD School Facilities Community Dialogues

The public can give feedback on options being considered for the facilities master plan, including recommendations for specific elementary, middle, and high school campuses. The sessions, held in high school cafeterias, will address proposals for districtwide planning areas as well as specific areas. You can attend any session, regardless of where your child goes to school.

Tuesday, Sept. 28, 6-8pm

South: Bowie High School, 4103 Slaughter

Central South: Crockett High, 5601 Manchaca Rd.

Wednesday, Sept. 29, 6-8pm

Central East: Eastside Memorial High, 1012 Arthur Stiles

Northeast: Reagan High, 7104 Berkman

Thursday, Sept. 30, 6-8pm

Central West: Austin High, 1715 W. Cesar Chavez

Northwest: Lanier High, 1201 Payton Gin

Tuesday, Oct. 5, 6-8pm

Northeast: Reagan High, 7104 Berkman

South: Akins High, 10701 S. First

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