City, AISD Look for School Fixes

A vow to work together

(l-r) AISD Trustee Lori Moya, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, and board President Mark Williams
(l-r) AISD Trustee Lori Moya, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, and board President Mark Williams (Photo by John Anderson)

City is city, and schools are schools, and never the twain shall meet. That statement has proven pretty reliable in Austin for decades, but after City Council passed a resolution Feb. 17 instructing City Manager Marc Ott to work with the Austin Independent School District to "identify potential operational efficiencies and partnership opportunities," that divide became a little more porous.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell put a hole in the wall separating the two entities when he politely warned the district last month about the perils of its plan to close nine schools (See "Closing Schools Won't Fix AISD Budget," Jan. 21). And AISD stuck a crowbar in the crack when senior staff approached the city late last month about the district's financial crisis. How far the city can go and what it is prepared to do were discussed during a Feb. 16 council work session. AISD Superintend­ent Meria Carstarphen and board of trustees President Mark Williams, backed by AISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley-Abram and Chief Counsel Mel Waxler, repeated the points of their well-polished budget presentation: the threatened $9 billion cut from the state's Foundation School Program, the end of the federal stimulus dollars, and the self-inflicted wound of refusing to adjust the tax rate to offset declining property values. Yet there's little that council can do to tackle the short-term budget crunch. A straight cash injection appears to be off the table – even if the city wanted to, it is unclear that there is any legal way to provide money. More importantly, education funding statewide is in a critical mess, and the city is cautious about striking exclusive deals when everyone is suffering. As Leffingwell told the AISD delegation, "You're not the only school district in Austin."

Nothing specific is on the table yet, but council and city staff are brainstorming. In his role as a Capital Metro board member, Council Member Chris Riley suggested that AISD and the transit agency work closer together, perhaps sharing facilities such as refueling stations. There also is talk of forming a closer collaboration with the Austin Police Department. Currently, AISD's own police force employs 42 campus-based school resource officers, as well as canine and mounted units and support staff. The department is targeted to lose five positions, including three officers, as part of the threatened reduction in force, but not every school district has its own force. The Travis County Sheriff's Office provides officers to four local districts – Del Valle, Eanes, Lake Travis, and Manor – under long-term contracts.

Meanwhile, Education Austin co-President Ken Zarifis said he was encouraged that the district is looking at alternative ways to raise or release funds other than just sacking staff, but he urged caution about the process. He said: "'Efficiencies' has become a bit of a buzz word, and it's something that creates a bit of nervousness within the community. When we've been talking about efficiency in AISD in the last couple of months, we're talking about closing schools."

Potential city alliances are not the only partnership the district is discussing. In her Feb. 14 budget presentation to the AISD board, Carstarphen told trustees that, with no new state or federal revenue streams obvious or imminent, they'll need to get better at talking to charitable trusts and grant-giving agencies. (She's already walking that walk: When district staff announced her goal to shed 1,017 jobs before the new school year, she was in New York talking to potential benefactors.) She told council that the neighborhood schools activists need to back such funding innovation and develop "a solution orientation." Just telling her "'Don't close my school' ... that's not really helping right now," she said.

However, the threat of school closures was what motivated council to get more involved in district affairs. It's a fairly simple equation: The district is talking about closing schools in the urban core because its data indicates there are too few kids living in those attendance zones. At the same time, the city is trying to avoid urban sprawl, so it wants to make the city center as attractive as possible. Council Member Sheryl Cole admitted she was pointing out "the elephant in the room" – how pivotal those schools are to the city's anti-sprawl urban density plans. So the terms of the resolution about sharing long-term demographic data may be more significant than any immediate savings.

The Congress for the New Urbanism has already praised the potential for better combined planning. In an open letter to the city, district, and county, CNU Central Texas Chap­ter President Sean Compton said that the current system of independent planning "left a 'gap' in responsibility." But he was openly critical of school closure plans, saying, "The short-term saving created ... will have long-term negative consequences for property values, the health of the central city, and our economic vitality."

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