AISD Explores Its Options
Board mulls what to do with underused properties
Did you know that the Austin Independent School District has 12 apartments at the Carruth Administration Center on West Sixth? Or that it owns the historic Millett Opera House, currently home to the Austin Club, where Texas' politicos gather to bond and machinate? If not, that puts you with the AISD Board of Trustees, who recently voted to examine 10 underused properties and work out what best to do with them.
On March 28, the board issued a request for proposals (RFP) for what are classified as surplus facilities. The list breaks down into three sub-groups. First, there are existing buildings that are underutilized: the former Allan Elementary, the former Baker Junior High (now a teacher training facility), the central offices at the Carruth Center, and the Millett. Then there are two larger properties, the district's Central Warehouse and its Service Center, where AISD doesn't use all the land. Finally, there are four vacant plots, varying from one acre by Burnet Middle School to 32 acres on Loyola Lane, that ended up in the district's land bank and aren't being used for much of anything.
At this point, according to AISD Board President Kendall Pace, nothing is off the table. So if a buyer came forward with a reasonable offer for any of these properties, they'd be heard out. That doesn't mean the district would sell the property, but they'd be heard out. At the same time, the broad scope of the RFP means that more unconventional solutions, like leasing, partnerships with external entities, expansion, relocation of departments, even land swaps, could be on the table. As long as the proposal benefits the core academic mandate of the district, Pace said, "Let's not put restrictions on now."
Pace explained that the process was triggered by "a confluence of events." First, as a precursor to putting together a bond proposal for new construction and repairs, last year the district's Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee started looking at how every AISD property is used. Then in February, Pace, Board Vice President Paul Saldaña, and former President Gina Hinojosa were attending a joint sub-committee with the city and county. Pace said, "AISD staff were talking with city staff about a piece of property that could be viable for affordable housing, and Paul and I looked at each other and said, 'What are you talking about?'"
The 10 properties are technically classified as surplus: That is, although they may be in use by the district, they are not part of the core academic mission. Some of these have been on the list for years. Saldaña said that, as a trustee and a former member of the Community Bond Oversight Committee, he had seen the Austin Club, Baker, and the CAC on similar lists going back to 2010.
News of the RFP sent a brief shudder of apprehension through at least one part of the community. The former Allan campus has been through more than enough trauma in recent years, and has finally settled down into its new role as the Allan Early Childhood Center, a shared space for nonprofits (see "Allan Rising," Feb. 5). Austin Voices for Education and Youth administers the social services and charity side for the district: Executive Director Allen Weeks said that when the partners first heard about the list, "it was a lot of panic and misunderstanding." He had to explain that this was just the district doing "due diligence" before considering a bond. He said, "Allan is on there because, although it's an instructional facility, it's not a traditional instructional facility." In fact, he added, "What's happening at Allan is what the project is supposed to be bringing forth. It's a pilot project of what they're looking for. You have an empty building, you find partners, it's a win-win."
This isn't the first time AISD has considered selling at least two of these properties. In 2011, the district placed both the CAC and the Baker Center on the market, before rejecting all bids. So what's changed since then? Bluntly, it's all about the money. "Our situation is dire," said Saldaña. Between declining state contributions and accelerating property tax recapture, AISD is in an ever-deepening hole, and Austin's white-hot property market could provide a partial solution. For example, even if AISD keeps the Millett, that $48,000 annual rent it charges seems ridiculously low. Saldaña added, "I'm not saying that selling or re-negotiating ground lease is the be-all and end-all, but we're not going to get any relief from the state, so we're going to have to find local options."
Those 10 sites are a fraction of a larger discussion about AISD's facilities issues, how best to serve its students. Increasingly, it's a matter of the right facilities in the wrong places. While the district is worrying about overall enrollment dropping, that's not the story all across town – as Pace explained, "Our urban core is a doughnut." For example, there are no longer enough kids in the Allan attendance zone to justify reopening it as a school. But there's been such a massive growth in elementary-age population around the Rundberg corridor that AISD has had to open two campuses there in the last three years – Guerrero Thompson in 2013, and Padron in 2014. At the moment, those kids are all headed to the already overcrowded Burnet Middle School, a 45-year-old campus in desperate need of renovation. The district desperately needs a middle school there, but with the next bond election not planned until May 2017, both Pace and Saldaña suggested that the RFP could produce some innovative solutions to localized overcrowding.
Both also note that the plan is no panacea. Even if all 10 properties were sold at market value, the $95 million they would raise would not even dent the district's estimated $1.5 billion deferred maintenance bill. Allan alone needs $10 million in repairs, and, Saldaña said, "Baker probably twice that."
While kids being educated in crumbling facilities is no joke, the situation has occasionally been comedic: When trustees voted in 2011 to pull the CAC off the market, literally five minutes later the board room ceiling started leaking.
This time around, the important part may be that there were bids on the table in 2011. Yet while the real estate market may be even hotter in 2016, AISD is already bracing for public resistance. For example, in 2011, part of the reason AISD took Baker off the market was because staff knew there would be neighborhood opposition to a sale (in fact, Baker is part of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan, which calls for it to be restored as a working campus.) Saldaña said, "I'm optimistic that we'll get great proposals, but I think at least half of them will drop off."