AISD Board Considers Futures for Underused Facilities
The district’s property portfolio has become an increasingly pressing matter
Saying the words "AISD may close some schools" is like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded cinema. The last time trustees even contemplated shuttering campuses it led to years of voter backlash. With the district in the early stages of constructing a new facility master plan (FMP) – one that sets out the campus usage strategy for the next two decades – trustees are contemplating how to emphasize the positives, and make those bitter pills a little easier to swallow. Board President Kendall Pace said, "We don't want to close schools. We want to invest in communities."
The first indications of what could be the future shape of AISD were laid out on Nov. 30 to the district's Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee (FABPAC) by consultants from Brailsford & Dunlavey. The authors describe the plan as a 30,000-foot view: The district has 130 campuses, averaging 40 years of age – many of which either don't fit the standards of modern teaching or have dire structural issues.
The FABPAC is putting the pieces together for a new facility master plan, laying out facility usage and investment for the next two decades. Within its recommendations are a series of upgrades, new construction, and campus closures and consolidations (as laid out in the map at right).
The district's property portfolio has become an increasingly pressing matter. Recently, the AISD's Board of Trustees issued requests for proposals to sell, lease, or find new uses for a series of underutilized properties owned by the district. Now it has the FABPAC's draft data set and the consultants' draft recommendations – though Board Vice President Paul Saldaña was quick to emphasize the word "draft," telling the Chronicle, "It's important to make the distinction that these are options." That said, Saldaña is already getting feedback from community members about some proposals for campuses within his district, such as moving the Liberal Arts and Science Academy from the LBJ High School campus. "That's when I reiterated that it's just an option, and we have a lot of work to do," he said.
Before the FMP is finalized, the data will be used for a construction bond election, currently scheduled for Nov. 2017. AISD hasn't asked voters to approve a bond issue since May 2013, when voters rejected $402 million in projects, including $92 million for new elementaries and $48 million in campus expansions.
Since then, the district has been wary of asking for more money, but it may be experiencing a force of hand. AISD has almost $2 billion in deferred maintenance – a problem accentuated by the emergency closure of T.A. Brown Elementary in November because its floors were in immediate danger of collapsing. Saldaña said the district has the financial capacity to issue enough bonds to cover repairs without raising the property tax rate, though there's doubt about how many projects the district can handle in one go. Moreover, if the district defers again, they could actually cut property tax rates.
A second issue has to do with overall enrollment. Not only is it decreasing within the district, but kids aren't where they used to be. There's a long historic trend at play, with fewer families with school-age children living in Central and East Austin but more demand in areas such as Southwest and around Rundberg. While AISD needs new schools in those busy areas, it's spending a fortune keeping older and half-empty campuses open.
The mere mention of closures stirs memories of the last major facility master plan. In 2011, another draft FMP proposed closing nine campuses. The political fallout was arguably the beginning of the end for former AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, and kick-started the political careers of trustees Saldaña, Gina Hinojosa, and Jayme Mathias, as well as current Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who served on that year's Facility Master Plan Task Force and rejected the closure list in a minority report.
The big takeaway from that fight was, no matter how under-enrolled or troubled they are, families love their neighborhood schools and will fight to keep them. Pace stressed that when the consultation process begins it has to be transparent. "That doesn't mean we're going to get agreement. We know we're going to get pushback," she said. But: "We can't keep kicking the can down the road."
Saldaña concurred, adding that he would have liked the board to have started discussions earlier, and that trustees should have contemplated other fixes like redrawing attendance boundaries before closures were even mooted. Like Pace, Saldaña also expects a backlash against the board when public input begins. "As painful as it might be for us to hear, and to have people yell and scream and be upset, that's what we signed up for," he said.
Timeline for 2017 Bond Election
Dec. 2016-Jan. 2017: FABPAC to review options and hold public meetings
Feb. 2017: FABPAC to draft facility master plan recommendations
March 2017: Draft FMP will be presented to trustees
May 2017: Public discussion of bond package
June 2017: Trustees will vote on whether to proceed with bond
Nov. 2017: Bond election, if approved by board
On the Chopping Block?
The following schools were listed for possible closure in a report to the district's Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee.
Brooke Elementary,* 3100 E. Fourth: consolidate into Linder and Metz
Joslin Elementary,* 4500 Manchaca Rd.: consolidate into Sunset Valley and Zilker or Galindo
Ortega Elementary,* 1135 Garland: consolidate into Govalle
Sanchez Elementary,* 73 San Marcos St.: consolidate into Zavala
Dawson Elementary, 3001 S. First: consolidate into Galindo
Dobie Pre-K at Dobie Middle School, 1200 E. Rundberg: return students to home campuses (Graham and Hart)
Lucy Read Pre-K Center, 2608 Richcreek: return students to home campuses (Cook, McBee, Wooldridge)
Pecan Springs Elementary, 3100 Rogge: relocate to new Mueller campus
Ridgetop Elementary, 5005 Caswell: consolidate into Reilly
Sims Elementary, 1203 Springdale: consolidate into Norman
* Campuses also recommended for closure during the 2011 Facility Master Plan process.