Saving Austin's Schools
Nobody gets everything they want, but AISD’s bond may give everybody something they really need
Austin ISD is about its neighborhood schools. With a $1 billion bond package coming before voters in November, the district's emphasis now falls on preparing for the future of new neighborhoods, and in taking bold steps to shore up the traditional neighborhoods that find themselves desperately in need of new investment.
The proposition itself is massive in its concept: $1.05 billion in bond authorization, being presented as part of a $1.13 billion spending plan derived from priority items in the district's Facility Master Plan, crafted over the last few years by its volunteer Facility and Bond Planning Advisory Committee (FABPAC). It's a huge data set with three core conclusions.
First: that AISD operates a lot of old campuses that are in desperate need of some attention. The district has run up billions of dollars in overdue maintenance and repair costs; the failure of two of the 2013 bond package's four propositions has only made that worse.
Then there's the question of whether any given school is the right space for a modern education. Many of the district's campuses are between 40 and 100 years old. Setting aside their condition, many are simply not suitable for today's educational practices.
Third, and most politically fraught, concerns the old adage about real estate: location, location, location. AISD has more seats than kids, but many of its schools are so old, and situated in neighborhoods where bulked populations of kids are no longer living. It's the reality of city demographics. There was a time when there were enough kids in East Austin's Holly neighborhood to fill both Zavala and Metz elementaries, even though they are just three blocks from each other. Now both schools are underenrolled. Meanwhile, campuses along Rundberg and in the southwest, northwest, and northeast parts of the district are out of date and bursting at the seams.
Take Norman Elementary in East Austin, which is designed to hold 486 students, but only claimed 301 elementary-age kids in its attendance zone in 2015 – and only 261 enrolled at their neighborhood school. That means only 54% of the school's seats are occupied. Meanwhile, other campuses face chronic overcrowding, like Casis, in Tarrytown, at 122% capacity; Cowan, near Slaughter Lane, at 130%; and Doss, on Far West Boulevard, at a staggering 163%.
Blame gentrification, sprawl, the city's ever-shifting demographics; but an empty desk in Govalle Elementary (in East Austin, off Springdale) is not much use to a first grader who lives 17 miles away in the Baldwin attendance zone (southwest, near Circle C), where the elementary school is already 20% over permanent capacity.
The district already has an ideal case study of how not to present this package. In 2011, then-Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and the board caught hell for the original Facility Master Plan, a tone-deaf document, poorly presented, that airdropped a massive list of potential closures on various communities throughout town ("What the Task Force Wrought," May 27, 2011). Not only were many of its proposals (including the closures) rejected, but it was the beginning of the end for Carstarphen and her closest supporters on the board.
It wasn't that the district did not need a facility assessment; it's how the process was handled and rolled out. So last year, when the current board established a new FABPAC, AISD Board President Kendall Pace decreed that the emphasis be on facility-by-facility analysis, which yielded broad recommendations. It was the board that turned that analysis into a set of priorities, forming the outline of the bond. The 2011 master plan "tried to balance equity versus need all over the city," she said. The current model "was a lot more thoughtfully planned over a long period of time."
The winnowing process to construct the bond proposal was harder than it sounds. The FABPAC recommendations totaled $5 billion over 25 years; most of that in repairs and expansion, rather than new construction. So in picking the projects for this time around, the board's mantra was "worst first," as Superintendent Paul Cruz has put it. After the politically contentious process of picking which fifth to prioritize, the board then decided to just go for an all-or-nothing play. Previously, it had split bond proposals into multiple propositions, but that's not what happened this time. Come November, voters will consider a single, billion-dollar proposition.
Part of the reason for that decision was that, after months of planning and weeks of contentious debate, Pace had been of the mind that the board was not interested in continuing to slice and dice. "Just squishing everything into that bond was painful enough," she said. Moreover, recent history has taught board members that multiple propositions can do more harm than good. 2013's failure at the polls sparked years of finger-pointing about whether the way the line items were split up made some propositions weaker than others. (Most particularly, Prop. 4, the highly unpopular plan to turn Old Anderson into an all-boys school with essential special education infrastructure – which unsurprisingly went down in flames on election night.) Since that drubbing, both Houston and Dallas ISDs have passed single proposition, billion-dollar-plus bonds, while Round Rock divided a $572 million package three ways and saw all three fail. "So it's not like splitting them up is any guarantee, or having one is any guarantee," Pace said.
She and her fellow trustees hope the community sees not just the pressing need but also the larger vision for AISD that the bond represents. There are big-budget items, like new schools and overcrowding solutions; bold proposals, like the grand switch that would renovate the old Anderson campus (site of Austin's first historically black high school), move the underenrolled Eastside Memorial there, and move the Liberal Arts and Science Academy off the LBJ campus into the now-former Eastside, giving both LASA and LBJ room to expand. Then there are the painful parts, like discussions of closing some older, underenrolled schools and selling them off. Yet Pace has found herself most concerned with whether voters will realize that there is something for every campus in the bond – and should it fail, there would be nothing for anybody. Yes, the district may have to consolidate and close some campuses. But if the bond fails, Anderson stays closed, Eastside gets no repairs, and that's just the start of the system's woes.
So far, the vocal opposition to the bond has only come from a few corners. Former Council Member Don Zimmerman's conservative anti-everything loudhailer the Travis County Taxpayers Union has berated the whole process, going so far as to basically allege that the district's decision to close T.A. Brown Elementary last November for safety reasons (the floor was collapsing) was part of a false flag operation. There's also a new body: Outside of the board's Aug. 28 meeting, the Save East Austin Schools PAC held its first rally – 30 parents, neighborhood campaigners, and freewheeling mainstays of local politics such as former county commissioner candidate Richard Franklin and artist/activist Daniel Llanes turned up to not simply protest the bond, but demand its money be reallocated to East Austin schools. Speaking at the event, group member Peggy Vasquez charged that AISD's proposed Facility Master Plan "further segregates Austin ISD based on race."
Their core complaint is the proposal to close and sell off several campuses in East Austin. Even if the bond passes, the district still has to find more than $80 million to cover its planned spending, and $40 million of that is slated to come from selling off excess properties. The district has already sold off some vacant land, and is in negotiations to sell the Baker Center near Hyde Park to the Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain (to be redeveloped as offices and housing). But that only gets them so far, so they have looked at aging campuses with terminally low enrollment. Sadly, the biggest cluster of those falls in East Austin.
Threading the Needle
Pace rejects the claim of deliberate segregation. Not only are more funds going to Title I schools (those receiving federal financial assistance due to the high percentage of children from low-income households) than non-Title I schools, she said, but "We have more money going to east of I-35 than west of MoPac. We have more money going per student to the Eastside than we do to the Westside. You can take different measures to say it's equitable or inequitable, but we tried to balance it out. And all the trustees and their appointees on the FABPAC had ample time to work with their communities. So this is where we are."
The district's attempts to thread those needles is seen by SEAS-PAC as just another example of East Austin getting the short end of the stick, with co-founder Monica Sanchez saying the Facility Master Plan "would continue Austin ISD's and City of Austin's long history of institutional racism." Her group alleges that the school's plan is to close Brooke, Metz, and Sanchez elementaries, cram all the poor and minority kids into Zavala, and sell the land off to the first high-paying developer.
Not so, responds FABPAC member Jennifer Littlefield. First, she said, "The bond does not mandate any closures." Second, there is no way to even fit all those kids into Zavala. Yes, Littlefield agreed that some kids would end up at Zavala, but that's because it's only three blocks from Metz, and the two schools are competing for many of the same kids anyway. Most kids would end up at other surrounding campuses, like Blackshear, and Govalle, and that's why the bond allocates $30 million to the Eastside vertical team, to be spent on surrounding schools in the event of consolidations.
Third, even without the bond, all three might close anyway due to too many empty seats. Brooke (currently at 69% capacity), Metz (59%), and Sanchez (61%) are all so close together that even shifting attendance zones won't help. Littlefield added, "There's nowhere nearby to grab more kids from, because they're all chronically under-enrolled, and they are projected to be chronically underenrolled in the future." If the schools close and the bond fails, she said, "There will be no money for renovating the receiving school."
For Pace, linking the bond to closures misses that, without it, one school stays closed anyway. Without the $31 million earmarked for T.A. Brown – located in the heart of the district's population growth zone in North-Central Austin – it stays closed until further notice.
A Forward-Thinking Community?
The FABPAC and the district have an unlikely ally in getting information like that out: District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias, who was elected to the board in 2012 thanks to a wave of anti-incumbent, anti-closure, anti-FMP sentiment. Three of the schools (Brooke, Metz, and Sanchez) on the potential closure list (plus Eastside Memorial) are in Mathias' District 2, so he and the families in his area have a huge amount riding on the bond's success. As such, Mathias has become one of the most pragmatically supportive voices for its passage and the benefits it can bring. He said, "I am excited for the possibilities that this bond will afford the students and families of East Austin."
For Mathias, moving East Austin kids out of crumbling campuses, revitalizing the historically significant Old Anderson, and solving the Gordian knot of the LASA/LBJ split campus seems like a win-win, so he's been trying to fathom any reason for the opposition. Ever the academic, Mathias said that he's recently been studying the work of Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede and his concept of time orientation – put simply, whether a community is forward-thinking or rather more defined by its history. "The time orientation of many people in East Austin is less toward the future, less toward the present, and more toward the past," Mathias has concluded.
He's not writing off concerns about the long-running impact of segregation and underfunding in East Austin. But when faced with the rhetoric coming out of SEAS-PAC, there's a tone of frustration in his voice. It's not just the outright myths being peddled by its opponents, he said (like how Old Anderson was built on a landfill …), but also the lost opportunities that they hide. Why call Brooke a neighborhood school when so many of its students are bused in as transfers? Why keep Metz, which was opened as a whites-only symbol of Eastside segregation, when the money and resources could give Govalle an overdue facelift? While history must be respected, he said, "at what point do we realize that we pay less when we build something new?"
None of these decisions are easy. If they were, the district would have made them years ago. However, with groups like SEAS-PAC, Pace said, "There's no justification. There's nothing you can say. There's no compromise. There's just that position."
Will the process be painful and filled with closures and reopenings and renovations? Absolutely, said Mathias, but if there's an emotional argument to be had, he'd rather it be about the future. "To give the students a state-of-the-art school," he said, "is wonderful."
Bonds: For School Systems, Now More Essential Than Ever
Bonds represent a cornerstone of how school districts pay for capital expenses – new schools, for example – as opposed to day-to-day costs like salaries. Under state law, a district must seek voter approval to issue bonds; with approval, they can sell the bonds on a timetable of their choosing, and pay them off with tax money. That spreads the cost for infrastructure over time, rather than sticking taxpayers with a massive upfront rate hike every time a district needs a new campus.
These days, the state of school finance in Texas makes bonds more essential than ever. A school district property tax bill is split into two components: maintenance and operations (M&O), covering day-to-day costs; and interest and sinking (I&S), paying for debt and bond. Texas' notorious Robin Hood recapture system only hits M&O revenue, so while AISD sends one out of every three M&O dollars into state coffers, they keep every cent of I&S raised. That's why AISD is putting nonconstruction spending, like $5 million for police radios and $21 million for new and replacement buses, into the package going before voters this November. Put simply, paying for this essential equipment through bonds gives local taxpayers a bigger bang for their buck.
Moreover, AISD bonds will be some of the most appealing on the market. One of Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson's biggest achievements has been to keep the district at an AA bond rating. That's the highest possible grading for a district paying recapture to the state, and means the district can usually offer a 3% interest rate, rather than the 5% districts with a lower rating and less reliable finances would offer.
But while the district is asking voters to approve $1.05 billion in debt, this bond barely scrapes the surface of AISD's facilities' needs for the next 25 years (currently at $5 billion and counting). In fact, it won't even pay for the first round of construction, which stands at $1.134 billion. So the district will make up the gap by staggering bond issuance, using $40 million in contingency funds currently left from the last bond cycle, and potentially selling off $40 million worth of existing property.
The reason the district did not go above that $1.05 billion ceiling: Any higher, and it would require a property tax rate hike. Polling shows that if the bond requires a tax rate increase, voter support drops from 70% to 15%.