AISD Sends Signals on Future Budget Cuts

School closures and the redrawing of school boundaries eyed as potential ways to address $29 million deficit

Board VP Yasmin Wagner said the task force should feel "unshackled" from political constraints in making recommendations for cuts. (Photo by John Anderson)

School consolidations, attendance zone boundary adjustments, and a sunset review process for contracts and programs are among the strategies that could contain Austin ISD's budget deficit. Leaders with the Budget Stabilization Task Force presented a status update to AISD trustees on Monday night for the first time since the group was convened in June to find solutions to the district's $29-million-and-growing problem.

Task force tri-chair Robert Thomas noted his committee was charged to make "courageous" recommendations on how the district could save money, adding that "all of the easy decisions have been made" by past district leaders. That means the recommendations to be submitted by the task force could be politically fraught, but Thomas said the group agreed early on that its job was not to be popular, but to be honest: "We decided that tail is not going to wag this dog."

Although the task force is not due to make formal recommendations until Dec. 14, Thomas identified "buckets" of cuts being debated. School closures and the redrawing of school boundaries top the list, since they offer some of the biggest potential savings for the district. Though always a political minefield, school closures would free up real estate for the district to sell or lease for new revenue while reducing operations costs.

Thomas was careful to note that the task force would not recommend which campuses should be closed, only that it was looking at a "greater number of schools that could be closed" and that "every single corner of the district has to re-evaluate how we are delivering education" – implying the school board should not just look to underenrolled Eastside schools for closure or consolidation. And by adjusting district boundaries to boost underenrolled schools and relieve overcrowded campuses (most of which are on AISD's western side), the district could both erode historical East/West segregation and reduce the number of closures needed to stabilize the district budget.

The task force is also considering a recommendation that the board establish a sunset review process, not unlike that seen in the Texas Legislature. Both in-school programs and contracts awarded to outside organizations to support district initiatives would undergo a review after a set number of years to determine the "academic return on investment" each is delivering to students. Seeming to acknowledge the backlash such a review process could create, Thomas said many of these programs were "valid and important, no doubt" but "in a budget crisis, are they programs that trustees can continue to support?"

Thomas told the Chronicle Tuesday that the task force is under no illusions about the immense challenges it faces in terms of political feasibility and budgetary complexity. "Everything we're talking about is a sacred cow," he said. "The recommendations won't be painful, but what the district does with them will be." But board Vice President and District 7 Trustee Yasmin Wagner offered encouragement to the tri-chairs as the board concluded their discussion at Monday night's work session. She said the task force should feel "unshackled" from political constraints in making recommendations for cuts. "The board fully supports doing the right thing," Wagner said. "Even if it's not the popular thing to do right now."

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AISD, Austin ISD, Budget Stabilization Task Force, Robert Thomas, Yasmin Wagner

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