AISD Told to Pay More, Make Cuts Hurt Less
School change process hopes to better support all students
The Austin ISD Board of Trustees on Monday approved its guiding principles for transforming the school district through closing, consolidating, and repurposing campuses over the next several years – what AISD is blandly calling its "school change" process. The document identifies five primary concepts, each with several sub-points, intended to:
• ensure equitable access to educational programs "that engage and inspire"; • put more students in "21st-century learning environments";
• maintain AISD's existing balance of neighborhood and choice schools with increased socioeconomic diversity;
• reduce the district's financial burden to maintain aging facilities; and • "optimize facility use" with partnerships and co-locations "to align assets with our community needs."
After prolonged debate of several amendments, trustees approved one that encourages district staff to limit the number of low-income students impacted by school closures – a specific percentage threshold would be identified after more analysis. Otherwise, the board split 5-4 repeatedly to reject proposed amendments, with the three trustees who collectively represent the majority of AISD's low-income students (LaTisha Anderson, Jayme Mathias, and Ann Teich) unsuccessful in their efforts to make the document's consideration of those impacts more explicit. The board majority proved reluctant to amend the guiding principles – which were developed in draft form over five months – from the dais; the final document was adopted 8-0-1 with Arati Singh abstaining.*
The first guiding principle calls for AISD, as part of this district rightsizing process, to "increase the comprehensive menu of rich [academic] options" that "mitigate programmatic deserts," and to "consider all regions for a district-wide, holistic approach." Though not stated explicitly, this language reflects the concerns of trustees and stakeholders who fear the burden of school change will fall disproportionately on Eastside campuses with shrinking enrollments and large concentrations of low-income students, while over-enrolled campuses west of I-35 are preserved.
District leaders have repeatedly asserted that enrollment is just one factor to be analyzed when making decisions on closures and consolidations. They point to AISD's district-wide enrollment declines (more than 6,000 since 2012, with another 7,200 projected through 2028) as their motivation for embarking on the school change process, which could also lead to rethinking how attendance zone boundaries are drawn, but insist their ultimate goal is to improve access to academic programming for all students in every part of town.
Although the guiding principles were the only discussion item posted for action on Monday's agenda, much of the energy in the boardroom came from the many supporters of Education Austin's push for a 10% pay raise for all district employees. More than a hundred employees and supporters rallied before the meeting, and virtually every public speaker at the meeting itself lobbied the board to approve 10% – not the district's tentative offer of a 1% raise for teachers only – in the upcoming budget, which aims to close a $30 million deficit. Many shared stories of working multiple jobs to make ends meet, or of thoughts given to fleeing to other districts where pay may be higher and the cost of living definitely is lower.
Others spoke of leaving the profession all together. Traci Dunlap, a kindergarten teacher at Maplewood Elementary, said all the raises she's received have been offset by Austin's rising health care and housing costs. "I'm pulling money out of my savings every month to get by," Dunlap said, before drawing attention to colleagues in non-teaching roles. "How can our [teacher assistants], custodians, bus drivers, and others be expected to support their families on what is not even a living wage by Austin standards?"
The board is set to approve AISD's budget for the 2019-20 school year – including any compensation increases – at its June board meeting.
Editor's note: This story has been amended since publication. It originally said Cindy Anderson abstained from the final vote. in fact, it was Trustee Arati Singh who abstained.