Austin Campuses Still Closed, But Not (Yet) for Sale
What to do with Austin's closed elementary schools?
Before COVID changed the conversation, the No. 1 topic at Austin ISD was the fallout over the controversial School Changes process in late 2019 that closed four elementary campuses, three of them in disadvantaged East Austin neighborhoods, and began laying the groundwork to close eight more. (Two of the four, Metz and Sims, were consolidated with nearby campuses and rebuilt as part of the district's 2017 bond program.) During a public Zoom meeting last week to discuss what to do with the now mostly vacant buildings, it was clear that anger hadn't dissipated. Austin resident Angela Pires asked if a reckoning about the inequity of the school closures will ever come: "You come with all this beautiful talk about engaging [the] community ... First of all, which community? Some of them were displaced."
But AISD officials say that, although the schools are gone, it isn't too late to listen to and support the communities brought together at those campuses. "We recognize that the process which ended up closing Brooke, Metz, Sims, and Pease was not our finest work as a district," said Beth Wilson, AISD's executive director of planning and asset management. Still, she noted, the public needs to participate in conversations about what to do with the facilities for AISD to reach an equitable decision about their use.
The virtual meeting was held to brief the public on the timeline for repurposing the four closed campuses as well as the Anita Ferrales Coy Facility (the former Allan Elementary, controversially closed in 2014) and Rosedale School. Decisions about those latter two sites as well as Pease will be made before next summer; the process for the Sims, Metz, and Brooke sites will begin later in the year. The public is invited to share its input via an online portal (at austinisd.org/repurposing/ideas), to be factored into discussions along with the results of the district's 2019 survey on the topic.
Each of the campuses comes with its own unique challenges. Pease – which had been Austin's oldest operating public school, dating back to 1876 – must remain dedicated to educational uses, per the deed restrictions imposed by the state of Texas when it transferred the property to the local school board more than a century ago. The 20-acre Anita Ferrales Coy site currently houses the district's Alternative Learning Center and a diverse group of nonprofit partners that AISD wants to preserve. Gabriella Beker, AISD's community engagement coordinator, said the district is keeping its options open: "We're not here to make profits. We're here to try and think creatively about how we can approach solutions within our district."
One problem the district needs to solve is a $62.2 million budget deficit, worsened by plummeting enrollment, that this year left teachers without an annual raise and threatens to further reduce districtwide resources. Beker told the Chronicle the board of trustees has not entirely ruled out selling one or more of the properties, but it's leaning toward other options. She described property sales as a Band-Aid and not a cure for AISD's fiscal woes, noting the most the district has gotten from selling one of its properties (its former HQ on W. Sixth) is $36.5 million. "The sale may help mitigate the deficit for one year, but then the next year, if we don't address enrollment and other root causes of the deficit, we're right back where we started."
Beker suggested that some solutions may allow the district to manage the use of the properties in a way that could reduce displacement of AISD families and students leaving the district – and not just in the short term. "As Austin continues to grow, land becomes increasingly valuable and will become more challenging to secure in the years to come. We have to consider that these sites could serve more beneficial or strategic purposes down the line."