Austin ISD Budget Shortfall Could Put School Closures on the Table

Desperate times may lead to desperate measures

Before considering closures, Austin ISD hopes the district will approve a tax rate increase (art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images)

Back on May 9, when she learned that Austin ISD’s budget deficit had ballooned from $60 million to $89 million, school board Trustee Candace Hunter broached a nearly forbidden topic. She asked Superintendent Matias Segura if the shortfall might necessitate closing some schools.

Segura was visibly uncomfortable. He assured Hunter he didn’t want to even consider the idea. But he also said, “I don’t want to sit here and tell you that three years from now we won’t be having that conversation.”

Indeed, in the weeks since Segura’s response, AISD has settled on a three-year response to the deficit that, in the worst-case scenario, may end with a look at school closures. A district spokesperson told us that before considering such a move, AISD wants to see if Austinites will support a voter-approval tax rate election, or VATRE, in November, that would raise property taxes and bring in an additional $40 million. If a VATRE isn’t approved, the district wants to wait another year to see if Texas Republicans agree to increase school funding in the 2025 legislative session.

But with Republicans still waging war on public education, there is widespread doubt they’ll approve more funding. District officials say that if they don’t and if more money doesn’t come in from a VATRE – or from higher student attendance, or the creative use of real estate holdings by the district – then AISD will have no choice but to consider cuts that will hurt students and classrooms. Those cuts could include laying off teachers, eliminating their planning breaks, and raising class sizes. And they could include closing and consolidating schools.

It’s been five years since the district last voted to close schools. In 2019, it targeted six schools, almost all of them on the Eastside, where enrollment had dropped because of gentrification. Despite furious resistance and accusations of racism from their respective neighborhoods, Norman and Sims elementary schools were consolidated, as were Sanchez and Metz elementaries (the Sims and Metz campuses were closed). Brooke Elementary was closed and repurposed, along with Pease Elementary, the only school of the six west of I-35.

“I don’t want to sit here and tell you that three years from now we won’t be having that conversation.”  – Superintendent Matias Segura

Ann Teich was a school trustee during the closure struggle. She told us she voted against the closures (along with current board president Arati Singh), in part because of the way the process was handled. She said the superintendent then in charge did not confer with trustees or solicit input from the communities that would be affected before deciding which schools to target.

“The plan was formed and then shopped to the public and to the trustees,” Teich said. “That’s a top-down way of doing things that should not be employed in public schools. It should all be about communication and making sure that everybody’s at the table when you’re talking about a systems change – it should be communication, communication, communication.”

Superintendent Segura and the current crop of trustees have excellent communication and community engagement skills, Teich was quick to point out, and the fact that AISD is publicly discussing something that might or might not happen three years from now is evidence of that. No one will be blindsided if schools are eventually closed. But is closing schools the right thing to do?

Community members at a 2019 AISD board meeting express outrage over the closure of Brooke, Pease, Sims, and Metz schools (photo by John Anderson)

The argument for doing so is that closing and consolidating schools reduces the costs of underenrollment and maintenance on aging buildings. It allows districts to attract more students with improved facilities that offer a better learning environment and more services. The new Norman-Sims Elementary School in East Austin, which opened in 2020, is an example of a consolidation that has worked well for the community, Teich said.

But schools are the beating hearts of communities and closing them is agonizing. “I would say closing a school is never a good thing,” said UT professor David DeMatthews, an expert on school administration. “But there comes a point in time when enrollment is so low that it becomes really impossible for the school to offer the most appropriate, most comprehensive services, supports, curriculum, and programs. Larger schools benefit from economies of scale and they can have a diversity of programs and kids can really benefit from that.”

DeMatthews said that in his opinion the only reason to close schools is to improve learning, and that the amount of money districts save with closures can be negligible. “A district’s not going to go from being in the red to being in the black just because they close a couple of under-enrolled schools. You’re going to save on some electricity, you’re going to save maybe on some custodial services, but it’s not going to be a game changer.”

This is a point that trustees David Kauffman and Kevin Foster have made in recent weeks. Foster rejects the concept of using business principles to decide the fate of neighborhood schools.

“We provide free education, and it costs money,” Foster said. “That’s just what it is. That’s the social contract. And our communities are better for it. So the idea of, 'well, it costs too much’ – that’s not the proposition. The better approach is in the form of a question: 'What does it cost to provide an excellent education for a child and how best can we get there?’”

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Austin ISD, Matias Segura, Ann Teich, Norman-Sims Elementary School, David DeMatthews, Kevin Foster

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