AISD backs away from plans to shutter, consolidate six schools in 2018

After pushback from community leaders and parents, Austin district administrators are moving away from plans that would have shuttered and consolidated up to six schools by next August — but at least one campus will still be closed.

Brooke Elementary will not close and those students will not be sent to three other schools in the 2018-19 school year, Edmund Oropez, the district’s chief officer for teaching and learning, said Tuesday night, contradicting a timeline sent to school board members last week and a district statement by Superintendent Paul Cruz provided to the American-Statesman on Friday.

Plans remain in place to close one of the campuses – either Norman or Sims elementary – while it undergoes renovations, Oropez said.

But even once they’re in the same facility, neither of the schools necessarily has to close, Oropez said, suggesting that the staffs and student bodies could remain distinct, preserving both of them. The planning team, in charge of the “unification” of the campuses would be the ones to make such a call, he said.

If so, that could mean two separate schools, with distinct teachers, staff and students all studying under the same roof.

The school district has done that sort of thing before.

At the LBJ High School campus, for instance, LBJ and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy co-locate. Something similar is also being done with T.A. Brown, which closed last year due to an unstable floor and is now co-located with Barrington Elementary. T.A. Brown will separate and reopen at its original site once a new building is constructed.

“I want to clarify a few things,” Oropez told the planning team at Norman Elementary Tuesday night at the beginning of the meeting. “Some people are saying we need to make a decision about Norman and Sims, about any type of school closure by January. That’s absolutely not true … it is true we need to select the site the building is going to be built on so we can modernize the school by January or February, in order to meet the construction timeline to have that school open in two years.”

Since the timelines were made public last week, the district has been criticized for not giving the schools time or resources to help boost enrollment and for betraying the trust of the community after bringing forward possible closures less than a month after the passage of the $1.1 billion bond package, the largest in Central Texas history.

Despite the timelines, no decisions have been made to close any schools, Oropez said, and only the school board has the power to make those decisions.

But Jim Harrington, the founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project and a weekly volunteer at Norman Elementary, said administrators’ portrayal of the situation on Tuesday is a reversal of what was conveyed to the Norman and Sims communities last week during campus advisory council meetings.

Three district timelines obtained by the American-Statesman last week describe “unification projects” for Norman and Sims, as well as Metz, Sanchez and Zavala. The Norman and Sims timeline said, the “Charge of the Project Planning Team: To develop a plan to unify Norman and Sims Elementary Schools into one modernized 21st Century Learning campus.”

Brooke’s timeline was called a “reassignment plan” and said that by August “all students from Brooke Elementary attend Govalle, Ortega and Linder/Uphaus Elementary Schools.”

In a district statement given on Friday, Cruz said:

“The successful passage of the recent bond showed taxpayers entrusted AISD with reinventing the urban school experience, including necessary steps, which would be irresponsible to ignore. Continuing trend of declining enrollment in some areas of Austin ISD has created challenges that must be addressed with clear, intentional solutions — including community input to provide modernized learning spaces our students deserve.”

The district said the “unification of campuses” is outlined with the facility master plan, and pointed to a page that details school consolidation criteria.

In grappling with half-empty schools that dot the district, administrators in previous years introduced plans to shutter low-enrolled schools. But such discussions prompted backlash and protests among parents and community members, and the district eventually backed down. A comprehensive facilities master plan adopted last spring details that chronically underenrolled schools can be shuttered, but also gives provisions that the schools will be given district support to boost enrollment before any action is taken.

Each campus associated with the timelines, Brooke, Norman, Sims, Metz, Sanchez and Zavala, all have been underenrolled for multiple years, qualifying them for closure under the facilities master plan.

Last summer, as first reported by the American-Statesman, internal district documents indicated that a handful of East Austin schools, including Brooke, Metz, Norman and Sanchez, could be shuttered to help bring down the costs of the overall bond package.

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