- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
In fast-growing Austin, the school district is one of the few things getting smaller. After three consecutive years of declining enrollment, it’s no longer one of the five biggest districts in Texas.
Now the sixth-largest district, Austin has bled about 3,000 students in the past three years and has an enrollment of 83,591. Austin’s nearly 1,200-student drop this school year was the largest decline of any district in Texas with more than 20,000 students.
The district’s most recent 10-year demographic report shows no sign the enrollment declines will stop and predicts a loss of another 6,140 students over the next decade. Meanwhile, the rapidly growing Fort Bend district, the state’s seventh largest with more than 73,500 students, could surpass Austin’s enrollment in the next decade.
The boom the city is experiencing has displaced lower-income families, driving them to neighboring suburban districts where the housing is cheaper and the schools often perform better in state ratings. Escalating housing costs are expected to keep fueling that trend, as only one-third of the 11,337 currently planned housing units in the district are single-family homes. The shrinking population of school-age children is seen especially in Central and East Austin, forming what demographers describe as a doughnut-shaped hole in the city, where the core has more schools with vacancies. Other parts of the district, including northwest and southeast, continue to grow.
“We are becoming a much more divided district in some ways because of the cost of housing, especially in central and east,” said Beth Wilson, the district’s assistant director of facility planning. “That is having a much larger play in our story of reduced populations within Central Austin. It’s definitely the cost of housing.”
City of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson agrees.
“The danger is long-term,” he said. “Of all the housing stock we’re adding to the central city, you could make the argument that we are forever closing off the central city to future families.” He said the district will go through several more years of turbulence, with one part growing rapidly and other parts shrinking.
“You’re in the middle of a storm,” Robinson told the school board last week. “And that’s the state of what it means to be an urban school district. That’s the challenge … I wish I could say there’s hope on the horizon, and there is hope on the horizon, but we’re going to be in this environment for several years to come.”
The district is also being rivaled by charter schools, contributing to the loss. Of the students who were enrolled in the district in 2014-15 but did not return in 2015-16, nearly 29 percent left for charter schools.
Demographers also attribute the student loss seen in the prekindergarten and kindergarten levels in the past three years to lower birth rates during the recession.
To counter the drops, the district recently launched an aggressive multifaceted marketing campaign, opened itself up to out-of-district student transfers and launched such programs as prekindergarten for 3-year-olds. Those efforts brought in hundreds of students this year. But the downward spiral has caused some district leaders to question whether it’s enough.
“While I’m hopeful we can reverse certain trends with certain strategies or fixes, what I’m hearing is we’re no longer No. 5 in the state, and when we’re hearing the report in a few more years, we may not even be No. 6,” said Trustee Jayme Mathias. “What does that mean in terms of the present facilities?”
A facilities plan adopted by the board less than two years ago requires strategies to address underenrolled and over-enrolled schools to be vetted through a community discussion to determine generally supported options, avoiding missteps made in previous years. Talks about possible school closures and overhauling of boundaries have long been contentious in Austin. A facilities plan under a former administration in 2011 that called for nine school closures to save $11 million sparked outrage and protests among parents and community members, leading trustees to shelve it.
But the latest demographer’s report, which indicates several schools will be more than half empty in a few years, may force school leaders to re-examine such options. Some trustees say the district needs to think of more creative solutions and have had initial conversations with city leaders about possibly using some of the district’s surplus land to build affordable housing for teachers and families.
“When a school population dwindles to the point it can no longer sustain that school, that’d be a bad situation,” Mathias said. “It’s better to have those conversations now.”