East Austin elementary schools Metz and Zavala, which have seen sharply declining enrollment in recent years, could be passed over for renovations, raising the specter that they could be shuttered if low enrollment persists.
At the same time, school district administrators are expected to recommend giving Sanchez Elementary, another East Austin elementary school, a $25 million face-lift.
If the school board approves the plan at its Sept. 24 meeting, Sanchez would reopen as a modern school in August 2021. It is one of multiple campuses being rebuilt or modernized under the $1.05 billion bond package approved by voters in 2017.
This year, Doss Elementary also closed and students moved to the former Lucy Read Pre-Kindergarten School while Doss is being rebuilt, and Norman Elementary was chosen for a rebuild over Sims Elementary. Both Doss and Norman are slated to reopen in August 2020.
Members of a planning team, made up of parents, staff members and other residents, spent eight months examining the three East Austin schools, facility conditions, current enrollment, projected enrollment, location in the neighborhood and transportation.
Sanchez narrowly edged out Metz. There was little support for Zavala as suitable to rebuild and expand. The group submitted its recommendation to administrators, who supported the proposal and discussed it with school board members on Monday night.
One of the group members, Ryan O’Donnell, a specialist in science, technology, engineering and math for schools in East Austin, said construction dollars could go further using Sanchez, which already has hallways built with collaboration space.
“The process was very thorough,” O’Donnell said. “We had lots and lots of time to look at all the data and think about from beginning to end what the best possible option would be.”
Trustee Jayme Mathias, who represents the east and southeast portions of the district, including the three schools, has questioned the choice, and said the decision on which campus to renovate shouldn’t be made until the district determines how many schools it is committed to keep open over the next 15 to 20 years.
The district has seen declining enrollment for five consecutive years and is projected to lose an additional 1,400 students this school year.
District officials have not ruled out the possibility of future school closures. The school board last year adopted a comprehensive facilities master plan that indicates schools with at least three consecutive years of underenrollment can be shuttered, though the district is working with campuses to help boost their numbers through marketing and robust offerings such as dual language programs.
“We need to right-size the Austin ISD,” Mathias said. “We’ve hemorrhaged over 4,000 students during the past six years, largely due to the lack of affordability in Austin. We have to take schools offline, and it’s going to be painful.”
If the three schools ultimately are consolidated into one, then Metz would be the better option, he said, based on the location of the school, its current condition, the number of students enrolled at those schools, and the cost to renovate. But if the district is willing to keep at least two of the three campuses open, then he could support Sanchez as the choice for modernization, he said.
Dennis Fagan, a community member who has volunteered at Zavala since 1992, said he fears the recommendation might lead to the ultimate demise of Zavala, which was built in 1936, originally dedicated to educating Spanish-speaking students.
Fagan attended the planning meetings, and said there was too little community outreach to neighborhood families and thinks the capacity number the district is using for Zavala is too high.
And like other East Austin advocates, he said families should have been warned that the bond could facilitate shutting down low-enrolled schools as they are absorbed into bigger, modernized schools.
“We thought they were insincere about being fair in the process,” Fagan said. “I’m not against Sanchez being modernized, but I am against closing Zavala. It’s a community center. It’s a good, vital school that has a great history, and it could be greatly improved.”
The bond projects totaled $1.13 billion, but district leaders reduced the figure put before voters to $1.05 billion, saying the district could make up the gap by using $43.8 million in projected leftover bond funds and $40 million in possible land sales, which could include shuttered schools.
But Monday night, Trustee Amber Elenz said the money does not have to come from sales from existing school closures, but could be a combination of sales from surplus land, the central office building and the existing building for the Rosedale School, which will move to a rebuilt site in a few years.
“That is also a property that could go into this bucket,” to reach the $40 million, Elenz told other trustees Monday night. “Sometimes we get caught up in those other conversations that if we’re modernizing one (school) then that means the other one must be going into this $40 million bucket. I think there are a lot of different options for this bucket.”
2017-18 school year enrollment and permanent capacity
Metz Elementary: 290 students enrolled; building capacity: 524 students (55 percent).
Sanchez Elementary: 260 students enrolled; building capacity: 580 students (45 percent).
Zavala Elementary: 304 students enrolled; building capacity: 561 students (54 percent).