AISD backs away from plans to consolidate six schools in 2018

4:47 p.m Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 Local
Nick Wagner
A mother walks with her children after school at Brooke Elementary on Wednesday. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

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

Brooke Elementary, however, 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 statement 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.

EARLIER: District plans to shutter, consolidate 6 East Austin schools by August

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 that is 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, each with its own principal, under the same roof.

The school district has done that sort of thing before.

The LBJ High School campus, for instance, includes LBJ High and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, which is on the second floor. Something similar is also being done with T.A. Brown Elementary, which closed last year due to an unstable floor and is now co-located with Barrington Elementary. T.A. Brown will 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 on Tuesday night at the beginning of a meeting with parents. “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 school bond package, the largest in Central Texas history.

Those who attended campus advisory council meetings last week at Norman and Sims said administrators’ most recent portrayal of their plans is a reversal of what had been conveyed to them.

Jim Harrington, founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project and a weekly volunteer at Norman, called the different messages “a bunch of double-talk.”

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 called for “a plan to unify Norman and Sims Elementary Schools into one modernized 21st Century Learning campus,” with a decision made by Jan. 16 as to which campus to keep and modernize.

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

In grappling with half-empty schools that dot the district, administrators in previous years have introduced plans to shutter low-enrollment schools. But such discussions prompted backlash and protests among parents and community members, and the district eventually backed down.

“The school district and the chamber told the community if they passed the bond, they would follow the bond facility timeline,” said Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which has pushed the district to do something about its half-empty schools. “The school district is on track to do so. Tough choices are ahead; the budget deficit is currently $40 million.”

While school closures are off the table for next year, it doesn’t mean the campuses are in the clear. A comprehensive facilities master plan adopted last spring outlines that schools that maintain low enrollment for three years can be closed, though the school board ultimately must vote on such decisions.

Each campus associated with the timelines — Brooke, Norman, Sims, Metz, Sanchez and Zavala — has been underenrolled for multiple years, qualifying all of them for closure.

Brooke parent Annette Vidaurri said she was furious when she heard the campus would close at the end of the school year. On Wednesday, she received news that the campus will remain open at least long enough for her 10-year-old twin sons to complete their elementary years there.

“I’m relieved because I know my kids are going to get to graduate there,” Vidaurri said. “We don’t have to scramble to find a school with a good curriculum. That makes me feel better, but what about everyone else in future years?”