- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
Austin district administrators have put plans in motion to shutter a handful of East Austin elementary schools as early as next August and rebuild three of them.
All six of the schools chosen for consolidation — Brooke, Norman, Sims, Metz, Sanchez and Zavala — have low enrollment, which qualifies them for closure under a district facilities plan. But plans adopted by the school board last summer had assured school communities that the district would give them time and work to help boost enrollment before considering any school closures. Community members are questioning the district’s efforts in helping the schools, given the fast pace it has set for closing them.
Documents show that district officials plan to close up to three of them by August.
“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,” Superintendent Paul Cruz said Friday. A “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.”
Under the district’s plan, one of two East Austin elementaries —Norman or Sims — would close and consolidate with the other campus. A planning team has until Jan. 16 to determine which school will close, according to a district timeline. The remaining school would be rebuilt for $25 million and open August 2020.
The plans also call for Brooke Elementary to close, with its students moving to Ortega, Linder/Uphaus or Govalle, one of which would be rebuilt into a 522-student, $32.5 million campus opening in August 2020.
Zavala, Sanchez and Metz elementaries also will be consolidated, district documents show, and that planning team has until June 7 to decide which would be rebuilt, with the other two schools folding into it. The timeline is unclear when the other two campuses would be closed, but the $25 million rebuilt campus is slated to open in August 2021.
The consolidations fall under the district’s timeline for projects within the recently approved $1.1 billion bond package.
Critics of the plan said they feel duped as district leaders avoided talks of closures while persuading voters to approve the bond.
Those who attended meetings held at Norman and Sims said parents and community members seemed shocked, then angry.
“Frankly, I was utterly stunned,” said Jim Harrington, founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project who volunteers weekly at Norman. He said district officials on Monday called for an emergency meeting held the next day to share the news. “How are we going to get community input in six weeks, especially when two of those weeks are holiday weeks? Right now it’s just a blatant rubber stamp. We’re going to be pushing back really hard on this. It’s crazy.”
Harrington, who was named to the planning team, said he plans to fight the consolidation and instead ask the district to invest in both schools, offering strong academics and after-school programs, with leftover money from recent land sales.
Bond documents previously referred to the consolidations as a $25 million “LBJ Vertical Team Modernization Project” and another $25 million “Eastside Vertical Team Modernization Project,” but did not indicate either was for a new school.
However, other district documents obtained by the American-Statesman in June revealed specific closures were under consideration, specifically for Brooke, Metz, Norman and Sanchez.
The Norman-Sims consolidation is among the projects to be included in the initial rollout of the bond work. It will cost taxpayers $20,264 every week the modernization project is delayed past February, according to the district.
Half-empty schools dot the district, particularly in East Austin. As some neighborhoods have aged or as families have been priced out of the city the number of children has dwindled. Other families have left academically struggling campuses for nearby charter schools. The district in previous years introduced plans to shutter low-enrolled schools, but they prompted backlash and protests among parents and community members, with the district eventually backing down.
Trustee Ted Gordon, who represents the area that includes Norman and Sims, said the district’s timeline appears to circumvent the process previously laid out for helping schools with low enrollments.
Gordon said that, while advocating for the bond, one of his arguments was that voting for the bond did not necessarily mean school consolidations or closures, and the timeline given to the Norman/Sims communities is “not reasonable.”
“Communities need to be given the power and time to work through these things and decide what’s best for their schools,” Gordon said.
East Austin community members in opposition of closures learned of the meetings this week and plan to rally at the Dec. 18 board meeting.
“Fast-tracking decisions like these is not a way to build trust, it’s not a way to build deep community engagement, and it doesn’t inspire confidence,” said Rocío Villalobos, a local community activist, who took to social media this week to get others involved.