Austin school board weighs facilities plan, approves land purchases

1:36 p.m Tuesday, March 28, 2017 Local
Stephen Spillman
Bowie High School students exit their classrooms. Tuesday morning, the Austin school board approved the purchase of two parcels that will allow the school to expand.

A facilities committee charged with creating a comprehensive plan to modernize the Austin district’s facilities has identified five underenrolled schools which could be closed if they stay below 75 percent of capacity.

After weeks of hearing feedback and questions from parents, the number of possible consolidations has fallen from six elementary schools to the current five — and district officials say even those campuses could stay open if enrollment can be raised above that threshold. Some had raised concerns that once a school had that tag, students would transfer out and staff would be difficult to retain.

“It’s important to understand that consolidations are not off the table,” CherylAnn Campbell, the facilities committee tri-chair, told the school board Monday night. She said providing those enrollment targets would help give “school communities a clearer path to understand the decision making and the factors that can empower them to make changes in their school situation before consolidations become a likely possibility.”

The revised facilities master plan names five schools — Brooke, Dawson, Joslin, Norman and Sanchez elementaries — that could possibly be closed if underenrollment persists, and are subject to so-called “target utilization” plans. Committee members — who have been meeting for a year and a half as they created the proposal — said more schools will be added to the list in the fall.

The updated plan came Monday night during a nearly four-hour discussion that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Much of the discussion was about closures, but there are hundreds of other recommendations in the plan, a 25-year roadmap that details $4.6 billion in recommended school projects that are likely to be presented to voters over the next two decades.

Nearly all 30 speakers who addressed the school board during public comments weighed in on the revised facilities plan. Several said they remain concerned that their schools would eventually be closed. Others voiced support for another recommendation in the plan: moving the nationally ranked Liberal Arts and Science Academy, or LASA High School, to a central location, to make it more accessible to others in the district and allow it to grow.

“The target utilization plan modification is mostly a step in right direction,” said Julie Barschow, a Joslin Elementary parent. “However, without a clear definition of this plan’s parameters and mostly importantly, a sincere promise from the district to provide support and resources to help increase enrollment, this is simply just a stay of execution and nothing else.”

Trustees Paul Saldaña, Jayme Mathias and Ted Gordon all raised equity issues, including Saldaña pointing out that the student populations of the five campuses facing closure are largely low-income, and Hispanic and black.

Trustees are expected to vote on, and perhaps make changes to, the facilities master plan next week after a public hearing on the issue.

The first projects on facility master plan that will likely be tackled:

• adding three schools to relieve overcrowding.

• tearing down and rebuilding T.A. Brown Elementary.

• comprehensive renovations to the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders and at the Rosedale School, where the district serves its students with severe special needs.

• relocating LASA to a central location.

“I don’t want us to come away with the feeling this is not a good plan, that not a lot of thought and care and sensitivity has been put into this plan,” said Trustee Ann Teich. “At the end of the day, there are some things we are going to have to do … creating a 21st century learning environments for our students and teaching environments for our staff. I hope we can come together.”

The school board Tuesday morning also approved the purchase of three land parcels for a future high school in southeast Austin and to expand Bowie High School.

Trustees approved spending $16.75 million for the land. The money for the land was approved by Austin voters in 2008 when they supported a $32 million bond proposition to purchase land for a new high school in South Austin.

The board also approved becoming a District of Innovation, a designation that gives Texas school districts more autonomy. Among the changes, the Austin school district will start the 2017-18 school year early on Aug. 21.