- By Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
The Austin district could close up to 10 aging schools that are in poor condition, consolidating them with others or replacing them, according to a preliminary report from consultants working on a 25-year master plan.
Six new schools across the district could be built, and the nationally ranked Liberal Arts and Science Academy, LASA, now located on the LBJ High School campus, could be moved.
District leaders said the goal is to modernize the district and its campuses with help from a building-by-building assessment that was completed this fall. The district’s average facility is 40 years old, and some are over 100 years old. One in three has been determined to be in poor condition.
The abrupt closure of T.A. Brown Elementary School last month underscores the problems at some schools, which persist after voters rejected $400 million of $892 million in bond funding the district sought in 2013.
The list of possible closures, consolidations and other options is the beginning of the brainstorming and community work that the district plans over the coming months as it prepares for the next bond package, which could come as early as November 2017.
The projects will come with a steep price tag, as the district already has about $2 billion in deferred maintenance. A new elementary school costs roughly $30 million, while a new high school costs about $100 million.
The consultants’ options were presented Wednesday night to a facilities and bond planning advisory committee. In coming weeks that committee will have a series of high-stakes meetings to determine which options to present to the public.
“We can accept them individually or not make them at all,” said Rich DePalma, a committee member. “I feel comfortable hearing their options, but I see it as just another data point. I want people to be involved in the process and be participating in the process. This committee is focused on the community’s interest and is thinking of the district as a whole. We are thinking of the kids and that’s whose back we have.”
The projects the district moves forward with are likely to be broken into a series of bonds over the next two decades, with high-need items first. It’s too early to determine which projects will be recommended to the school board to include in a November 2017 bond package, district officials said.
District Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley said the facilities and bond planning committee members will examine the options and will create an initial proposal for the community to vet at the end of January.
“They have to layer on the qualitative information and take into account the academic needs that haven’t been incorporated here, our reinvention projects, administrative concerns,” Conley said. “There are a lot of things that haven’t been factored in that have to be coalesced into an ultimate proposal that will be vetted by the community. … It will look dramatically different by the time we get to the end.”
For now, some of the options include:
Shaun Cranston, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce chairman for education, lauded the work by Superintendent Paul Cruz’s administration.
“Dr. Cruz and his team deserve a lot of credit for tackling this complex issue,” Cranston said. “By presenting these options, we encourage AISD and the community to work together to finalize a master facility plan which looks to the future and renovates, modernizes and effectively uses each building in the district, while continuing to serve its current students.”
District officials said their decision to release all of the options early, with calls for the community to weigh in, is meant to avoid the kind of backlash that came over a former facilities plan that incited protests from the community in 2011. That proposal included nine campus closures to save $11 million, and it prompted more than 1,500 parents and community members to pack meetings to rally to save their neighborhood schools.
“We’re looking at ways to put our kids in better, more modern spaces but at the same time repurposing some of our physical assets to meet new needs in the communities, (and) leverage those assets to make investments in those communities,” Conley said.