A second high school won’t be built in Southwest Austin after all.
Instead, the Austin district is moving forward with a land purchase for a new high school in Southeast Austin and a smaller tract to go toward the immediate multimillion-dollar expansion and modernization of the over-capacity Bowie High School.
District officials are finalizing negotiations over the land purchases, which will end years of debate over which side of South Austin will get a new high school. The trustees who represent South Austin will announce the plans in coming days, and a school board vote to approve the two tracts of land is expected at the end of February.
Depending on the adjacent land secured to meet city development rules, Bowie might have to expand more vertically.
“It will be a large school, but only 200 students larger than we are now. It preserves all the things that people love about Bowie right now,” said Trustee Yasmin Wagner, pointing to the range of academic options, extracurricular activities and strong athletics programs.
“By taking this approach, we can take this modernized campus to the Bowie community expediently,” said Wagner, who represents the southwestern portion of the school district. “It’s a fiscally responsible and environmentally responsible option to meet the needs of Southwest Austin.”
Bowie for years has been overcrowded, and, with nearly 2,900 students, it is currently 435 students over capacity (118 percent), nearly the exact number of students who attend Bowie on transfers.
Demographers predict the campus will be at 128 percent capacity by the 2021-22 school year before attendance begins to drop a few years later. Though it’s unclear how much square footage will be added, the nearly 30-year-old Bowie will be transformed with expanded common areas and technology improvements, among other things.
To prevent the campus from becoming a mega high school, the district will continue putting into place a more stringent transfer policy. Starting next school year, the district no longer will accept new sibling transfers to Bowie, which allow students to attend schools that their siblings are or will be attending. The district will also deny tracking transfers, which allow students who have transferred to a lower-grade school that feeds into Bowie to transfer into the high school with their classmates.
In 2008, voters approved $32 million to purchase land for a high school (at least 100 acres typically is needed) in South Austin. The money will go toward both tracts, but any leftover, or contingency, funds used to expand Bowie would require board approval.
Parents and community members from both Southeast and Southwest Austin for years have urged school board members to get the land for a new high school in their neighborhoods. In December 2015, the school board finally announced it had directed its staff members to move forward with the purchase of two tracts for one or two future high schools.
Demographers project growth among high school-age students in the next five years. While student growth in Southwest Austin is predicted to slow, student enrollment could reach a point in Southeast Austin to need another school in the next 10 to 12 years, if not sooner. Akins High School, also in South Austin, is at 2,700 students, or 140 percent capacity, and developments such as Goodnight Ranch is expected to bring about 3,800 housing units to that attendance area.
The construction of a high school, however, would still be years away. Trustees would need to call for another bond referendum to begin designing or building that school. It’s unclear when such a measure would go before voters, but it could be included within the next couple of bond packages.
Trustee Paul Saldaña, who represents the southeastern portion of the district, said the last high school built east of Interstate 35 was constructed 43 years ago.
“There’s the sentiment that it’s time to build a new high school east of 35,” Saldaña said. “A lot of people feel we need to be investing in areas we’ve been neglecting for years.”