State offers millions to boost 8 Austin schools. But there’s a catch.

Jan 14, 2018
Barrington Elementary School Principal Gilma Sanchez, left, sits in on the first-grade classroom of teacher Elizabeth Froelich, right, as they do a math lesson. The Austin school district is attempting to place eight schools in Northeast Austin under the TEA’s Transformation Zone Program, in hopes of getting money to improve the schools. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Austin school district is hoping to land millions of dollars from the state to transform a handful of struggling campuses in Northeast Austin that have high concentrations of minority and low-income students.

But critics warn that the new Texas Education Agency program providing the money is pushing districts statewide to allow outside organizations to run their campuses or give charter operators a bigger foothold in areas where traditional public schools already face fierce competition.

“What we’re seeing now in state government is the incentive for local school districts to give up responsibility and control for local schools,” said Louis Malfaro, president of the labor group Texas American Federation of Teachers. “Public policy in Texas is really putting a lot of pressure on school districts to turn over public control of schools to nonpublic actors. It’s almost like bribing school districts to give up control to some nonelected entity.”

The Transformation Zone Program allows districts to work with charter operators and other groups to operate the campuses, or redesign the schools with the help of a partner designated by the education agency, among other options. Of 30 eligible districts, the agency awarded planning grants to all seven that applied, including El Paso, Fort Worth, Midland, San Antonio, Spring Branch and Waco.

Austin district leaders believe participating in the program will bring the autonomy and resources needed to boost academic performance and increase enrollment at eight schools, located in an area of Austin where enrollment is low. About a dozen charter schools are in the area the school district has picked for the project.

While the charter schools are rapidly growing in the area, school district officials say improving their campuses there can help win students back.

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The zone, if successful, is a lifeline of sorts that could prevent future risk of closure of the schools, some of which have failed to meet state standards.

While the program “does open the door to outside partners,” the district has a history of partnerships with such organizations, including for credit recovery, said Kendall Pace, Austin school board president.

“I wouldn’t be interested in choosing a partner that hasn’t had proven success of turning around elementary schools,” Pace said. “We have successful programs. I’m interested in what we can do to support the replication. … We’re struggling to support the schools with the funding we have now.”

While the state has not yet determined the amount it will give to the districts chosen to implement their plans, Pace said the program comes with “real money,” estimating it could be as much as $1 million per campus over two years.

New money for programs would be a boost for the schools since the majority of campus budgets go toward staffing; about $3.5 million of Barrington Elementary’s $3.7 million budget, for example, is designated for employee salaries and benefits.

District officials have grappled with finding additional money for new programs, as the district’s operating budget continues to shrink under the state’s school financing system.

So far, the school district applied for the Transformation Zone planning grant and received $446,681. The zone includes six elementary and two middle schools. About $200,000 will go to a designated partner the agency will chose and match with the district.

While the agency provided guidelines, the districts have the flexibility to “develop plans they want to design” and put into place, and each plan will look different, Joe Siedlecki, the TEA division of system support and innovation director.

“We wanted to provide districts with planning support to assist them to develop a transformational plan to turn around their persistently struggling schools,” Siedlecki said.

Trustee Ted Gordon, who represents the area where the schools are located, said administrators didn’t consult him about the plan or which campuses to include. While Gordon said he supports initiatives to move the schools forward, he is against any partnership with a charter operator to accomplish the work.