Austin ISD could shutter East Austin schools to keep bond under $1B

The Austin school district could shutter a handful of East Austin schools to bring down the costs of the proposed bond package that trustees are expected to approve tonight.

Multiple school properties could be sold in the next five years to lower the bond project costs to under $1 billion, according to district documents obtained by the American-Statesman.

A line item in other bond package documents that have been presented publicly shows the $40 million as “estimated land sales,” but does not detail the exact properties that could be sold. Another $43.7 million in bond contingency funds, or left over money from previous bonds, also would be used to lower the amount that is put before voters.

The schools that could be considered, according to documents, are chronically underenrolled or recently have had declining student populations, including Brooke, Metz, Norman and Sanchez elementaries.

Also included is the Rosedale School, which serves the district’s students with the most severe disabilities. That school is slated to get a new $40 million campus on the current Lucy Read primary school site, which will close. The district has not detailed what would happen to the current Rosedale site once the school moves.

Trustees reached for this story would not confirm whether such talks occurred in closed session.

Board President Kendall Pace said the district in coming years will be actively looking at efficiency of land use as part of the facilities master plan process, but as of now, nothing has been specifically identified.

“It’s undesignated for now,” Pace said, saying any specific properties are speculative. “Sometime over the next five years, we will have to examine land utilization.”

Trustee Amber Elenz also said she hoped the land sales from 10 district properties not being used as schools would be factored in, and also considered any specific campuses to be speculative.

Since April, Trustee Jayme Mathias has had community conversations at four elementaries — Brooke, Metz, Sanchez and Zavala — indicating that demographers predict the student populations at the four schools would shrink to fit into one campus within 10 years.

“Here in East Austin, we find ourselves in an extremely difficult situation, knowing that the projected student population in our neighborhoods is expected to continue declining,” Mathias said. He said Texas school finance laws, which requires property wealthy school district to pay a so-called recapture payment to subsidize property poor school districts, worsens the school district’s situation. The district, which faces a $40 million shortfall, must pay in the next two years about $934 million in recapture.

“I’m hopeful that we as a community can come together and create viable solutions … as fiscal stewards of our district resources, we need to consider all possibilities,” Mathias said.

For months leading up to bond talks, district officials discussed closing aging schools that are in poor condition, consolidating them with others or replacing them. The schools were in draft documents of a comprehensive 25-year facility master plan that is aimed at modernizing the district and all of its campuses. But parents and community members rallied to keep the names of schools off any closure lists. The district agreed to give underenrolled schools three years to boost their student populations before they are considered for closure. District officials also have said that they would want to place students of any consolidated schools into a new, modernized campus.

Last week, the Austin school board approved 40 bond projects totalling $1.07 billion, but delayed the actual vote on calling for the November bond election until tonight. As proposed, the bond projects would be rolled into one proposition for $990 million, though trustees tonight still could make changes.

Included in the approved list of bond projects are two new elementary schools, one for the Reagan High vertical team (those schools that feed into Reagan), and one for the Eastside Memorial vertical team. The so-called modernization projects are listed in the bond package as $25 million each. The schools could be used if any consolidations occur.

Multiple parents and community members have called on the board to delay calling the election so affected schools could have time to vet the more recently emerged projects, including relocating LASA out of LBJ High School and into the former Johnston campus, which houses Eastside Memorial High. Eastside then would move to the original L.C. Anderson High School site, in a new building.

Others asked that the board increase the self-imposed cap of $1 billion to include other projects, including a northeast middle school in the Mueller development. District staff members have said that if the bond remains under $1 billion, the debt could be layered in a way that keeps the tax rate flat. Going over the amount could require a tax rate increase.

In the past week, Latino and black community leaders have said the bond is inequitable and causes further segregation of the school district. Some minority groups over the weekend also said they would oppose the package in its current form.

The board meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. in closed session, with the public portion of the meeting slated for 7:05 p.m.

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