Commentary: Call Austin ISD’s marketing project anything but a failure

As an Austin ISD trustee, I welcome members of the public sharing concern and praise regarding the education of our children. It shows commitment and interest in Texas’ most precious resource.

However, a June 1 commentary criticizing the district for spending marketing dollars and not being innovative requires some additional details, so that readers can make their own informed decisions.

Since joining the board in November 2014, I have come to believe Austin ISD has experienced overall declining enrollment for two reasons: First, charter schools are entering the market to compete for students. Second — and this fact was omitted from the Texas Public Policy Foundation commentary — housing prices within this district are rising precipitously and influencing families to search elsewhere for affordability. This particularly impacts Austin ISD’s enrollment in gentrified East Austin. Supporting this belief are survey results of families who have left the district, which found 48 percent went to new districts, 18 percent to charter schools and 23 percent to private schools.

COMMENTARY: How Austin ISD missed a chance to spend $1M on innovation.

It was noted that Austin grew by 25,725 people in 2016. Perhaps the population growth of estimated school-aged children — 3,833 — could have been felt in one of the five other districts located within the greater Austin area, including Del Valle, Pflugerville, Round Rock, Leander, Manor or Eanes. Except for Eanes, more affordable housing can be found in those districts.

In the spring of 2015, trustees asked Superintendent Paul Cruz to create a plan to stem the tide of losing students. As a governance board, my colleagues and I don’t get to create the plan; we only judge the results and then decide whether the project was successful.

Was it a gamble to appropriate dollars to marketing? Yes. Did we struggle with the decision? Yes. But ultimately, we consented. Results have shown that perhaps the decision was worth the heartburn. During the 2016-17 school year, enrollment was projected to be 82,690. At the end of the first six weeks, we had 83,238 students — or 548 students above the projection.

Since Austin ISD can keep your tax dollars based on the number of students in attendance, an average payment of $7,500 per student multiplied by 548 students means Austin ISD’s marketing brought in over $4 million to our operations budget. That’s significant; Texas recaptures $406 million from the district’s budget this year.

Much to the chagrin of those who wish to divide us, I greatly support the work of my Central Texas colleagues. I’m happy that Round Rock’s work was saluted. However, I take issue that Austin ISD isn’t innovative. Austin ISD currently has three early college high schools in partnership with Austin Community College. Students can earn an associate’s degree without personal cost by the time they graduate high school. Three more early college high schools are being added this year.

We are partnering with Dell at Reagan High and Seton at LBJ High to initiate Career Launch programs, which give students the opportunity before graduation to certify in computer science and health care fields while securing internships under mentors from those stellar companies.

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Austin ISD has world-renowned fine-arts and dual-language programs in Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. It has career and technology classes at every middle and high school, including Anderson High’s state-of-the-art Applied Technologies Center.

Advanced academics are found in some form at every high school and include programs such as dual credit, AP, IB and OnRamps, a rigorous dual-enrollment program coordinated by the University of Texas. Our elementary schools have reading specialists who are training certified academic learning therapists for the early identification of dyslexia.

Truthfully, the only thing Austin ISD has been lacking was tooting its own horn. The competition has opened our eyes to the need to share the good news. Stay tuned for more.

Cowan is secretary of the Austin ISD school board and president of the Central Texas School Board Association.

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