Phillips: Best use for surplus school property? Affordable housing

When the Austin Independent School District recently announced it would sell, lease or swap 10 prime properties it owns, including its West Sixth Street headquarters, it quietly sent notices to the 40 or so public charter school districts in its boundaries so they could be first in line to make offers on the properties.

Why? Because it’s state law.

That was pointed out to me by local lawyer Bill Aleshire in response to a question about whether the city of Austin would have a right — before other entities — to make an offer on school district properties being sold or leased, as the city did in 2014 when the state put up for sale 75 acres it owned in west-central Austin.

In the latter case, the city of Austin had the right of first refusal, meaning if it chose to buy the property bordering Bull Creek Road for the asking price, the state would have been obligated to sell it to the city before offering it to a third party. Austin could have grabbed the land for $29 million, but foolishly forfeited that right, with city officials saying they couldn’t structure such a deal. The property ultimately sold for $47 million to a private developer.

The state’s education code does not grant such consideration to municipalities when it involves properties owned by independent school districts. And while state law does require that charter schools be first to be notified and given an opportunity to acquire properties, the law does not bind school districts to accept offers from charter schools.

So in the case of the Austin district, school trustees can reject proposals from charter schools no matter if they meet minimum bids, such as the $30 million the district wants for its Carruth Administration Center at 1111 W. Sixth St.

The situation has set up a competition between at least one area charter school, IDEA Austin, and the city of Austin, which sees the land offering as an opportunity to address overlapping priorities of the city, school district and Travis County in expanding affordable housing for teachers and government employees. The city should not forfeit this chance.

In its announcement, Austin ISD officials said properties were being put on the market or offered up for proposals for several purposes, including increasing affordable housing, but also to expand academic opportunities for students or to increase the district’s finances.

But as the American-Statesman’s Melissa Taboada recently reported, momentum is building for affordable housing, especially given enrollment declines due in part to Austin’s high cost of living.

“Affordability is a major crisis for us,” said Austin district Trustee Paul Saldaña. “I’m ready to move forward with this.”

He is right.

Consider that the average salary for Austin school district teachers is $48,000, and that more than 4,000 district employees earn even less, with another 1,000 workers earning less than $25,000 annually, according to school district estimates.

Taboada reported that nearly 40 percent of the 800 teachers who leave Austin ISD annually head to other districts that offer higher pay and cheaper housing. It’s also worth noting that such trends are impacting Austin ISD’s enrollment; officials blame housing and other costs for pushing 1,000 students out of the district annually.

It’s no wonder that a joint subcommittee of leaders from the school district, Travis County and city of Austin unanimously approved a resolution designating at least one of the 10 parcels be used for affordable housing for teachers and low-wage government workers. The Austin City Council plans to take up that resolution on Thursday.

Along with those entities, Foundation Communities, an affordable housing nonprofit, has its sights on the former Allan Elementary School campus at 4900 Gonzalez St. for a project that potentially could yield 200 apartments and a learning center, with the school building being preserved and used as a center for nonprofit organizations.

But they aren’t the only ones interested in the Allan campus.

Larkin Tackett, executive director of IDEA Austin, said IDEA, which is undergoing an expansion, is interested in the Allan campus, where IDEA’s first Austin charter school, IDEA-Allan, was launched and briefly operated.

While much of the attention has focused on Allan, there are other strategically located properties on the list, including the Baker Center at 3908 Avenue B and the Millett Opera House (also known as the Austin Club) at 110 E. 9th St. In addition to those, the list also includes land about nine acres south of Alpine Road; just over one acre at Doris and Hathaway Drive; about 32 acres at the southwest corner of U.S. 183 and Loyola; 12 acres on East 51st Street; about eight acres at the southeast corner of Tannehill Lane and Jackie Robinson Street; and 12.5 acres at 4806 Trail West Drive.

It’s understandable that IDEA or other charter schools would want to acquire Allan or other district properties. But there are reasons why those properties should first be looked at by the city and district for their value in meeting the challenges of this community: They were purchased with taxpayers’ dollars and as such are public assets that can be used for the public good. Generating affordable housing is one of those public goods.

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