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Two Views: Austin ISD plan looks to future while securing its present

The dedicated employees of the Austin Independent School District work diligently to prepare more than 80,000 students they serve for college and career readiness and success throughout their lives. As Austin continues to be a magnet for employers and millennials to create companies, grow jobs and increase opportunities, the number of people who move here — currently a net 110 every day — will surely grow.

This is great news for Austin and our economy, but it also requires Austin to be forward-thinking in its approach to learning and the facilities where learning takes place.

Austin ISD, the largest landowner in Central Texas, educates our children, often times in less-than-ideal building environments. To overcome this challenge, the Austin ISD board of trustees voted last week to approve its first comprehensive facilities plan, capping off a transparent, public process almost two years in the making. Though no plan is going to make everyone happy, this plan created by third-party firms is forward-thinking and deserves support.

The district held nearly a dozen community forums to explain the facility plan draft findings, request feedback from parents and the community, and incorporate community opinions into a final proposal that represents a major step forward in prioritizing our investments.

The plan includes an in-depth analysis of more than 115 campuses and properties, evaluating if each property was suitable for delivering a high-quality, modern education. These assessments were made available to the 18-member Facility and Bond Planning Advisory Committee composed of parents and leaders in business and education, who spent over 100 hours in more than 30 meetings to make its recommendations to the school board.

Many small schools were built before 1960, when about 186,000 people called Austin home. At the time, Austin was segregated. Hyde Park, Pleasant Valley and Travis High School marked the edges of town. These schools were not built to accommodate the modern technology of 2017. In the 1970s and 1980s, the next generation of schools were built larger and are slightly better prepared for today’s technology, though they’re still not up to par.

However, today Austin also has very large schools built outside the urban center. Nearly all are significantly overenrolled as families seek a quality education for their kids. With the pace of innovation — Dell Technologies is only 33 years old after all — few are built for rapidly changing education technology.

For these reasons, some Austin schools are overcrowded and others are underenrolled. Some are crumbling while others are striving to maintain their state-of-the-art learning facilities. Keeping up with and paying for maintenance alone is an enormous task, especially when Austin taxpayers will send a staggering $1.1 billion to the state in recapture payments over the next two years.

The adopted facility plan makes necessary decisions about immediate needs and projected needs 25 years from now. It addresses schools and facilities that are overcrowded and ones that are underutilized.

If we modernize the environment that our children learn in, we will be giving them a head start on success. Austin ISD Superintendent Paul Cruz deserves credit for his leadership in taking on this challenge.

When companies look to make a significant investment in Austin, one of the most important questions they ask is: “How are the schools?” We are proud that Austin ISD is one of the top-performing urban districts in the country, according to the Nation’s Report Card. We are also pleased to share that the school districts throughout the region are forward-thinking in their approach to modernization, utilization and — most importantly — to the success of our children.

Only if we look to the future and make some difficult-but-necessary decisions will we maintain this competitive advantage. Change — while challenging — will prove to be beneficial for the students walking the halls today, as well as future generations as they attend class, compete on and off the field, go to college and enter the job market.

Scheberle is a senior vice president with the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

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