Viewpoints: AISD trustees should take more time to call bond election

  • Editorial Board
Updated June 23, 2017
Larry Amaro, president of the Johnston/Eastside Memorial High Schools Ex-Students Association, speaks during a rally outside of the school on June 17.

The Austin school board on Monday is expected to call for a November election on a bond package that at least for now totals nearly $1.1 billion and is clouded by uncertainty. Trustees should delay the vote.

Several factors warrant slowing the process. Some projects the board is weighing, such as relocating Eastside Memorial High School to the Old Anderson campus and creating a new medical magnet high school at LBJ, only emerged in the last two weeks. The board also voted to leave out of the bond package a new middle school in northeast Austin, which its advisory committee recommended.

We urge school district trustees to take more time to craft a fair and thoughtful package that considers district needs and taxpayer pocketbooks.

RELATED: Alberta Phillips: How Austin ISD botched decision to move an acclaimed academy.

So far, the school board has identified 40 projects for a single-proposition bond package with a price tag of $1.073 billion. As we have before, this editorial board strongly urges trustees to rethink the all-or-nothing bond package ultimatum. It doesn’t give voters a choice — and it thwarts transparency.

Monday’s scheduled vote comes amid uncertainty. Trustees have not decided if projects that were only recently discussed will be included in the bond package — and adding them could affect the final bond package cost. Those unknowns along with missing details for new proposals — and the lack of adequate time to address them — signal that some members of the board and the community aren’t ready to move forward.

Though the 40 projects identified so far come with a $1 billion-plus cost, to appeal to voters the district is proposing to leftover funds from previous bonds and money from upcoming land sales to bring the total cost down to $990 million.

The package identified so far includes building replacement schools for Casis, Menchaca, Brown and Govalle elementary schools, a new elementary school for Southwest Austin, major renovations to Bowie High School, an overhaul for Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, updating technology and fixing critical deficiencies in existing buildings.

A proposal for a new middle school at the Mueller development in East Austin stirred heated debate at the board’s meeting Monday. It didn’t make the cut, but trustees might reconsider that decision on Monday. It’s worth considering; an Austin ISD campus there would attract a diverse student population and give charter schools competition.

RELATED: Community reactions mixed over proposed LASA move to Eastside site.

However, building the school could add $61 million to the bond package, pushing it over $1 billion and possibly increasing the tax rate. Trustees directed Superintendent Paul Cruz to explore if the cost can be lowered.

The most contentious bond project would give the Liberal Arts and Science Academy its own stand-alone school. Though LASA parents have requested a stand-alone school for several years now, the project was not previously identified as a pressing need by the school district’s Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee.

Under the proposal, LASA — with a majority middle-to-upper-class, white student population — would move from the LBJ High School campus to the Eastside Memorial High School campus, displacing mostly minority and low-income students there. Eastside students would move to a new campus at the original L.C. Anderson site.

Parents and community members have asked the board to delay calling the election so that affected schools have time to vet the proposals which only recently emerged. Trustees should honor the request. One week of discussion will not do. Questions and community concerns should be addressed during a meaningful period.

Current and former trustees have argued that removing the Liberal Arts and Science Academy from LBJ will leave LBJ vulnerable to closure because it is underenrolled. Many in the community share the concern. So does this board.

History gives us reason to pause. The decline of Johnston High School, now Eastside Memorial, began when its Liberal Arts Academy moved to LBJ, triggering a series of academic failures and leaving Eastside with an enrollment of under 600. Its capacity is 1,600. To keep LBJ from meeting the same fate, the district created a health sciences workforce training program that launches this fall at the school.

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The proposed LASA move has created more divisiveness and racial tensions, just as some current and former trustees predicted. Proposals for a stand-alone LASA project have been a thorn for the bond package from the start. Controversies surrounding the school for its lack of diversity have made it an undesirable project — and trustees calculated that a bond package that included a LASA-only proposition would fail. They also feared lumping a new home for LASA with other projects in a separate proposition would also lead it to fail.

Trustees decided that the only remedy available to get LASA its own campus was to include it in one, single bond proposition. Lumping all bond projects into a single proposition is troubling. An all-or-nothing ultimatum can only be described as an attempt to strong-arm voters by denying them choices to which they are entitled.

We urge trustees to break the proposal into three propositions – critical needs, new schools and a LASA move – that give voters a voice on how and where their tax money should be spent. Their voices should be heard.