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School superintendent faces budget crunch and tough questions

Thursday, January 20, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin Independent School District Superintendent Meria Carstarphen met with Austin’s League of Women Voters last night, answering questions about the recently released work of the Facilities Master Plan Task Force and the dire numbers released from the state last night.


“When I went into my board meeting (Tuesday night) and had my little proposal, I could cut $54.4 million dollars out of the budget,” said Carstarphen. “This is before I knew new numbers, and I could keep full-day pre-k and not close schools and give us some time to right-size those schools by being a little more strategic.”


At Tuesday’s meeting, however, the Texas House bill was released and Carstarphen learned that the state would be cutting $9 billion in education funding.


“The translation of a $9 billion dollar house bill to Austin is that I have to make a cut, in one year, of about $113.8 million dollars,” explained Carstarphen. “Ten million brought people out protesting and advocating; ten times as much brings us to our knees.”


An adjusted plan will be presented to the school board on Monday.


“I will get to a number that is real, but I am certain of this: If the legislature sticks with that $113.8 million dollars, I can’t make it happen in one year. So it’s going to be an interesting spring for all of us,” said Carstarphen.


After her speech, Carstarphen addressed many of the questions that have been raised over the last week, particularly concerning the possibility of future school closures.


Frances McIntyre, president of the League of Women Voters, asked the superintendent whether the board had considered the expected doubling of Austin’s population by 2030 and the fact that the schools slated for closure are within the preferred growth corridor.


The superintendent affirmed that the task force considered those issues. She explained that the plan had a “flow” of schools going online and offline that the public hadn’t seen. “There should be cycles,” she explained. “Bring the schools offline, renovate them in a bond, bring them back online, and the population would be there. You can plan for that.”


Carstarphen stressed the need to renovate existing facilities. “I know everybody loves the trailers in Austin and all those cute little trailer parks where people eat,” she said. “But really, our kids should not be learning in portables, and they should not be learning in dilapidated buildings where their health and safety is at risk.”


Opponents of the proposed school closures have questioned why transfer students were not included in student populations. Barton Hills PTA President Kelly Tagle asked about this issue.


The superintendent was unsure of the exact enrollment numbers, although she did comment on the subject of transfer students. “Austin has had a very liberal transfer policy,” she said. “Through transfers we have allowed schools to become over-enrolled, and they could stay at their neighborhood schools.”


Another parent, this time from Pease, asked the superintendent about her stance on the much-discussed option of selling off some of the district’s non-school real estate in order to keep schools open.


Carstarphen said she is unable to legally comment on any plans to sell the buildings. “I will say publicly, I do believe we should sell our downtown building and find a better solution,” she said. “But I have to be honest with you: You can’t do that overnight.”


“We can’t wish our way out of this I can’t pretend that what’s happening at the legislature isn’t happening,” said Carstarphen. “I am convinced that perhaps some of the energy and some of the passion about the facility stuff — if we could organize people and help direct that where it belongs, like at the legislature — that we could survive. We could survive and still be good.”

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