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City will look for ways to help AISD through its budget crisis

Friday, February 18, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

As expected, the Austin City Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution that will involve them with the school budget crisis, although just how they will be able to help AISD remains unclear.


“What happens to the schools happens to the City of Austin,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “We want to do what we can to help. The method of help is going to be very complex. Advice is going to come from a lot of sources. I know that this resolution directs the City Manager to enter directly into discussions with the management of AISD to identify possibilities, efficiencies, and partnership opportunities to help ensure the success of AISD schools.”


Paul Saldaña, a local businessman and minority community advocate, was one of the first to publicly offer his advice to City Council. He spoke of the work that he had done on the committee for neighborhoods and schools, and stressed the connection between city and school development.


“District communication practices need to do more to inspire trust that community voices are valued and that input matters,” said Saldaña. “Stakeholders recognize a strong connection between city growth patterns and school vitality.”


“One of the major issues is the development growth of our city, east of I-35 in particular. That is our desired development zone, but we have a growing number of low-performance schools and under-capacity schools,” said Saldaña “That’s probably the best example of incongruous policies between the city and the district. The district has a transfer policy that is used by more-affluent families that are moving east of I-35. If they have children, they’re not choosing to send their kids to those neighborhood schools.”


Council Member Laura Morrison said the question of children transferring from East Austin to West Austin was something to research but added that AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen had told the Council Wednesday that East Austin children were actually transferring into eastside charter schools.


Much of the brouhaha surrounding the budget crisis has centered on the district’s liberal transfer policy. Community members have strongly criticized the Facility Master Plan Task Force for not counting transfers when evaluating populations of schools that are being considered for closure.


Saldaña and Council discussed the subject from a different angle, addressing the impacts of transfers on low-income and under-capacity schools.


“For the low-income families, one of the reasons they don’t take advantage of the transfer policy is the transportation,” said Saldaña “What happens is those low-income students stay in low-performing schools.”


“If we’re talking about a school, which even if it’s at 85 percent capacity, if we lose the school and disperse the kids to other schools, that’s going to require the kids and parents themselves to go a long way to school,” said Spelman “By closing the neighborhood school, you’re actually shifting the burden of the cost from the school district and taxpayers to the individual  parents.”


Under-capacity schools are not viewed favorably by the state when it comes to funding.


“When the student ratio and the budget-per-pupil is significantly higher in those under-capacity school, that’s viewed as a major vulnerability by the State of Texas,” explained Saldaña. He cited high administrative costs and low enrollment at Eastside Memorial as a good example of the problems associated with low-capacity schools.


On the other hand, Saldaña pointed to the J.J. Pickle facility as a good model for joint collaboration between the school district and the city. “It’s a school, it’s a neighborhood center, it’s a recreation center,” said Saldaña “I mean, I think that’s a fantastic example of more collaborative opportunities between the district and the city.”


Creating more of these collaborative school environments will require some creative thinking in the absence of bonds for new development—unlikely given the district’s budget problems. Council Member Sheryl Cole suggested an appraisal of schools and facilities targeted for closure and existing city facilities as potential joint-use venues. Saldaña called this idea “right on the mark.”


Even with ideas like this, Council was cautious about how much change the resolution could affect.


“We have to manage expectations with this item. This is not the silver bullet that’s going to solve all of our problems,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez. “We value our school system so much so that we truly believe that Austin will be forever changed if some of these decisions are implemented and if we don’t step up and help.”


“The limitations on the City of Austin are going to be, as I said, very complicated,” added Leffingwell.

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