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AISD facilities consultant told other districts to close schools too

Monday, March 7, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Austin is not the only city looking at dramatic changes to its public education system.


Indeed, the most controversial portion of the Austin Independent School District’s Facilities Master Plan – a call for the shuttering of up to nine schools – would be familiar to a host of communities across the United States. In Fact Daily contacted three of the counties who contracted with the same firm as Austin’s public schools, DeJong-Richter, to develop something similar to our district’s master plan.  AISD has reportedly agreed to pay DeJong-Richter more than $900,000 to develop its plan.


Not all of those plans have been implemented, but in each case, officials made one thing clear: No matter the heft of a public outreach effort, no one likes having their neighborhood school closed.


Jefferson County Public Schools serve the students of the jurisdiction that surrounds Denver. With an enrollment of roughly 84,000, it is Colorado’s largest district. Around 90 percent of school aged children in the county attend Jefferson’s schools.


Jefferson County’s Chief Financial Officer Steve Bell said that school closures weren’t a given from the start. “We didn’t go into this and say ‘this plan drives cuts,’” he told In Fact Daily. “We went into it saying ‘this plan drives efficiencies.’”


As part of the public process, Bell says the administration and Jefferson County conducted “hundreds of public meetings.” Their plan ultimately called for a consolidation and restructuring of the system that included new construction and the shuttering of 10 schools. Bell says the community’s reaction was along the lines of “go ahead and close ’em, but not mine.”


Ultimately the Jefferson County School Board decided to delay the plan, in favor of collecting more community input. “(We) scared the hell out of them,” says Bell.


Montgomery, Alabama’s school district is still suffering some of the after-effects of segregation. Because many neighborhoods had two schools – one for non-whites and one for Caucasians – per boundary, officials found themselves with a lot of empty classrooms. Attendance is also shrinking.


Montgomery’s plan sought to rebalance the system. In so doing, it called for the closure of seven schools. They will begin implementing the first of the changes this year.


“It’s like everything else, not everybody’s happy with everything,” says spokesman Tom Salter, “Nobody wants to close a school, but we have more seats than we have children. It’s a matter of economics.”


The school district in Grand Rapids, Michigan could serve as a sign of hope for its Austin counterpart. With its facilities in rough shape, and its district attendance shrinking, Grand Rapids officials began to reach out to the public. “When we went through this process, people knew that we had excess capacity,” said the district’s Communications and External Affairs Coordinator John Helmholdt.


The district began holding meetings in some of the schools that were facing closure. As parents saw the level of deterioration and the amount of space that went unused, they began to soften. Helmholdt characterized their reaction.


“I’m still mad as hell but I understand it more now.”


The Austin Independent School District and DeJong-Richter conducted nine public meetings and provided an online forum for input before issuing their report. As part of their outreach effort, they asked a series of questions. When the issue of school closings was put generically, 55 percent of respondents said that they either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the idea that “no school should be closed in the district.” Twenty-one percent said that they had no opinion on the matter.


However, when respondents were broken down into local “planning areas,” support for the idea of closing a school dropped. “While the majority of respondents supported change as a result of the Facility Master Plan, it was clear that when it came to their own area, change such as school closure was not supported,” reads a summary of the second community dialog.


“I think that once you get down to the specifics, there are going to be concerns that you have in communities that will be directly affected and, you know, there are always a lot of questions that arise,” said AISD’s Director of Facilities Paul Turner. “The reality is, though, if you actually ever close schools, there is going to be an impact on those communities.


“It’s just not a very easy process any way that you approach it.”


Austin superintendent Meria Carstarphen has she will hold off on any local closures for the time being. The AISD board is scheduled to hold a work session tonight on the budget.

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