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State Senate committee considering bill on sites for new schools

Monday, March 7, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

State Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s bill on mitigating large-scale residential development has taken on additional meaning this legislative session, given the state budget shortfall and Austin ISD’s potential plan to close schools.


Wentworth (R-San Antonio) has filed Senate Bill 296 in past sessions, but never have school districts been in such a significant budget bind. Neither proposed budget, House or Senate, includes funding for enrollment growth, making it even more difficult for school districts wanting to add schools.


Also, the Austin Independent School District has proposed closing a number of central city schools, even as it plans to add campuses on the edges of the district. Last Tuesday, AISD Trustee Robert Schneider was on hand to stress to senators how important it is for Austin to place future school sites properly, especially in the high-growth southwest and southeast corridors.


Wentworth’s bill starts with a simple task that Austin and Austin ISD are already working to accomplish: requiring a developer of a subdivision of 1,000 or more homes or multi-family units to notify the impacted school district at least 60 days in advance. The bill also requires the developer to offer 15 acres for sale at fair market value if the commissioner of education determines that the development might significantly increase elementary school enrollment.

Schneider said Austin’s inability to plan for schools in southwest Austin near the “Y”, where he lives, is one reason why he ran for school board.


“I am in strong support of this bill. It’s something that we have needed for quite a long time in terms of planning,” Schneider said during testimony before the Senate Education Committee. “In the area of town where I live, and in the southeast, we anticipate high growth, and we need the ability to plan for schools.”

Schneider pointed to Clayton Elementary School on La Crosse Avenue as one example. The elementary school, located near the intersection of Interstate 45 and FM 1826, is 300 yards from the district’s boundary line.


“Even though the developer graciously donated the land, we still have a lot of questions about what we would have done if we had had the ability to plan,” Schneider said.


Austin’s inner city hasn’t seen a 1,000-home subdivision in decades. A number of subdivision plats, however, have been filed in the city’s outer ring and extra-territorial jurisdiction.


Planning Manager Jerry Rusthoven named a number of recent and pending large-scale subdivisions that would meet the 1,000-home threshold: Whisper Valley and the potential Carma subdivision to the northeast and the Goodnight Ranch to the southeast. Whisper Valley alone could be up to 7,000 homes.


“We do negotiate school sites in our planned unit development agreements,” Rusthoven said. “If they want to be superior, one of the things they can do is to donate land for a school site. It’s not unusual for developers to offer sites for a school, usually an elementary school.”


The committee’s chair, Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), served a term as mayor of Plano in North Texas. During her term, Shapiro said large-scale developers frequently donated school sites to the school districts to curry favor.


“Wouldn’t it be nice if that still happened?” Shapiro asked her colleagues.


Wentworth’s bill passed the Senate in 2009. However, it stalled in the House Land & Resource Management Committee.


During testimony on the bill this week, Scott Norman of the Texas Association of Builders suggested a number of improvements to the bill: providing more specifics as to what to do when communication breaks down between developer and school district; adding a section that would let the developer buy back the land if it isn’t used for a school site within 10 years, similar to the recent eminent domain bill; excluding the commissioner of education from the process; and determining better timing for when a developer has to offer a site to a school district for sale.


The bill was placed on hold for a week for potential amendments, given the concerns of builders. It will be back up for a full committee vote this week.

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