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AISD land purchase deemed reasonable

Tuesday, June 2, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

The Austin Independent School District board of trustees heard advice from a real estate expert Monday regarding future property purchases, including the potential purchase of land for a new south Austin high school.

Board members vowed to make a decision by the end of August regarding whether to use $32 million allocated from a 2008 bond election to purchase land for the school.

The current options under discussion are buying land in either southwest Austin to help relieve the overcrowded Bowie High School or in southeast Austin, where future growth is projected. A third option is buying no land.

If the board does not purchase property, it will then consider rearranging zoning boundaries to balance over- and underenrolled student populations at several south Austin high schools.

At the board’s dialogue meeting, Danny Roth, a real estate broker with Southwest Strategies Group, said he felt it would not be “unreasonable” for the district to purchase land for a potential new south Austin high school now.

“I would say it depends on how sure you are of that need in the future,” Roth said. “But, if you have a need 10 years in the future that you can identify, then I’d say you may want to consider and buy today.”

Roth said his agency, which the district has consulted in the past, puts together a matrix of variables specific to each property being considered for purchase. As it stands today, it’s likely that larger tracts of land would be available more cheaply now than in 10 to 20 years, he said.

Currently, most land in the southeast portion of Austin is also significantly cheaper and easier to develop than land in the southwest, Roth added.

“(In southwest Austin), you have to buy more land than in southeast, because of the density requirements and open space requirements,” Roth explained. “So land in general costs more in the southwest today in Austin than southeast.”

Board Vice President Amber Elenz pointed out that the need for a new school is not entirely agreed upon. AISD’s enrollment has declined by 2,000 students in the last two years, according to district data.

Turning to staff, District 1 board member Edmund Gordon asked where the push against purchasing property years in advance traditionally comes from. In past meetings, several board members have expressed their distaste for “land banking,” or buying property without immediate plans for development.

Paul Turner, AISD’s executive director of facilities, said that in the past, the Texas comptroller’s office would review school district properties and urge the district to dispose of excess land.

“One of the things they always stressed with us is, ‘You’re not really in the business of being a landowner. You’re supposed to have land for a certain purpose,’” Turner said.

The comptroller, residents and other state government entities are still critical of district land banking, though the comptroller’s office no longer assesses district property, Turner said.

District 6 board member Paul Saldaña asked if discussion of AISD’s surplus land could be part of the annual budget discussion. Board President Gina Hinojosa also asked if staff could put together a property management plan.

The district currently owns an estimated 93 million square feet of property, including buildings, Saldaña said.

At Monday’s meeting, AISD staff identified seven surplus properties that were not used for educational purposes as of August 2014.

Board members went into an hourlong executive session, with the south Austin property purchase listed as a discussion item.

Hinojosa noted that District 7 board member Robert Schneider, who was absent from the board meeting, would be joining the board via conference call in executive session. However, Hinojosa said, no decisions would be made without Schneider’s physical presence.

Schneider has been a longtime advocate for a southwest Austin high school to relieve overcrowding at Bowie High.

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