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AISD considers new East Austin school

Thursday, October 15, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

The Austin Independent School District has a chance to build a school on free land, but unfortunately that land is situated in a somewhat contentious area where current schools are struggling to fill seats and others have historically been insufficient in meeting student needs.

Monday, board members continued to debate whether to build a new school on up to 20 acres of land set aside in the Mueller development, a mixed-use housing development situated at the site of the city’s old airport. A joint effort between the city of Austin and Catellus Development Corp. that began in 2000, the development included in its initial plan 10 dedicated acres of land for a future AISD school or up to 20 acres of land for a school if the facility incorporated mixed uses.

The board expressed interest in the project on March 2, and since then, nearby principals, AISD staff, city of Austin representatives and Catellus representatives have met five times to discuss the potential school’s form and function.

On Monday, Edmund Oropez, AISD’s chief officer of teaching and learning, told the board that diversity was among stakeholders’ top priorities, meaning that enrollment could include a lottery-like system ensuring an equal number of spots for students from schools of different economic classifications. He added that stakeholders also wanted to ensure that the school – which would potentially serve students in pre-K through eighth grade – would benefit the entire surrounding region, which consists mainly of District 1 and District 3 schools.

“They basically didn’t want to build a Catellus school. It’s just in that neighborhood. This school would represent the entire Northeast,” Oropez said.

Oropez told the Austin Monitor that although the Mueller development contains a variety of housing – including affordable housing – the impression is that the development is home to more wealthy residents than surrounding areas.

But District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon pointed out that the creation of a new school so close to his district could split students and have a detrimental effect on surrounding schools despite good intentions.

“I think one of the things that needs to be remembered is (that) the phantom of Anderson High School and the destruction of East Austin hovers above all these proceedings,” Gordon said. “When you talk about consolidating, cutting, eliminating, et cetera, you immediately arouse, at least in my community, the phantom of what happened 60 to 70 years ago.”

Gordon was referring to the relocation and subsequent demolition of the original Anderson High School, which was the first predominantly African-American high school in Austin. Board President Gina Hinojosa told the Monitor that the original school had graduated several prominent African-American leaders and that school memorabilia was only recently displayed on the campus of the current Anderson High School.

But in addition to potentially reallocating staff or realigning campus cultures, a new facility would draw students from surrounding schools that are already underenrolled.

“The data, in my reading of them, suggest we don’t need a new school,” said District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias. “When we had our 2014 Facilities Master Plan, we saw we had 319 empty seats in the elementary schools bordered by I-35, 290, 183 and MLK.”

While student enrollment projections include an additional 800 to 1,400 students coming to the district after the Mueller development is fully built, Mathias pointed out that the surrounding eight elementary schools are expected to be short 668 students by 2019.

District 3 Trustee Ann Teich, whose district would house the potential school, said she would consider consolidating some of the elementary schools in the area. Teich added, however, that the community needed to be involved if AISD was potentially shuttering schools. She said she would also consider funding the new school’s construction through a future bond.

AISD has used much of its $489.7 million bond monies from 2013 to renovate many of Northeast Austin’s aging schools. According to district documents, all of Northeast Austin’s elementary schools were built between 1939 to 1964.

Vice President Amber Elenz of District 5 questioned the feasibility of continuing to update some of AISD’s aging facilities. “What this does is gives us the ability to start fresh and clean and stop putting the Band-Aids on (aging structures),” she said. “But I agree (with Teich that) the community, ideally, is the one saying, ‘Please consolidate our schools – we want this new facility.'”

District 6 Trustee Paul Saldaña encouraged caution in the conversation around this new school, especially with board members potentially deciding to purchase land for a new South Austin high school in a part of town that has housed both over- and underenrolled schools for years.

“I easily see people tuning in right now and saying we are giving preferential treatment to one particular community,” Saldaña said. “How can we quantify potentially even having a conversation about having a new school when the student enrollment doesn’t support it, and we’re telling people in South Austin that we can’t build a South Austin high school because the enrollment doesn’t support it?”

Trustees tasked administration with preparing a report examining the broader effects a new school could have on the surrounding areas and providing a more succinct look at student needs. AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz said that administration will try to have a detailed proposal in front of trustees by December.

Map of schools surrounding the Mueller development courtesy of AISD.

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