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Draft AISD facilities update miscalculates root of underenrollment crisis, board trustees say

Wednesday, March 29, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Tough conversations about racial segregation and economic disparity need to be had before the Austin Independent School District’s Facility Master Plan update is approved, some trustees said at the March 27 meeting of the AISD board.

Monday night, members of the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, formed in September 2015, presented the draft plan update, the first in a series of biannual updates of the 2014 Facility Master Plan. The plan’s purpose is to serve as a long-term strategy for AISD facility construction, maintenance and consolidation over the next 25 years, embracing a philosophy of “addressing the worst first.”

FABPAC appointee Roxanne Evans said that the committee saw itself as the architects of the plan update and the board as the builders. The actions recommended in the draft update, such as the renovation of certain schools and the relocation of others, would only be implemented at the board’s discretion through the securing of bonds or other funds and allocating them to those projects, she said.

“Although this is technically an update to a former plan,” Evans said, “it will establish a new and lasting vision for the modernization of AISD facilities going forward.”

The draft update proposes “target utilization plans” and consolidation criteria to manage underenrollment, but it currently does not anticipate any school closures in the foreseeable future.

Not originally included in the master plan, the target utilization plan approach is designed to organize a school’s community to take a proactive stance in bringing enrollment back to sustainable levels through mostly self-organized marketing and campaigning. Appointee Cherylann Campbell said that the spirit of the TUPs was to shift the focus of the master plan back to getting students in schools.

“What we want is full schools,” Campbell said. “We want outer district students to transfer into (AISD) schools, and we want the charter kids back.”

Trustee Jayme Mathias voiced opposition to the TUP idea. Leaning into his roots as a pastor, he called for “tough conversations, not TUP conversations,” even drawing some “amens” from the audience. He questioned why the five schools selected for TUPs by the update draft – Brooke, Dawson, Joslin, Sanchez and Norman – were singled out when 23 schools met the criteria for 2017.

“What I’m hearing is an argument that the students of East Austin are somehow different,” Mathias said.

Mathias also pointed out that the update draft’s recommendation for five new schools to address overcrowding in other parts of Austin was never proposed as a solution for east side schools, where students are forced to ride the bus long distances to accommodate packed campuses.

AISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley-Jones responded that busing would not be enough to address the current overcrowding across AISD. “The need for seats is so extensive,” she said. “We would have to increase (bus) routes substantially to move them into receptive campuses, which would be very costly for the district.”

Trustee Edmund Gordon agreed with Mathias that the update overlooked social factors of underenrollment that could not be solved by the TUP strategy.

“I know the board and other folks hate to hear this,” Gordon said, “but one of the reasons why our schools are underutilized is because they have a lot of black kids in them, and who wants to send their kids to a school that has black kids, here in Austin, Texas?” he said.

Gordon went on to say that target utilization plans, in encouraging school communities to take underenrollment into their own hands, falls in line with historical trends. “This is something the black community is always asked to do, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ as if it’s your fault that you’re there down on the ground,” he said.

Trustee Ann Teich did not feel like the opposition was being fair to the committee’s efforts.

“I’m really concerned that somehow there’s an implication that committee members have not thought about all of these issues,” she said, “and I feel like they have.”

A public hearing on the Facilities Master Plan update will be held Monday, April 3, in a special called meeting where the board will vote on whether to adopt the update.

Chart of projected student population from the 2016 AISD demographic study, which can be found in full here.

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