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School board calls for biggest bond in its history

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Unprecedented in cost, the $1.05 billion bond package the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees officially approved at its last meeting before summer break is its most ambitious yet. Unlike the 2013 bond election where the package was divided into four separate propositions, this November voters will only have one choice: take it or leave it.

The package increased from the $990 million total presented last week after “critical facility deficiencies” funds were raised by $13 million and nearly $61 million was allocated to initiate development of a new middle school in Mueller. Notably, two items were removed as well, presumably to keep the bond from increasing the tax rate: $4.6 million for deficiency projects at Cowan Elementary School and $8.1 million for Anderson High School.

“In the past, we could maybe just do some patchwork (to repair facilities),” Superintendent Paul Cruz said. “I think we’re coming to a different point now where we’re looking at replacement of schools, where the investment to fix a school, to patch it up, is really not cost-effective. At some point it’s just best to call it a day and say we need to rebuild it and make it new.”

As large as the bond is, many schools facing under-enrollment will be forced to largely fend for themselves outside of the bond package in keeping their schools up and running. In the Facility Master Plan update adopted in April, Sanchez, Joslin, Brooke, Norman and Dawson elementary schools were all recommended for “Target Utilization Plans,” although the update says that more schools may be selected in the fall.

Target Utilization Plans put the onus on the community itself to help market its school in hopes of increasing the school’s seat count. Persistent under-enrollment is the key factor taken into consideration when the district decides to consolidate.

Trustee Yasmin Wagner emphasized that while the package was not and could not be perfect, it was the outcome of two years of work by the administration, the Facilities and Bond Advisory Planning Committee and the Austin community at large. “What we do have in front of us is a bond package that will impact every corner of the district positively,” she said.

While agreeing with Wagner’s comments, Trustee Ann Teich admitted that she was disappointed with some of the community engagement efforts related to the bond. In one case, members of the Eastside Memorial High School community had protested the decision to move their school to the old Anderson High School campus in order to make room for the Liberal Arts and Science Academy’s relocation, saying that the board hadn’t done enough to include them. “We need to commit as a board and as an administration to make sure that our students at Eastside Memorial are served,” Teich said.

Clarification: A spokesperson for AISD contacted the Monitor to explain that the district held over 30 meetings and over 500 touch points with community associations, clubs, and other organizations, calling it an “unprecedented” level of engagement for the district.

In a final push to stretch the package as far as it would go, Trustee Julie Cowan motioned to amend the package to prioritize the use of contingency funds to address overcrowding at schools in the northwest part of the district and at Blazier Elementary School. Trustee Jayme Mathias said that he thought the amendment was a great idea, citing an analogy of trying to fit rocks in a jar. “We know we have $5 billion of rocks that we’re trying to fit into a $1 billion jar,” he said. “I think we want to acknowledge in a very strong way that there are needs, serious needs, that are unmet by this bond.”

Wagner made a friendly amendment, which was accepted, to also include Cowan and Baranoff elementary schools in that prioritization list.

After consulting with legal counsel, Mathias motioned to officially call for the bond election in November, seconded by Teich, and it passed unanimously.

This story has been changed since publication to include a point of clarification, and to better explain the challenges that some schools facing under-enrollment will have.

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