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On the eve of East Austin school consolidation, community still has questions

Friday, September 14, 2018 by Claire McInerny, KUT

The Austin Independent School District’s board of trustees will vote in a little over a week on how to consolidate three elementary schools in East Austin. Students at Metz, Zavala and Sanchez elementary schools will combine into one school, which the district will completely renovate using money from the 2017 bond.

This project was included in the bond that voters passed last fall. These three schools are under-enrolled, and it is expensive for the district to pay the utility bills, salaries for staff and other expenses at schools that aren’t at capacity.

The bond says one of these schools will get a $25 million renovation that will revamp the building and provide state-of-the-art technology.

A committee of 28 school staff, community members, and parents from all three schools, as well as a few AISD staff members, met 11 times since the bond passed last November. They learned about various data points to develop a recommendation for which school should get the renovation. They also toured modernized schools in other districts to see what their new school could look like.

They voted for Sanchez and sent that recommendation to the board this week.

The board will vote on whether to move forward with this recommendation at its Sept. 24 meeting, but some in these school communities are frustrated with the process that led to this recommendation.

How was the recommendation for Sanchez made?

When deciding which of the three schools to choose, the committee looked at many factors. One of the major considerations was the status of each building and how much money and time it would take to renovate each one.

To renovate Zavala, it would cost almost double the budgeted $25 million and take much more time, so it was not seriously considered.

Jocelyn Connell, supervisor of community engagement for AISD, led all of the committee meetings. She said the group considered a lot of data.

“It looked at the viability of student population in the future, enrollment trends, transportation, accessibility,” she said.

Enrollment and population in the neighborhoods is also very important. The area of East Austin that these three schools are in is quickly changing. Single-family home prices are rising every year, pushing out many of the middle- and low-income families that lived there for decades. This is one of the reasons why enrollment in the schools is dipping; there’s just fewer people with kids living in the school zones.

The committee looked at these projections to figure out what school should be the one to house all of the students.

Before voting, the committee weighted each of the following categories by importance: The existing space was the most important, followed by facilities and operations cost, then population and enrollment, and then neighborhood and transportation.

Some who voted for Sanchez said that school’s physical space was in the best shape for being modernized.

The community still has questions, because of a lack of communication

The vote was fairly close between Sanchez and Metz.

Rolando Estrada is a parent of a Metz student and lives in the neighborhood near the school. He said in the almost year since the bond passed, he feels the communication to the public around the project hasn’t been good.

“They’re kind of trying to squeeze it through without really raising too many alarms on it,” Estrada said. “I feel it’s kind of like a slap. Again, a little underhanded. Maybe that wasn’t the intent, but that’s the feeling I get.”

In the last few weeks, Estrada and some teachers went around the neighborhood talking to residents and parents about the modernization project. He said they received more than 100 signatures on a petition against the Sanchez recommendation, and many of those who signed didn’t realize the consolidation was happening or that the process was moving this fast.

The petition to the board lays out concerns around choosing Sanchez, since it is the farthest away from the region. The document explains how Metz is more centrally located between the three schools and would have a shorter walk time for students coming from other schools. It also cites concerns about building a new school right next to Interstate 35, with air quality and the heavy traffic as safety concerns.

Jose Luis Perales, a first-grade teacher at Sanchez, was on the committee and said some of the members thought being near I-35 could be helpful. He said they discussed the possibility of boosting enrollment by attracting families who work downtown and could easily drop their kids off at Sanchez.

“This is their way of fighting the charter schools and fighting the brand-new shiny schools that are popping up everywhere and taking our students,” Perales said.

Eduardo Sanhueza, the P.E. teacher at Metz, said hearing all of these concerns from his colleagues and the community made it clear there was a serious lack of communication from the school and district.

“The biggest bother was the flaw in the process and just some very clear questions that they have still that (officials) have not answered,” Sanhueza said. “That’s what we’re looking for, answers to these questions.”

What the community can expect going forward

Making the recommendation for which school to modernize is just the first step in this process. Big decisions like staffing and permanent transportation for the students will be decided in the next few months.

Here is what Connell says the community can count on right now.

One of the three schools will receive the $25 million modernization, and construction will be completed by August 2021.

The other two schools have until December of 2020 to try to increase enrollment or find a way to use their building in a way that generates revenue, like having a community organization housed there paying rent. If enrollment doesn’t increase or the space isn’t utilized in a new way, they will have to consolidate.

Connell said one thing the district is keeping an eye on is the city adding more units to Chalmers Courts, a public housing complex in the Zavala school boundaries. If the increased units lead to more students, Zavala may be able to stay open.

Another decision that needs to be made is where to house students during construction. One of the schools not chosen will have to be the “swing space” in the interim. AISD committed to providing transportation for families while that is happening but hasn’t committed to providing buses once the new space is finished.

Connell said buses are provided to kids who live more than two miles away from school, or if their route to school is deemed hazardous. Right now, most of the kids in this area are less than two miles from any of the schools.

“Currently, and surprisingly, Cesar Chavez is not considered a hazardous route,” Connell said. “But in another two years with the increase of traffic in the area we are estimating that it would probably be considered a hazardous route.”

So if Cesar Chavez Street gets that distinction, kids will get a bus to Sanchez.

And if all three schools do consolidate, she said the district will have to decide what to do with the empty buildings. They could be used for administrative offices or a pre-K, or the district could sell the properties.

That’s something that is concerning to Carolyn Estrada, Rolando’s wife and a second-grade teacher at Metz. She heard from many in the neighborhood who are worried about what will happen to the school if it is left empty.

“One of them said, ‘Oh, if they sell the property they’re probably going to put a bunch of townhomes there,’” Carolyn said.

That’s what’s been hard for many involved in this process – seeing schools with a lot of history and community value face extinction. This was a hard part of serving on the committee for Perales.

“I really want to think about the students at the end, and the east side, and really hold that community that is the east side,” he said. “Hopefully we can kind of keep a part of that no matter how our campus looks.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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