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Task force recommends Austin ISD cut magnet programs, consolidate schools to save money

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 by Claire McInerny, KUT

A task force created by the Austin Independent School District released a report outlining budget cuts and ways the district can bring in more money. Some of the more dramatic recommendations are redrawing attendance zones, closing schools and cutting magnet programs.

The task force, which has met several times since June, was made up of 30 AISD staff and community members.

AISD is facing a deficit as enrollment continues to decline. The district also pays more than half its property taxes back to the state in recapture, which is more than any other school district in the state. To pay for daily operations, the district is currently using its reserves, which are set to run out in three years.

The report suggests closing and consolidating schools, though it does not name specific ones. It also lists conditions the district should follow when considering closures.

Eighty percent of the task force agreed that if closings and consolidations take place, all schools in the district should be considered, not just those in East Austin that are currently under-enrolled. The task force also said that consolidations should occur while attendance zones are redrawn, so schools are more culturally and socioeconomically diverse. Redrawing boundaries could help under-enrolled schools by pulling in students from other parts of the district.

In recent years, consolidation and closure discussions have been controversial. The bond voters passed in 2017 included possible consolidations at under-enrolled schools; many in those communities have protested the closures.

The report also suggests eliminating the district’s three magnet programs at Fulmore and Kealing middle schools and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy. Rather than spend a lot of money busing students all over the city to attend these schools, the task force recommends all schools have competitive programs and opportunities.

The report says magnets add to segregation in the district because they don’t integrate into the schools where they’re hosted. Having competitive programs at all schools could entice parents to keep their kids in neighborhood schools.

Financially this could be a wash. Improving academic programs across the board could cost the same as busing students to the three schools. But the task force said it would make the district more equitable.

Here are some of the other recommendations the task force laid out in its report:

  • Increase fees to rent AISD facility space
  • Eliminate property tax exemptions for historic properties
  • Increase paid child care programs at AISD schools
  • Eliminate runoff elections in school board races
  • Adjust school start times to reduce the number of transportation staff needed
  • Eliminate sixth grade at elementary schools
  • Implement programs to reduce staff turnover and save money on training
  • Reassign some central office staff to school buildings

AISD issued its own budget recommendations last month. The school board will begin discussing the report at its work session Monday.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

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