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Confused about Austin ISD’s decision to close schools? You’re not alone.

Friday, June 28, 2019 by Claire McInerny, KUT

The Austin Independent School District is in the middle of a process to decide which schools to close and consolidate in the city. It announced in February that the closures needed to happen to help the district’s financial situation; later that month, the board approved the move.

Since then, district staffers have been trying to explain why the closures are happening and how AISD will choose which schools to consolidate. They’ve held meetings and gathered input from the community.

But there are a lot of moving parts. While families wait for the district to announce its plan – expected in August – here’s a primer on the situation and questions people are still asking:

Why did the district decide to close and consolidate schools?

Student enrollment has been declining over the last decade. In the last five years, AISD has lost 6,000 students; that’s like losing the entire population of Anderson, Lanier and Austin high schools.

The district is expected to lose 7,000 students over the next 10 years. There are multiple reasons the population is declining. First, the higher cost of living in Austin is pushing families to more affordable nearby towns. In addition, 13,500 students within AISD boundaries went to charter schools last year. Yes, more people are moving to Austin, but by and large, they don’t have kids, according to demographic reports.

“This is a trend. It’s going to happen; it’s not going away,” said Nicole Conley, chief of business and operations at AISD. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand and think we can operate the same size school district that was built for almost 90,000 kids, when we’re shrinking to almost less than 70,000.”

If enrollment is so low, why do some schools seem so full?

Kris Titamer, whose children attend schools in Southwest Austin, was confused about the focus on low enrollment.

“I’ve tried to look at transferring my student from one school … and I have heard that I can’t do that, schools are overcrowded,” he said during a community meeting earlier this month at Akins High School. “It just kind of countered what I was hearing tonight.”

Where Titamer lives, schools are overcrowded. But that’s not the norm in the rest of the district. Schools in East Austin, where many charter schools are located and home prices have jumped in recent years, have lost significant numbers of students.

Will I have to send my child to a new school as part of this process?

Maybe. The district could decide to redraw boundaries. There are also two new schools being built: an elementary school in Southwest Austin and a middle school in Northeast Austin. So that could also affect families in those areas.

Residents just won’t know until a proposal is released in August.

Does recent school funding legislation change how many schools need to close?

Not really. Even though the new school funding law will send more money to AISD, it doesn’t change the fact that the district has fewer students enrolling. Conley said if the district has fewer buildings to maintain, repair, and heat or cool, it can reinvest money into academics and programs that help students.

If schools consolidate, will class sizes get bigger?

At a community meeting earlier this month at Pease Elementary, Prax Faloon shared his concerns as an Austin High student.

“(Can we) expect class sizes to stay somewhat the same? I’ve definitely noticed class sizes are the most important factor to a class’ ‘success,’” the 15-year-old said.

The district’s answer: Maybe.

“In AISD, we are and have been committed to efforts that maintain our current staffing guidelines,” the administration told KUT in a statement, “yet we are open to possibilities and ideas that may come from our School Changes and community engagement process.”

What happens to buildings once they close?

Pedro Antonio Berlanga Jr., a recent graduate of the University of Texas’ UTeach master’s program, was a student teacher in AISD last semester. He wanted to know if the district is making money by closing schools and selling the properties.

“What happens to these buildings once they shut down the schools?” he said. “Does AISD still own them? Or do they lease them?”

The district says its priority isn’t to make a profit. In its statement to KUT, the administration said, “Wherever possible, AISD will work to ensure that whatever replaces an affected school will serve the needs of the community in a positive way. Examples could be parkland, a community building, an affordable housing site or a resource center. The district will work with affected communities to reimagine and determine the best use of the property.”

What’s next?

Over the last two weeks, the district hosted what it called “think tanks” – small groups of parents, teachers and community members in the five regions sharing ideas for the closure process. With those meetings now wrapping up, district administration is working on preparing a few different scenarios to present to the board at its August meeting.

The board is expected to take a final vote in October, so the changes could start happening by fall 2020.

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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