School closures could help Austin ISD close its budget gap

Image description
SWA-2019-02-Lead1_3
Austin ISD is facing a significant budget shortfall. According to a report prepared for the district by Templeton Demographics in fall 2018, the district has lost over 6,000 students over the last five years and its enrollment is projected to drop by approximately 7,000 additional students over the next decade.  Fewer students means fewer dollars flowing into the district because AISD can only keep a certain amount of property tax revenue it raises locally. AISD collected $1.3 billion in tax revenues in the 2018-19 fiscal year, but kept only $774.5 million because the state sets a formula dictating how much money each school district should need to educate its students.

The rest of the property taxes raised in Austin are sent out to communities around the state in a process coined recapture or “Robin Hood.” In FY 2018-19, AISD sent $669.6 million out in recapture payments. If no legislative changes are made, that number is expected to balloon to $901.4 million in FY2020-21, the most it has ever sent.

Without any added revenue or cost-cutting measures, AISD Chief of Business and Operations Nicole Conley Johnson said AISD would be facing a $65 million budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year—although that number would be lower if state lawmakers pass school finance reform during the ongoing legislative session.

For years, AISD’s leadership has looked for ways to mitigate the effects stemming from fewer students—and as a result less money—coming into the district and more funds from local taxes going out. This winter, both the district’s staff and a task force made up of citizens presented a range of options to the board that included one proposed action the district had not yet utilized as a method to closing the budget gap— closing or consolidating schools.

“It’s the estimation of this trustee that schools must close,” District 2 trustee Jayme Mathias said in a Feb. 26 board meeting.

CASH FROM THE CAPITOL?


When the state’s 86th legislative session began in January, many state lawmakers vowed to repair the school finance system in Texas. At a press conference in the Texas Capitol on March 5, members of the Texas House of Representatives laid out House Bill 3, a $9 billion plan to put more state money into school finance, cut property taxes and increase teacher pay.

The legislative proposal would increase the basic allotment the state sets as the amount necessary to educate each student from $4,765 to $6,030, meaning districts such as AISD would be able to keep more local property taxes and send out less money to recapture.

Conley Johnson said if the proposal becomes law, the dollars that flow into AISD will be able to both sustain programs proven effective and provide salary increases for teachers and staff.

“It substantially puts us on a better path toward solving some of our financial issues and closing our budget gap,” she said.

BUILDING AND CONSOLIDATING


Even if there is an injection of funds into AISD from the Capitol that could solve some of the district’s budget challenges, Conley Johnson said that does not mean school consolidations would be off the table because the district is working to put its students in the best possible learning environments while being mindful of using taxpayer funds efficiently.

“We would make those decisions, presumably, even if there wasn’t the financial pressure, because there are better things we could do with our money to support our kids more,” she said.

As the district has discussions about closing and repurposing school campuses, it is also developing plans to modernize or construct 17 new facilities as part of the $1.1 billion bond package voters approved in November 2017.

Construction has started on some of those campuses, including Govalle Elementary School in East Austin and Doss Elementary School in the Northwest Hills neighborhood. With consolidations, construction and modernization happening simultaneously, AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz said there is an opportunity to cut down on overhead costs, put more students in modern learning spaces, improve programming and fill community needs like affordable housing.

“It’s not about closing. It’s not about consolidation. Could that be an effect of what we’re trying to do? Yes, but the intent is looking at this information collectively. We want to be better and stronger than we are today,” Cruz said.

COMMUNITY VOICES


District staff and the budget stabilization task force, a group of citizens formed by the district over the summer to evaluate options, have both proposed budget solutions that include closing schools. The district’s plan calls for up to 12 school closures, and according to Robert Thomas of the task force, closures would save AISD $800,000 to $1.2 million per campus.

While the goal of the closures will be to better utilize campuses, the task force’s report delivered in January said possible closures “cannot occur exclusively” at under-enrolled campuses and suggested school consolidations should occur alongside redistricting.

Those suggestions in the report speak to some of the challenges AISD will face in the consolidation process. Half of the district’s schools serving East Austin students are under-enrolled, and in that area of the district 80 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.

There is also history tied up in consolidations tied to events in those communities decades ago. In 1971, three schools serving black students, L.C. Anderson High School, Kealing Middle School and St. John’s Elementary School in East Austin, were closed after a federal court ordered Austin to desegregate, according to the Austin History Center.

Barbara Scott, the president of the Colony Park Neighborhood Association in East Austin, attended an open house session March 6 at LBJ Early College High School to provide her feedback on the district’s 2019 Facility Master Plan, a document that will lay out AISD’s vision in the areas of athletics, fine arts, and career and technical education.

“When you close a school you hurt the community, because communities are built around schools,” Scott said.

Vincent Tovar, a member of the PTA and campus advisory council at Govalle Elementary School and a parent at both Govalle and Fulmore Middle School, said the community should make itself heard during the consolidation process–and the district has a responsibility to listen.

“In that sense you’re getting the community to take responsibility for its nearby school and hopefully encouraging parents to send their kids there,” Tovar said.

By involving the community in the process, ensuring equity and listening, AISD District 9 trustee Arati Singh said consolidation can be a positive thing for residents if communities know the changes will ultimately help families in the end.

“We put so much thought into it, and we have such a huge opportunity to make this a positive thing for our communities,” Singh said.


MOST RECENT

A graphic outlining aims of Travis County's climate action plan
Travis County approves first ever climate action plan

Travis County commissioners voted June 2 on a collection of short to long terms goals to ward off climate change on the local level.

Protesters march toward the Texas Capitol. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
City Council will seek answers from Austin Police Department over response to the weekend's violent protests

Austin City Council will bring Austin Police Chief Brian Manley in for questioning on June 4 at 3 p.m.

A view of Downtown Austin from Lady Bird Lake (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)
Experts: Coronavirus has magnified long-held inequities of Austin’s health care system

Black and Hispanic communities outside of nursing homes have suffered the worst from the coronavirus, according to new data from Austin Public Health.

Travis County had an estimated 2,044 active coronavirus cases June 2. (Nicholas Cicale/Community impact Newspaper)
Austin metro COVID-19 hospitalizations at 97 as Travis County cases increase by 73

Travis County had an estimated 2,044 active coronavirus cases June 2.

Superintendent Paul Cruz said June 1 that Austin ISD has formed a task force to develop options to educate using a blended approach with virtual and in-person classes. (Courtesy Austin ISD)
Austin ISD seeking community feedback on district reopening plan next week

Eight meetings have been scheduled to discuss options with teachers, staff and the community.

(Designed by Rachal Russell/Community Impact Newspaper)
Here is how to file a civil rights complaint in the Austin area

Citizens who feel they need to file a civil rights case against law enforcement have several avenues to make a complaint.

The Paramount Theatre put up a message reading "Black Lives Matter" on its awning as protestors marched in the streets the weekend of May 30-31. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Justice Coalition executive director: City’s racism is ’unique because it is so subtle’

In a June 1 conversation with Mayor Steve Adler, Chas Moore said Austin's racial issues extend from the police department to everyday microagressions.

COVID-19 hospitalizations also increased to 97 in the Austin metro. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
88 new coronavirus cases in Travis County on June 1 set single-day high

COVID-19 hospitalizations also increased to 97 in the Austin metro.

Director of Elementary Schools Monica Gonzalez said June 1 that the district is looking into training teachers this summer to prepare for partial or full-time virtual learning. (Courtesy Austin ISD)
Austin ISD planning for blended teaching approach for school year beginning Aug. 18

A blended approach would allow the district to switch from in-person learning to virtual learning when needed.

Protesters and Texas Rangers stood face to face during demonstrations at the Texas Capitol on May 31. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
National, state, local officials continue to blame outside agitators for turning protests violent over the weekend

As violence erupted in Austin and cities across the country over the weekend, leaders from all ranks said outside groups usurped the demonstrations and turned them chaotic.

Richard Rhodes, the president and CEO of Austin Community College, said June 1 that the district is prioritizing the hiring of a new chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer. (Courtesy Austin Community College)
Austin Community College prioritizing hiring equity officer despite ongoing hiring freeze

The district brought up the hiring during a discussion about protests and demonstrations that have taken place over the past weekend.

Businesses shuttering their doors due to coronavirus restrictions lowered the sales tax revenue collected by cities in May compared to May 2019. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
Texas comptroller reports 13.2% year-over-year state sales tax revenue drop in May

Tax collection revenue fell significantly in several sectors from May 2019 to May 2020, according to the comptroller's office.