Officials eye this fall for south high school land purchaseDiscussions about buying South Austin land for a potential high school are ramping up as the Austin ISD board of trustees revisits the issue this fall—possibly its September or October meeting—for a vote.

The board is considering one piece of land in Southwest Austin and another property in Southeast Austin. As of press time Sept. 16, the board was slated to discuss the land purchase in executive session at its Sept. 19 meeting, according to trustee Paul Saldaña, who represents District 6, which includes Akins, Crockett and Travis high schools in South Austin.

“I can tell you that we’re really close. We have gotten somewhat creative to make sure that we meet the needs of Southwest and Southeast [Austin],” he said. “I think [a decision on the land purchase] could be as early as the board meeting at the end of September, but definitely at the end of this year.” 

Voters approved $32 million in bond funds for the land purchase in 2008, but despite rising property values and years of conversations about locations, timelines and academic programming options, the board has not yet voted to buy land.

That may soon change, said District 7 trustee Yasmin Wagner, who represents much of Southwest Austin.

“The community has been waiting for [a land purchase vote] for far too long, and we owe the community an answer,” she said.

The question is not whether the district should buy land, but where and what it should be used for, Saldaña said.

Where to build

When considering the locations available, the board must decide between a comprehensive school or a school with a smaller footprint, such as a magnet, Saldaña said. 

“For Southwest Austin in particular it has been a little tougher because of the environmental concerns,” Saldaña said. “When you’re talking about a high school typically you have to try to find almost 100 acres of land so that you can [accommodate restrictions related to] impervious cover and carbon footprint and environmental features and all of those things based upon the city’s development standards.”

In Southeast Austin, a high school could be built on 25 or 50 acres because there are fewer restrictions, he said.

Akins and Bowie high schools are both overenrolled, Wagner said.

“At some point we’re going to have to increase some capacity, and that capacity could come in the form of a new high school,” Wagner said. “It could come in the form of perhaps looking at really creative solutions for how we establish something near Bowie that could help. It could also be a magnet program.”

South magnet, transfers

With the south high school land purchase in limbo, board discussions in the past year have been more focused on developing a potential south magnet program that could mimic the design of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, or LASA, which draws students from Bowie and Akins attendance zones.

But recently, that conversation has changed to include talk of a magnet program in Central or Northeast Austin, Saldaña said.

Wagner asked the administration to revise its recommendations made in August for potential magnet programs and come back with a more strategic approach.   

A magnet program could attract students in the Bowie attendance zone to a different campus and relieve overcrowding at Bowie, said Theresa Bastian, president of the Bowie Parent Teacher Student Association.

Updating the transfer policy could also help overenrolled schools, Saldaña said.

There have been changes implemented this school year to the transfer policy in AISD. Each year a list of schools is frozen to transfers, meaning students cannot transfer into a school if they do not live in the school’s attendance zone.

As an example, the permanent capacity for the Bowie campus is 2,463, according to AISD board documents. Bowie has been closed to transfers for years and had enrollment of 2,898 as of the end of the first six weeks of the 2015-16 school year, an increase of 304 students compared with 2,594 as of the 2009-10 school year.

“What happens if that school is closed [to transfers] or at capacity is some people are still for some reason or another finding a way to get into those schools,” Saldaña said.

In previous years, “priority transfers,” such as a minority student transferring into a school with a majority of a different ethnicity, were accepted even at frozen schools, Wagner said. This year the majority-minority transfer is no longer a priority transfer, she said.

“I think the initial numbers that I saw for Bowie were down by 58 kids just with that one transfer type,” she said. “Next year we will no longer allow tracking and sibling transfers to overenrolled schools, and that’s a much larger population of our transfer population into Bowie.” 

Transfer changes also include the introduction last year of out-of-district transfers, which means more students from outside AISD’s attendance area could attend schools in AISD.    

“We’ve done some really good work on the transfer policies, but then there are some in the community who feel we need to do more work on the transfer policies. We haven’t had any conversations in the two years that I’ve been on the board about [concrete plans to change] boundaries or attendance zones. … It’s a difficult conversation, but nonetheless we definitely need to get our ducks in a row and make a decision,” Saldaña said.

District needs

The average AISD school is about 50 years old, and the district’s deferred maintenance and facility needs exceed an estimated $1.5 billion, Saldaña said. The board established the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, or FABPAC, to look at issues such as overcrowding and boundary changes, Saldaña said.

The FABPAC is presenting recommendations to the board in October—including a possible 2017 bond election, said Rich DePalma, a FABPAC member and Southwest Austin resident.

As the district considers needs for projects to pursue with future bond funds, AISD might face a lack of support from voters in Southwest Austin if there is no land purchase, Bastian said.

Voters in the region weighed in against May 2013 bond funds that would have allocated money to relieve overcrowding, she said.

“The people of Southwest Austin are sitting here saying, ‘We’ve set aside the money to buy land for a high school. Land has gone up in value. Buy something with [the money] before you ask for more.’ There’s a disconnect,” she said. “It concerns me if it gets to a point where we’re ramping up for another bond request or proposition, and this land purchase is still unresolved,” she said. 

Population projections are higher for Southeast Austin than Southwest Austin, Bastian said.

Saldaña said the needs have changed since 2008.

“There is really not enough capacity or need for a new high school right now in South Austin. What we need in South Austin is definitely more elementary schools,” Saldaña said.

If the board votes to purchase land for a south high school, the district cannot then use that land for another purpose. But the board could purchase land at a cost less than $32 million and then vote to reallocate any remaining funds, which would be designated as contingency funds, for other uses, according to Paul Turner, AISD executive director of facilities.

Because voters approved the 2008 bond funds to purchase land for a South Austin high school, the board must satisfy the intent of the proposition by purchasing at least one parcel of land for a site for a south high school, he said.

At that point, the administration could make recommendations to the citizens bond oversight committee about how to spend the dollars. Staff could prepare an agenda item and schedule a public hearing to receive feedback on a proposed alternate use of the contingency funds.