Five under-enrolled Austin ISD schools in the city’s central core should improve their headcounts or risk being closed and consolidated with another school, according to the district’s new facility plan update.

Dawson Elementary School is on the so-called target utilization plan, which provides schools with either a one- to 12-year timeline or 12-25 years to improve enrollment. Although the list includes only five schools, more will be added this fall, said CherylAnn Campbell, a chair of the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee

Resident Diana Zake, whose daughter attends the school, sees it as an opportunity for the school and neighborhood.

“[The Austin ISD board of trustees does not want to] close schools; they want to help us, help enrollment and help the kids,” Zake said. “I believe that, and I’m very happy this is the turnout.”

The target utilization plan was approved April 3 as part of the district’s $4.6 billion Facility Master Plan update, which will impact all 117 campuses once carried out.

“The work we have ahead of us is complex; this is a 20- to 25-year roadmap,” Superintendent Paul Cruz said prior to the vote. “Individual questions about a bond or what will be done for design or boundaries will come, and the board will take individual votes on those specific items. We need to have that detailed info in front of us to make informed decisions.”

According to AISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley Johnson, the majority of the work will be funded through future elections, the first of which would occur Nov. 7 if called by the trustees before June.

The motion to approve the plan passed 6-3, with trustees Edmund Gordon, who represents Northeast Austin; Jayme Mathias, who represents Southeast Austin; and Paul Saldaña, prior to his April 7 resignation whose district straddled Southeast and Southwest Austin, dissenting based on their opinion that some parts of the plan were inequitable to certain areas of the district.


Community, district cooperation

The target utilization plan, or TUP, allows school communities and the district to work together to boost enrollment, replacing an earlier directive to outright close and consolidate some schools experiencing enrollment of 75 percent or less.

“It’s important to understand consolidations are not off the table, but this removes the stigma of immediacy and gives communities a clearer path in decision-making and empowers them to make changes before consolidation becomes likely,” Campbell said.

In addition to Dawson Elementary, the target utilization schools include Brooke, Joslin, Norman and Sanchez elementary schools. Brooke and Sanchez, both east of I-35 in the 78702 ZIP code, have one to 12 years to improve their enrollment numbers, and Dawson, Joslin and Norman have 12-25 years.

Zake said her South Austin neighborhood has seen marked change over the past several years as many single-family homes have been replaced with denser multifamily dwellings such as condominiums and duplexes, usually inhabited by younger adults.

“We laugh because we see strollers being pushed around,” she said of her younger neighbors in the Dawson neighborhood. “Those children will be attending Dawson in the next few years. The older generation is being replaced by younger people, but those residents are also bringing families into the urban core.”

The district will provide marketing and communications to help underenrolled schools reach their target.

According to the master plan, the TUP was created to address under-enrollment in a proactive manner.

“The idea is the community can work with the district to come up with academic or other programs to attract more students into a campus that is considered for consolidation,” Campbell said March 27.

The Facility Master Plan is a living document outlining the current usage and future modernization of AISD schools over the next 20-25 years. After months of meeting and soliciting feedback from the community, representatives from the 18-member advisory committee presented their final recommendations to the board March 27.

Recommendations were based on data gathered by engineering firm AECOM, which measured facility conditions, or the overall physical well-being of a building, and educational suitability, or how well a facility supports teaching and learning. The committee also took into consideration a school’s utilization, or the comparison between a school’s total enrollment and its building capacity. The district learned that 39 percent of AISD’s schools are in poor or very poor condition, 22 percent have unsatisfactory educational suitability scores,
17 percent are overcrowded and 27 percent are underenrolled.

The update to the master plan calls for five new schools, three replacements of existing schools, 62 schools to be fully modernized, 38 schools to be renovated, six schools to undergo systems upgrades and two facilities to be repurposed in addition to the five schools placed on the TUP list.

What’s to Come Eighteen months were spent forming and vetting the recommendations for the updated Facility Master Plan, and since the plan’s approval by the board of trustees on April 3, work has been underway by the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee to prepare for an anticipated November bond election to fund the highest priority school improvement projects.[/caption]

‘The Worst First’

The projects were prioritized based on a system coined by the advisory committee as “The Worst First,” wherein schools that present the greatest need would be addressed first. Projects within the plan are subject to review every two years and are contingent upon funding acquired through future bond elections.

As architects of the plan, advisory committee members fielded pleas from parents who disagreed with the recommendation for their child’s school. Michael Bocanegra, an advisory committee member appointed by Saldaña, said the committee ultimately shied away from making decisions based on individual needs.   

“For me, it always hinged on making equitable decisions first,” he said. “And while everyone has an opinion, no one’s opinion or want is more valuable than someone else’s, regardless of what part of town or district they are from.”

Serving as the backbone of the plan was the concept of long-term modernization, or the transformation of school facilities into 21st-century learning environments, the master plan stated. Each school, regardless of its recommendation, will eventually be equipped with flexible learning spaces, state-of-the-art technology and community hubs.

Bocanegra said modernizing facilities was a tough sell.

“AISD has been one way for a long time, so when we were trying to get people to envision modernization, it’s difficult,” he said.