Report suggests school consolidations, magnet program changes to cut Austin ISD deficit

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Nearly a month after Austin ISD staff presented a draft of recommendations to cut the district’s budget deficit to the AISD board of trustees, a new group of findings and ideas has been released to the board.

Created by the Budget Stabilization Task Force, which was formed by the district over the summer to evaluate options for the district, the report of findings and suggestions presented Jan. 7 lists ideas to cut costs and save money. The 39-page report can be found on the district’s website with the meeting agenda.

Robert Thomas, one of the task force’s tri-chairs, said at the Jan. 7 workshop that criteria considered were the impact on student achievement, financials, equity, enrollment, the district’s ability to hold qualified staff members and a proposal’s feasibility.

“There is no question that there is a budget crisis,” Thomas said. “Without doing something fundamentally, structurally transformative the risk to our students is too great. The inability to make difficult decisions by prior boards is why we’re here today. We think, given the [history of cuts]and financial management that the district tried [the board is not]  going to be able to avoid these.”

According to the report, suggestions include closing schools and adjusting attendance boundaries to reduce under enrollment, updating the magnet school model and removing sixth grade from six elementary schools.

Other ideas include eliminating runoff elections, adjusting school start and end times to create transportation efficiencies and creating a process to evaluate any future staffing changes.

The report lists the potential monetary impact certain actions could result in, as well as the amount of support given for the initiative by task force members. The suggestions all received 50 percent or greater support by the task force, Thomas said. Those suggestions that received less support were left off the report.

Both sets of proposals are not final plans, and neither has come to the board for approval at this time. An official list of cuts will not come to the board for consideration until the spring.

Closing schools and boundaries changing

Over 80 percent of the task force was in support of closing some schools and redrawing boundaries to optimize school capacities. The report stated that there are 15 elementary schools with fewer than 300 students, which lead to financial and academic inefficiencies. However, it did not list a specific number of schools suggested for closures. School closures could save the district $800,000 to $1.2 million per campus.

“Consolidation, we felt, is a possible avenue you all should explore as you look to stabilize this budget,” Tri-chair Kevin Garcia said. “In terms of which specific schools, that’s in conjunction with other actions [like boundary changes]you take moving forward.”

The report also stated that new boundaries should increase “cultural and socio-economically diversity,” and that possible closures “cannot occur exclusively” at under-enrolled campuses. It also suggested school consolidations should occur concurrent with or after new boundaries are drawn.

Adjusting the magnet school model

A variety of suggestions to change the district’s specialty programs and magnet school model were made in the report. Over 80 percent of the task force supported offering magnet programs at all appropriate campuses to reduce student transportation costs. The task force also suggested eliminating some funding weights and resources that go to magnet schools compared to other campuses.

In a heated conversation, Trustee Cindy Anderson said she felt the report was “an aggressive attack about the magnets” that did not look at other similar programs that also receive special transportation and funding considerations. She also pointed to the magnet program’s ability to attract new students to the district and increase enrollment.

“I felt that really does a disservice to the kids and teachers and principals that do work very hard at those programs,” she said.

Thomas said the suggestions were based on the dollars spent for transportation, the resources put into the district’s magnet programs. He also said the task force received resident feedback that there was not equal access to the programs across the district.

“Our charge was to look critically at all the totality of the budget, with the understanding [the board]would have to make these kind of policy decisions,” he said.

Currently, magnet programs are only offered at Fulmore and Kealing Middle Schools, the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders and Liberal Arts and Science Academy. Students in the programs are transported to campuses from across the district.

Suggestions with 100 percent support

According to the report, the task force was 100 percent in support of the following four items in its report:

  • move sixth grade classes at Barton Hills, Bryker Woods, Lee, Maplewood, Mathews and Pease Elementary Schools to nearby middle schools that already offer sixth grade, saving an estimated $67,000
  • pursue strategies to reduce utility costs by enhancing facilities and “going green”
  • adjust district facility rental fees with current market rates, which could bring in up to $315,000
  • accurately evaluate the impacts and savings of reducing staff development and substitute costs, central support specialists and campus administration staffing formula weights

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Nicholas Cicale
Nick was born in Long Island, New York and grew up in South Florida. He graduated from Florida State University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in writing and a minor in music. Nick was a journalist for three years at the St. James Plaindealer in Minnesota before moving to Austin to join Community Impact Newspaper in 2016.
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