South Austin school boundary proposals invoke mixed feelings from community

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Overcrowding has been a long-standing issue in Southwest Austin at Baranoff, Kiker and Cowan elementary schools.

To give enrollment relief and make “right-sized” campuses, Austin ISD’s Boundary Advisory Committee has worked throughout the year to create scenarios that lower enrollment at the schools to between 75% and 115% capacity, said Beth Wilson, AISD executive director of planning and asset management.

Some of that relief will come when the future Southwest Elementary School opens for the 2020-21 school year, Wilson said. As AISD prepares for the new school, staff are evaluating scenarios that could help balance enrollment in the entire area.

“We were asked by the superintendent to, as we were creating the new boundary for Southwest Elementary School, look at other overcrowding in the area to see if we can do anything to help that situation along,” she said.

Thirteen preliminary boundary plans have been presented to the committee, which include boundary shifts that could impact seven elementary schools: overcrowded Baranoff, Kiker and Cowan could send students to Kocurek, Mills, Boone and Menchaca Elementary Schools, which are utilized less.

Click here to view maps of each of the proposed changes.

Needing relief

Jennifer Kratky, Village of Shady Hollow resident and a Baranoff parent, said parents and cars crowd the area around the school each day to pick up and drop off students, creating safety concerns and traffic.

“We have some homeowners who have their driveways blocked,” Kratky said. “Parked cars block wheelchair access ramps and park at curbs that are painted in red and too close to intersections that impact sightlines.”

At Baranoff, portable classrooms and other spaces are used to house excess students. While individual classes may not be overcrowded, facilities such as the cafeteria, library and auditorium are undersized, Kratky said. Similar situations exist at Kiker.

“When you have overcrowding, your whole day is affected, starting with safety during drop-off in the morning,” Wilson said. “It puts a strain on the whole school.”

Wilson said portables take up open space that could otherwise be used for recreation. The district’s goal is to move students from portables into traditional classrooms. Once a school population is under 115%, the district can begin removing portables, she said.

Chief of School Leadership Michelle Cavazos said campuses that are underutilized also face challenges. When space is not maximized, it is difficult to offer as many programs to a school, she said.

Although three of the schools are currently overutilized, residents who could be relocated elsewhere said projections show that enrollment is dropping naturally. With Southwest Austin Elementary School opening in 2020, some said they believe the proposed boundary changes are too extreme.

“Looking at some of [the district’s numbers]a lot of the projections look like the problems solve themselves without such a large change and without taking out such a huge chunk off the Baranoff zone,” said Shady Hollow resident Jacob Youngblood, who hopes to continue to be zoned to Baranoff. “You can balance the numbers better and get close [to 115% enrollment].”

Transportation concerns

Members of the “North Baranoff” constituency—including the Oak Parke, Brodie Springs, Palomino Park and Wyldwood-Kellywood neighborhoods—who are against being zoned to Kocurek have stated safety getting to and from school as a major concern. Resident Juan Torres said students traveling across Brodie Lane and walking along Slaughter Lane take “the most dangerous route to school.”

“In 2018 there were 195 traffic incidents [in that area],” he said. “That intersection alone had 75 incidents.”

AISD Transportation Director Kris Hafezizadeh said students who live more than 2 miles away from school are eligible for bus service. For students within 2 miles, buses are considered if there are no safe routes available for students to walk to school, he said. As for the plans that would take North Baranoff students past the Slaughter and Brodie intersection, Hafezizadeh said it is not considered as a hazardous intersection. While busy, he said it is a controlled intersection with traffic signals that provide safety.

“There are tons of roads and intersections around town that [are similar]to Brodie and Slaughter Lane,” Hafezizadeh said. “We have current students that do walk across [these roads]. We have to make it equitable for all the communities.”

Although bus service likely would not be provided if a plan rezoning North Baranoff neighborhoods was selected, he said the city of Austin has agreed to pilot having crossing guards at the intersection for up to two months to evaluate needs. There are also opportunities to increase street signage.

Other schools with similar walks also use “walking school buses” in which a neighborhood of students gather in one location to walk to school together with a parent chaperone, Hafezizadeh said.

Many residents in Circle C Ranch, including Greg Allen, want to avoid plans that send their neighborhood students to Southwest Elementary because it is located across SH 45.

“We can already safely walk and bike to [Kiker], and we should be able to continue to do that,” Allen said. “Don’t sacrifice safety to meet your own [enrollment]goals.”

In plans that rezone Kiker students across SH 45, Hafezizadeh said bus service would likely be provided.

Similarly, bus service would be likely for any plan that would require Boone students to travel along Davis Lane, which does not have sidewalks, according to the district.

Neighborhood talking points

Some of the proposed maps split the neighborhood of Shady Hollow, sending about 35 projected students to Kocurek while the rest of the neighborhood stays at Baranoff.

“We want to keep our children and families together and allow them to attend the same school that all the kids in their neighborhood do,” Shady Hollow resident Ashley Fredo said.

Circle C Ranch could also be split, with the southern end of the neighborhood moving to Southwest Elementary School in most proposals. Some students could shift to Mills Elementary as well, according to the plans.

While the committee will rate plans partially by evaluating how they keep neighborhoods intact, Beth Wilson said it is hard not to separate larger subdivisions like Shady Hollow and Circle C Ranch.

Resident Jessica Wilson said she moved to the area specifically for Baranoff, a “highly rated school” and would not have bought a house there if it were not zoned as such.

“All we care about is the performance of our school,” she said. “I’m sure the teachers are wonderful at Kocurek, but if you have a classroom of 24 kids and 22 of those kids are struggling, by necessity the teacher [has more work to do].”

School ratings will not factor into the district’s decision and are not part of the committee’s evaluation criteria.  However, Cavazos said in the case of Baranoff and Kocurek, AISD rates both campuses as A’s, with local accountability scores of 99 and 93, respectively. According to TEA accountability ratings, both schools were rated Met Standard on STAAR tests, although Baranoff scored a 93 compared to Kocurek’s 74.

“We should be able to hold our school district accountable for these [school]ratings by including how a school is performing into the decision-making process when drawing boundary lines,” Fredo said. “How many of the parents are going to consider charter or private schools as a result of this decision?”

Residents from Olympic Heights and Hillcrest, two smaller neighborhoods that were not included in proposals until May, feel like their voices are not being heard, Hillcrest HOA President Nathan Behncke said. He said he felt Hillcrest, which is currently zoned to Menchaca, was added to a proposal sending students to Kocurek after residents from other area communities made the suggestion as an alternative for their neighborhood in April.  Selecting a plan with Hillcrest would involve more schools and neighborhoods than other plans, he said.

Future decisions

At a May 7 meeting, the committee received an updated timeline to make a selection. Originally scheduled to present to the AISD board of trustees in November, the committee will now hold open houses over the summer and present findings in August.

The change comes after district staff requested the boundary changes be wrapped into the district’s plan to “reimagine” its use of current facilities.

The committee’s next meeting will take place May 29 at 6 p.m. in AISD’s board auditorium. In June, the committee is scheduled to meet on June 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the board auditorium, and will host a second meeting at Crockett High School June 18 at 6 p.m. 

In July, the committee will host open houses to gather additional community feedback on July 18 at Bailey Middle School from 6-7:30 p.m. and on July 20 at Gorzycki Middle School from 10-11:30 a.m. 

An additional meeting after the open houses is scheduled for July 23 at Crockett High School at 6 p.m.

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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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