Austin ISD school change scenarios present major possible changes for South Austin

Austin ISD released 39 district changes that could go into effect if approved by trustees on Nov. 18.nProposals include closing and consolidating schools, opening new programs at others and introducing district-wide initiatives.

Austin ISD released 39 district changes that could go into effect if approved by trustees on Nov. 18.nProposals include closing and consolidating schools, opening new programs at others and introducing district-wide initiatives.

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Evaluating equity
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If approved by trustees in November, scenarios presented in Austin ISD’s school changes plan would introduce new programs throughout the district, redraw boundaries and feeder patterns, and close 12 schools—including two that could impact Southwest Austin students.

A process that officially began this February, the school changes plan would consolidate campuses to save operations and maintenance costs and reinvest them into other programs. By closing older facilities, AISD can also move students into modernized buildings while balancing enrollment.

The scenarios are not final drafts, and district trustees can choose to approve them all as a package or can pick and choose which to implement, Community Engagement Coordinator Ali Ghilarducci said. Scenarios can also be changed before trustees vote to approve the plan.

Nicole Conley, AISD chief of business operations and chief financial officer, said school consolidations will save the district $240 million in maintenance costs if all scenarios are approved, while taking more than 5,000 unneeded classroom seats away in a district that has seen steady enrollment declines.

“Our buildings are becoming more costly to maintain as they age, with about $1.7 billion in deferred maintenance, not to mention that aging facilities don’t present the optimal learning environments for our students,” Conley told the AISD board of trustees Sept. 9.

South Austin implications

District 7 trustee Yasmin Wagner, who represents much of Southwest Austin, said Sept. 9 she was pleased that the school changes plan  “feels aspirational” and shows that the district is not content “maintaining the status quo.”

Wagner said she was excited that students across the district could move into modernized facilities at a greater scale through the scenarios.

“Being able to walk through a space that feels modern, like a place you are proud to be in every day and proud to call your school, it gives opportunities to students,” she said.

Wagner did, however, express concerns about school consolidations along the South First Street corridor due to the capacity constraints of schools involved in the plan. According to a scenario, St. Elmo and Galindo elementary schools would receive an influx of new students from closing Joslin and Dawson elementary schools. Boundaries for the two remaining schools would be redrawn with Ben White Boulevard as a dividing line.

Based on current capacities at the schools, Wagner said the scenario would be short by about 350 seats. Unlike some schools receiving new students in other scenarios, modernization or renovation plans to add capacity to St. Elmo or Galindo have not yet been funded or presented, meaning additional funding and construction may be required prior to the targeted implementation date of the 2024-25 school year.

Additionally, Wagner said the open-ended scenario regarding the realignment of school feeder patterns is creating uncertainty for parents in Southwest Austin. District staff stated that specific feeder pattern details would be developed later in the fall as scenarios are edited and final plans become clearer.

In terms of new programming, one of the largest South Austin investments would come to the Bowie High School vertical team. According to a scenario, engineering, computer and health sciences programs at Bowie High School and its related schools would be expanded.

A different group of scenarios aim to bolster outdoor learning and green technology programs in South Austin. At Patton Elementary and Small Middle schools, scenarios would create “seamless programing” between both campuses, focused on green technology and world language and cultures.

Also, “Outdoor leadership schools” would be created at Widen and Perez elementary schools in Southeast Austin.

Ghilarducci said the new program options were created based on community engagement.

Needing equity

In a news release, East Austin advocates—including state Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin—criticized the district for its school closure selections in the plan.

According to the group, of the 12 schools that could close, 11 have a student body that is majority minority, while nine are over 50% economically disadvantaged and seven are east of I-35. Some members of the community fear that by closing neighborhood schools east of I-35, AISD is further taking away resources from communities that historically have underperformed and been underserved.

AISD Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley, who was hired by the district earlier this summer, said the school changes plan could help “interrupt the system” that perpetuates “a deep systemic racism” in the city of Austin and the school district.

“Part of what we’re doing with this whole reinvention piece is to make sure that all students have [access to rigorous work]; then we can get rid of the soft bigotry of low expectations [in these communities],” she said. “We do know that some people are very upset about closures and consolidations, but we also know we can do better by putting our kids in modern facilities.”

For closing school sites, scenarios explore creating new affordable housing for families and workforce housing for teachers.

Ghilarducci said using closed sites for affordable housing was something the district frequently heard throughout public engagement. Housing investments on the east side of I-35 could help staff afford to live where they work and could allow more families to stay within the district.

“We also heard about needing health centers and community centers, but these are things that can coexist in one site with affordable housing and could [allow a school site] to continue to be a place where families meet and get resources,” she said.

Board President Geronimo Rodriguez said marginalized communities in Austin are “top of mind,” and the school changes plan is about getting the district closer to equitably serving all students.

What’s next?

The district will continue to edit scenarios through the fall as AISD staff conduct additional community engagement sessions. Final recommendations should be presented in November.

Conversations with communities will continue through November, with the next round of community engagement meetings scheduled from Sept. 23-Oct. 12. Regular public comment sessions will also take place at upcoming board meetings on Sept. 23, Oct. 28 and Nov. 18.

“This reinvention process is robust; it’s bold; and we are about to do something we think nobody else is doing across the country,” Hawley said. “We definitely need our community engaged, so the next phase of this work is all about making sure our community is walking alongside us with this work.”

By Nicholas Cicale
Nick has been with Community Impact Newspaper since 2016, working with the Lake Travis-Westlake and Southwest Austin-Dripping Springs editions. He previously worked as a reporter in Minnesota and earned a degree from Florida State University.


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