Cruz touts AISD's successes during annual address

Austin ISD interim Superintendent Paul Cruz emphasized the community's role in supporting education during his 2014 State of the District address.

"As a community, we are developing the talents of our future workforce," Cruz told civic leaders at The University of Texas's Etter-Harbin Alumni Center Oct. 6. "We are preparing Austin's future civic and business leaders, artists and musicians, engineers, imagineers and educators. When Austin comes together as a community, I know we will be able to ensure all Austin children have access to the quality education they deserve."

Cruz highlighted students' achievements and the district's partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits. He also discussed the challenges AISD faces in the years to come.

AISD graduation rates are at an all-time high of 84.1 percent for the class of 2013, he said. All student subgroups the district tracks have graduation rates above 80 percent.

"Higher AISD graduation rates translate into financial benefits for our students, the city and the region," Cruz said.

Cruz said the district's board of trustees approved starting every AISD ninth grade student on the distinguished level of achievement plan, the highest graduation plan offered in the state of Texas.

"When asked which plan would be best for students, trustees moved quickly and decisively with one guiding principle: We are AISD, Austin's school district, and we choose rigor," he said.

The district's efforts to increase attendance rates have yielded more than $5 million in additional state funding, he said.

Cruz called on the district to address head-on its upcoming challenges, such as enrollment; recruiting and retaining teachers and staff members; and budget issues.

Housing trends, birth rates and population changes will contribute to lower enrollment in the coming years, he said.

"Recently, community leaders have begun discussing the reality of 'the tale of two Austins,' juxtaposing our city's rich offerings with the realities of some of our most underrepresented and vulnerable here in our community," he said. "I firmly believe education is the way to address the economic divide."

Sixty-two percent of AISD students, or roughly 53,000 students, come from economically disadvantaged households, Cruz reported.

Meanwhile, the district is seeing more of its property taxes going to the state. This fiscal year, AISD expects to pay $175 million to the state because of the current school funding formula.

"When Austin taxpayers see their property taxes increase, many assume that this translates into more money for our schools. That's not so for AISD. That's not the reality," he said.

Cruz called on the community to help advocate for a funding system that invests in students and teachers. He said the district welcomes new partnerships to help schools reach their full potential.

He praised the efforts surrounding the Back to School Bash, that provided school supplies and immunizations for students earlier this fall.

The interim superintendent also touched on new initiatives, such as the Creative Learning Initiative, Social and Emotional Learning programs and the Community Schools approach.

"We are working hard to address these challenges, and we know we don't have all of the answers," he said. "We know we will need to come together as a community to develop collaborative solutions. And we'll be looking to many of you in this room, our community partners, to be part of these conversations."