AISD faces drop in student population

Updated enrollment numbers released by Austin ISD as of Oct. 3 showed there were 653 fewer students in the district compared with the six-week period that ended Oct. 4, 2013.

In the 2013–14 school year, there were about 1,200 fewer students in the district than there were in 2012–13. The district is facing a projected overall decline in its student population during the next 10 years, according to Beth Wilson, assistant director of planning in AISD's Office of Facilities.

Much of the decline can be attributed to smaller groups of elementary school students entering the district resulting in part from lower birth rates as a result of the recession, she said. Housing prices and affordability concerns are also factors that may be driving families out of AISD's attendance area, she said.

"It is very difficult to find a starter home, and most young families with kids can't get into that market," Wilson said.

She noted the district also now has fewer economically challenged students, and there may be a correlation between their families being priced out and the decline.

"It's hard for [constituents] to make sense of 'How can the district be saying that it's down in its enrollment when we are busting at the seams?' [or] 'Why are you asking to build a new school when we have some underenrolled schools?' Well, it's geography," she said. "Austin ISD is so big geographically and so different in different regions because the city really developed in sort of these spurts. The overcrowded schools tend to be all clumped together, and the underenrolled schools tend to be clumped together as well."

According to AISD, several schools are operating at more than 115 percent of their core facilities' permanent capacity while others are underenrolled. Strategies to address that are part of AISD's facility master plan, which will be used to plan for capital improvements and bond elections, Executive Director of Facilities Paul Turner said.

Six campuses—Blazier, Doss, Hill, Perez, Pickle and Wooten elementary schools—are operating at more than 135 percent of permanent capacity. District staff deemed those as FMP Phase 1 schools and will be talking with the schools' campus advisory councils this fall to determine solutions, Turner said.

Attendance zone boundary changes, transfer policy updates and assigning a grade at one school to an underutilized campus are among the options, Turner said. Consolidating schools is not popular, he said, noting that making sure the community is involved in any changes is a priority.

"We want them to feel that they've had a voice," he said.

Changes in the works

For months the board of trustees has discussed improving how it "tells the AISD story" to attract prospective students.

"Right now there is no recruitment process," trustee Ann Teich said. "There's no major budget for it. But there are in the works plans to improve that situation."

Teich said AISD would be criticized if it spent money on advertising.

"We need to tell our story better," she said, noting the board's ad hoc community engagement committee will work to put together a recommendation for the board on potential recruiting strategies.

In September, AISD hired Reyne Telles as executive director of the Department of Communications and Community Engagement. Telles previously worked as the city of Austin's manager of media relations and was director of communications for Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Telles will be responsible for launching a branding and marketing campaign for the district, according to AISD.

Turner said despite strong programs at AISD schools and districtwide facilities such as the Performing Arts Center that is scheduled to open next year, AISD faces competition for students from charter schools that have money to spend on advertising.

The charter school factor

Local charters promote themselves with ads and brochures, said Tracy Young, Texas Charter Schools Association spokeswoman.

"We have some charter schools that just go door-to-door in the neighborhood [and] introduce parents in the community to the concept of choice," she said.

Charter schools often have a focus, such as science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, she said. There were 41 charter schools in Austin at the start of the 2014–15 school year, Young said.

"We have seen growth in Austin," she said, noting enrollment at Austin charter schools increased to 11,859 in 2014 and has grown by about 30 percent annually since 2010.

Charters usually locate in areas with lower-performing schools, Young said.

Enrollment and funding

AISD's projected student population decline is a concern, Teich said.

"It has a major funding impact because the state pays us according to a certain outdated formula. When we lose enrollment, we lose funding, and that impacts programs and salaries," she said.

District Court Judge John Dietz ruled Aug. 28 that the state's school finance system violates Texas Constitution requirements.

Turner said antiquated funding formulas mean AISD has been required to pay increasing amounts in recapture funds. Recapture is a state system through which property-rich districts such as AISD are required by law to send money to the state to be redistributed among districts deemed property-poor.