Austin ISD board considers expanding LASA offering, discusses academic and facilities recommendations

The topic of increasing student access to Austin ISD's liberal arts and science academy programming was part of the school district's board of trustees work session Nov. 10.

Trustees did not finalize decisions during the work session but instead discussed implementation of the first phase of the district's facility master plan, as well as potential new academic and facilities recommendations, or AFRs, and the continued rollout of board-approved AFRs. One option the board discussed was expanding the LASA program, considering limited space at the existing LBJ campus, Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz said.

Interim Chief Schools Officer Edmund Oropez said requirements to get into LASA have become more stringent, and much of the demand for programming comes from south Austin.

"The number one customer of LASA right now, and that changes as years go by, is currently Bowie and Austin High," Oropez said. "Anderson's numbers at one time [indicated the school was] one of the largest customers of LASA but as their [International Baccalaureate] program has grown and strengthened and is doing well, families are actually choosing to stay with the IB program."

Trustee Robert Schneider, who was re-elected in November to a fourth term, had suggested earlier this year that the board should aim to have a community conversation about potentially expanding LASA to south Austin.

"The transportation issues in this city make it so dysfunctional that putting anything even over the north bank of Town Lake, or Lady Bird Lake, is a no-go for a lot of folks in south Austin simply because it's close to impossible, the times that kids have to get to school and get home from school," he said.

Originally, Schneider said he wanted to begin a community conversation about LASA south during the 2014-15 school year, with the goal of implementing a proposal in the 2015-16 school year.

"With board elections and hiring the [superintendent], that's not going to happen, so my request would be that we continue this but aim for a target start date not of '15-'16, but of '16-'17," he said at the work session.

Neighboring schools including Bowie High School are overcrowded. The school district has not yet purchased land for its proposed south high school, though the agenda for the work session specified the board met in executive session on March 17, May 5, Sept. 8 and Oct. 6 to deliberate the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property, including south high school land. The south high school is currently scheduled for discussion by the board in executive session again on Dec. 1.

Trustee Ann Teich said she would support continuing to explore a LASA south concept and noted there is available space at Crockett High School.

Some community members think that the ongoing creation of magnet programs hurts schools by taking high-achieving students away to other campuses, trustee Lori Moya said. Moya added she wants the board to end the practice of calling out high schools in south Austin as examples of potential locations for programming, since those communities have not been consulted or engaged on the subject.

"We are not going to do anything at all without thoroughly vetting it with the community," Schneider said.

Trustee Tamala Barksdale said she wants more information on what kind of tradeoffs and budget changes making decisions now about AFR options would require, since the district has a tight budget for this fiscal year and is beginning to plan for additional projected shortfalls in FY2016.

"I just don't know how we move forward without knowing what we are giving up," she said.

Schneider said he would urge the board to considering delaying all AFRs with fiscal impact for a year and seeing what the upcoming legislative session brings.

The board discussed extending the district's dual language program to middle schools and a proposal to expand the one-way Vietnamese-to-English dual language program at Summitt Elementary School to two-way. The district looked at Burnet and Fulmore middle school campuses for expansion in 2015-16; Small Middle School also submitted an application for consideration. Trustee Gina Hinojosa said the district can look at its AFR proposals as a way to help address the district's budgetary woes.

"We might need to spend a little money to make a little money ... to attract families back to our AISD schools. Fulmore is underenrolled, so that's a win-win opportunity to be bringing a program that families want [to that campus]," she said.

Chief Academic Officer Pauline Dow said there are 63 campuses in AISD implementing a one-way or two-way dual language program.

Other AFR proposals included options to address underenrollment and overcrowding. One such option was possible reassignment of a group of more than 100 Blazier Pre-K students to Uphaus Early Childhood Center in 2015-16. The board also discussed proposed changes to diversity choice and transfer policies, a topic trustees have considered in the past.