The Austin Independent School District took a big step last night toward building a district-wide performing arts center. They agreed to buy a 4.5 acre, $4 million plot of land near the Dell Children’s Medical Center to construct the building. But that construction might not begin for several years.
The Austin ISD has been trying to build a performing arts center for decades. But over the past few months, board members have been forced to grapple with a financial crisis.
State cuts to public education have left the district with a projected shortfall of $94.4 million. More than a thousand positions have already been eliminated.
That's why Superintendent Meria Carstarphen wanted to make abundantly clear that the $4 million they were being asked to spend on a 4.5 acre tract could not be used to save teacher positions.
"This project will be funded entirely the 2008 bond funding that has already been approved by voters," Carstarphen reminded the board. "Bond proceeds can be used only for capital expenditures, not for salaries, utilities, or other operating expenses."
Voters approved $40 million in 2008 to be spent on a district-wide performing arts center. Trustee Rob Schneider endorsed it at the time, but last night, that changed.
"I'm not going to be supporting this motion," Schneider said from the dais. "To me, this is one of the most disappointing things I've seen come to this board. We talk about laying off 1,150 teachers. It's not the right time to go in and spend this kind of money to do this."
Schneider said he also didn’t like the location of the performing arts center. The city-owned land is located just south of E. 51 St. and just east of Mueller Blvd. in the Mueller development. (See the site on a map here.) That’s almost 17 miles from Bowie High School in Schneider district. Trustee Sam Guzman responded by saying no location is perfect.
"Unfortunately, it takes about 45 minutes to go just about anywhere in nowadays in Austin," Guzman said.
Other board members took turns voicing their support, saying delaying now would only increase the cost of the project. Trustee Tamala Barksdale said board members had been promising to deliver on a performing arts center for a long time.
"For a lot of kids the performing arts are real careers," she said. "This is a place for meeting those children and their needs.”
In the end, the school board voted 8 to 1 in favor of buying the $4 million plot of land. Board members said they do not want to break ground on the project until the district can afford to maintain the performing arts center. Those maintenance and operations costs like staffing and utilities, cannot come from bond money. Those costs are estimated at roughly $250,000 a year.