The Austin Independent School District formally approved a plan last night to spend $25 million to renovate Norman Elementary School. During that two-year renovation, students from Norman will relocate to Sims Elementary about a mile away.
The vote could also mean a consolidation of the two under-enrolled schools at the renovated campus if enrollment doesn’t improve in the next two years – an option some say wasn't clear in the run-up to the board's final decision.
The project was included in the Austin ISD bond voters passed in November, but the bond language didn’t explicitly include the names of the two schools, calling the potential consolidation a “modernization project in the LBJ vertical team.” Many in the community didn’t realize the consolidation of Norman and Sims was a possibility until after the bond passed.
Last night, the board had to decide which school would be modernized. The district convened a group of 16 people from the Sims and Norman communities to recommend which school should be renovated. The group narrowly decided Norman Elementary would be the best choice.
Some residents opposed this plan, preferring the district keep both schools open and modernize both. Casey Seeboth, a member of the Norman community, asked the board to keep both schools where they are and split the $25 million between them.
“That’s a lot of money and there’s no reason it can’t be used to improve both campuses,” Seeboth said.
Another criticism the public had around this decision was communication during the process.
“The community engagement by the Austin Independent School District and the administration at our school was zero, was minimal,” said Reedy Spigner, a member of the Norman Elementary community.
Before the board voted, Trustee Ted Gordon, who represents the district that houses both schools, expressed doubts around the plan. While he said he is in favor of modernizing schools, he wants to make sure the district is prioritizing academics along with new construction.
“So what I’d like to know is, if we vote to modernize a school tonight, whether that automatically condemns a school that’s not modernized,” Gordon said.
That’s not a question Superintendent Paul Cruz could answer last night, though he did commit to a more transparent communication process going forward. The board won’t decide the future of Sims Elementary until December 2019, when construction at Norman is complete.