The Austin School Board is considering a plan for the future of its facilities. It comes with a $4.6 billion price tag over the next 25 years. That's a lot of money for a district with a tight budget, and it raises questions about how quickly the proposal could be implemented if the state doesn't change its school finance system.
“I think it’s important to really recognize that it’s time for us to be proactive in our approach," trustee Yasmin Wagner said at Monday's school board meeting. "I feel like for so many years, we’ve been more reactive in responding to things when they break.”
Next year, Austin ISD is expecting to send more than half a billion dollars in local property taxes back to the state as part of the state’s school finance system. Under the system, known as Robin Hood, school districts with a lot of property tax wealth send money to the state to help districts with little property wealth.
Despite the tight budget, the district says it needs to modernize its schools and that 40 percent of its buildings need repairs.
But being proactive like Wagner suggested is expensive. The plan for the district’s buildings adds $37 million in maintenance and operation expenses, on top of $3 billion in already deferred maintenance.
“The less money we get for M&O, then the more we don't want money going into old buildings," School Board President Kendall Pace said. "We want to keep more money in the classroom, and so how do we do that?"
If the state doesn’t change the school finance system, AISD will have to figure out how to pay for those additional costs while sending hundreds of millions of dollars back to the state. That’s one reason the Facility Master Plan originally proposed Austin ISD close 10 schools. Most of the schools are small and under-enrolled. The current draft of the plan scaled back the possible closures after communities protested. Under the most recent plan, five campuses would be put on a “target utilization plan” to help boost enrollment.
But Wagner said the district should do more, now:
“We have an opportunity now to not just think about putting a school on a targeted utilization plan and thinking about what maybe might possibly happen," she said. "But we have an opportunity to be proactive, to be thinking about looking at schools that have a strong and clear trend of under-enrollment and consolidating them now. If we do a consolidation, that doesn’t mean that somebody's losing out; rather it means that we have the opportunity to address it with this bond coming up, put a consolidated, brand-new modern campus into that bond, that will serve kids well and serve them better than they’re being served now.”
Funding constraints mean the district needs bond money to implement this plan. That requires voter approval and that could be a tough sell. Most of an Austinite’s property tax bill goes to Austin ISD. Plus, some communities say they won’t support a bond if the plan puts their school on a path to closure. But if the bond fails, Pace said, the district will have to close schools. She said next year’s budget forecasts a $30 million deficit.
“At the same time, we’re having our facilities discussion and as finances change we may have to delay things. But we need to have the roadmap by which we’re going to operate even if it means we’re going to make changes to that road map," Pace said.
The school board is voting on the plan Monday. There will be a public hearing before the vote.