The Austin School Board is continuing to discuss a plan for the future of the district’s school buildings. At first, that plan included school closures, but the latest version, offered last night by a district committee, doesn’t close any schools.
Instead, it puts those campuses on something called a “target utilization plan," a fancy way to buy these schools time to boost enrollment before the district considers closing them.
The approach is the response to outcry from parents and communities at schools slated for possible closure. Last year, the Facility and Bond Plan Advisory Committee (FABPAC) recommended at least 10 schools for closure. Over the past few months, some schools were removed from the list.
Last night, the board discussed a version of the plan that doesn’t specify any schools for closure, but five schools could be consolidated, if they can’t boost enrollment: Brooke, Dawson, Joslin, Norman and Sanchez elementary schools. Committee members have expressed that the Facility Master Plan is not a plan to close schools, but many teachers and parents with children at those schools don’t see it that way.
“Without a clear definition of this plan’s parameters and, most importantly, a sincere promise from the district to provide support and resources to help increase enrollment, this is a stay of execution and nothing else," said Julie Barschow, a Joslin Elementary School parent.
The plan discussed Monday night would fix more immediate problems at other schools in the city.
For one, new elementary schools would be built to ease overcrowding in Southeast and Northwest Austin. It would also improve or completely replace some schools in poor condition, starting with the schools in most need of repair – 40 percent of the district's schools are in poor condition.
Many school board trustees expressed support for the plan, but some school board members wonder if it goes far enough to address under-enrollment. Trustee Yasmin Wagner says the board has to be more efficient as the budget gets increasingly tight.
“If we don’t, what we’re going to start losing is the valuable programs that reach our kids. We’re going to have to start cutting staff to meet our operational needs," Wagner told FABPAC members. Wagner also questioned if the plan adequately helps schools reverse under-enrollment.
Meanwhile, Trustee Ted Gordon said the plan doesn’t address larger issues, like the district’s segregated schools and the harsh truths that come with that reality. He called for a "fundamentally different" approach on the part of the district to avoid closure of some schools.
“One of the reasons schools are underutilized, at least in District 1, is because they have a lot of black kids in them," Gordon said. "And who wants to send their kids to a school that has black kids in them? So, now, what we’re going to do for those schools is we’re going to give them a chance to somehow rehabilitate themselves. This is something the black community is always asked to do."
But it’s unclear how the facilities committee, or the district, can solve these larger issues. The board must also consider other unanswered questions, like how the district will pay for this plan. Right now, it has a price tag of around $4.6 billion over 25 years.
The full board won’t make a final decision on the Facility Master Plan until next month. A public hearing on the plan is scheduled for April 3.