Some parents say they're concerned the Austin school district's new student transfer policy might force them to leave the district — or Austin altogether. After this fall, the Austin Independent School District will discontinue its policy allowing students to automatically transfer to a school attended by one of their siblings. The reason? Overcrowded schools.
Amy Schafer and her family live one block out of the attendance zone for Gullett Elementary School in North Austin. When her oldest son was in kindergarten, they decided to ask for a transfer to Gullett.
“It was just the kind of environment we wanted our kids to go to school in,” Schafer said. “At our home school, the kids are bused in, they’re not from the neighborhood, and it was important to us that we have that kind of active and involved community.”
Shafer’s second son transferred to Gullett because his brother went to the school, but under the AISD’s new policy – which goes in effect in the 2017-18 school year – their 19-month-old sister won’t be able to automatically attend Gullett, if it continues to be overcrowded. Now, Schafer says she and her family are considering their options.
“We’re looking at moving to Cedar Park or Leander,” she said. “We’re looking at home schools, private schools, charter schools, and all options are on the table.”
Betty Sanchez has three children at Gullett, plus a two-year-old, but she’s worried about her oldest child. Under the old policy, if a student transferred into an elementary school, then he or she could automatically attend the middle school that elementary school fed into — for Sanchez, that would be Lamar Middle School. But starting in 2017, transfers won’t be allowed at overcrowded schools, and Sanchez said she can’t afford to move into the neighborhood to keep her son at his current school.
“We can’t afford the apartments nearby. The best we could do is a one-bedroom,” said Kim Mitchell, who transferred her children to Gullett from East Austin. “I watch this neighborhood like a hawk, and I keep waiting for a deal. And those deals are $400,000 for a tear-down, and $500,000 for a home that needs work. and I’m priced out of that.”
Mitchell worries that, with the new policy, her kids won’t be able to continue middle and high school with their current peers. The only thing that’s kept her family in Austin to this point, she said, is the good schools.
“But, if we’re forced to pull them out and not keep them with their peers, why not start over out in the country, where it is more affordable?” she asked.
Last year, the school board gave Superintendent Paul Cruz more autonomy to close a school to transfers if there isn’t enough space. Last month, he announced those changes at a school board meeting.
“Beginning with 2017-2018 school year, all priority transfers will be limited to schools that have space available,” he said during that meeting.
While Cruz did not lay out the specific policy changes at that meeting, some more details can now be found online. Families will still be able to appeal to the district for transfer requests, but there’s no longer a guarantee their child will be able to attend the same school as their siblings. Some school board members now say they’re concerned this may force more families out of AISD at a time when the district is trying to hold on to its students.
“The intent is to sort of grandfather that out so you wouldn’t have split families. Because that doesn’t work, right? That’s not just going to work for families,” said Austin School Board President Kendall Pace. “You’re going to have families that will actively seek to keep their families together.”
The grandfathering policy only lasts until next year. Pace said she found the change very concerning. Vice President Paul Saldaña said he’s willing to revisit the conversation.
“This may be a scenario in which there were unintended consequences, perhaps, that we were not as aware of as we should have been when we enacted that,” he said, adding that the district can’t ignore AISD’s reality. “You have schools that are under capacity, and you have schools that are overcrowded, and so where do you draw the line?”
The district has lost 3,000 students since 2012, and it’s projected to lose more than 6,000 students over the next 10 years.