Facing a shortfall and declining enrollment, the Austin Independent School District is considering consolidating schools, among other options, to cut its deficit by as much as $55 million over the next few years.
A budget document sent to the Austin School Board shows the district is considering two possible options for consolidation. One would consolidate 12 under-enrolled campuses – most of them in East Austin – saving the district $12 million over the next three years.
At a news conference today, Superintendent Paul Cruz said the 12 schools have not yet been identified.
Cruz said the recommendations are focused on three priorities: that all AISD schools become “exemplary” schools, that all students are reading on grade level by third grade and that teachers are paid more.
“The focus is around student outcomes, student achievement. We want to make sure that we understand that it's a multiyear strategy,” he said. “[This] is a time where ... we will be having more dialogue and community conversation around the strategies we can take next year to realign budgets and resources, and to address the deficit we are facing in the school system.”
The district also suggests less drastic options to cut costs, like reducing its secondary staff, charging fees for students to attend magnet programs, increasing the student to teacher ratio and reducing spending at central office. The more than 90-item list of cost-saving measures is not final and is subject to change.
Nicole Conley Johnson, chief of business and operations for AISD, said the struggles facing the district show the formulas that determine current laws do not reflect realities.
“We’ve got more kids in poverty, yet we’re considered wealthy under school finance laws just because of the property wealth and not the students we serve,” she said. “Because the formulas haven’t kept pace, you see our teachers’ salaries below our peers. ... We are the face of why this doesn’t make sense.”
News of the draft was first reported by The Austin American-Statesman.
The recommendations were sent to the board the same week the Budget Stabilization Task Force had planned to send its own. This task force is a committee of educators and community members that was created to study the district's budget and make recommendations.
Ken Zarifis, president of the teachers union and a member of the task force, said he was surprised to see AISD come out with its own recommendations.
"The Budget Stabilization Task Force was established to create difficult, but well thought out ideas for budget improvements," he said via email. "To present this outrageous document to the board without talking to the hard working volunteers of the Task Force and before the release of its report, is simply disrespectful.
The district has seen six straight years of declining enrollment. That's on top of it's increasing payments to the state's so-called recapture program, which requires wealthier districts to pay property tax revenue back to the state to supplement low-income schools. Last year, Austin ISD paid a record $670 million in property tax revenue back to the state.
Read the full document below.
This post has been updated. Jerry Quijano contributed to this report.