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Zilker Parents Plan Protest Against School Closures Starting At 11:30 Tomorrow Morning

Image by Nathan Bernier for KUT News

Parents who have children in Zilker Elementary will march from their school to a lot next to Austin's Pizza on South Lamar Boulevard tomorrow. They are trying to raise awareness about a draft proposal by an Austin school district task force that could see Zilker closed and the children bussed to other facilities.

The rally begins at Zilker Elementary at 11:30 Saturday. You can see a route of the march below. Parents, their children and supporters will be waving signs and handing out postcards to passing vehicles for people to write to state leaders like Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Zilker Elementary is one of fifteen schools identified for possible closure or repurposing by the AISD Facility Master Plan Task Force. The other schools that have been discussed are Allan, Barton Hills, Becker, Blackshear, Brooke, Dawson, Dobie, Govalle, Joslin, Oak Springs, Ortega, Pease, Pearce, and Sanchez.

The school district is quick to point out that it's unlikely all schools would be closed and repurposed. The task force will not make final recommendations to the board until March, and not until after it has received input on the proposal from parents. At public input sessions like this one at the Delco Center, parents have expressed outrage that their neighborhood schools could be shuttered.

The task force was created last spring with the goal of trying to find "efficiencies" in how AISD uses its buildings. Since then, the district has realized it's confronting a projected deficit of $113 million, largely to due to an anticipated $10 billion in state funding cuts. That has increased the likelihood, at least in the minds of concerned parents, that the district could opt to close small neighborhood schools, many of which are located in the center city.

Earlier this week, the Austin school board voted to eliminate 485 jobs, mostly teachers, to save $26.5 million in annual operating expenses. Even after those painful cuts, AISD would still need to close a projected $86.5 million budget hole to balance its 2011-12 budget.

Many political observers say it's unlikely the state will enact either the House or the Senate's proposed $10 billion cuts to public education. Both bills outline a spending plan that seeks to close a state budget gap of between $15 and $27 billion without raising taxes or dipping into the state's Rainy Day Fund, currently estimated to exceed $9 billion.

Austin ISD has been considering the idea of school closures for years as part of its long range vision to close a growing budget gap. The district had to cut $13.1 million from its operating budget this year, and $14.6 million the year before that.

That mirrors a pattern across the state, where school districts have been scaling back their budgets since education funding formula was restructured in 2006, according to Dax Gonzales with the Texas Association of School Boards.

Per-pupil funding levels have largely remained unchanged since 2006, but price inflation has squeezed school district budgets. 

"Primarily they look at staffing reductions first because staff usually makes up about 80 percent of a school district's operating budget," Gonzales told KUT News.

"A lot of people say you should look at administrative costs, but those usually range from two to three percent of a district's budget, so there's not a lot of room in there," he said.

Austin ISD is an unusual district in that it has relatively high property tax base, but about 60 percent of the student population is economically disadvantaged.

"AISD might need more bilingual education or teaching assistance for certain populations, where as Fort Worth [a comparable district in size] might not need that," he said.

Gonzales says one of the biggest concerns for TASB is that districts don't know how they'll be cut. As KUT explained in this post, different methods of defunding public education could punish districts like Austin even more severely.  A worst case scenario, for example, could see AISD with a budget gap of almost $182 million.  AISD school board president Mark Williams says that would create a "Doomsday scenario."

View Route of march by Zilker Elementary Parents in a larger map

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.