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After Funding Failure, What's Next for Austin School Facilities Plan?

Nathan Bernier, KUT News

The Austin School Board last night approved a set of principles to direct them as they begin to create a Facility Master Plan, a document that will guide the board’s decision making process as it deals with facilities across the city. The principles were approved with an emphasis on community engagement.

“We need to educate all our constituents about a topic that is quite complex. You’re dealing from safety to facility construction, to financial to communications to academics," says School Board President Vincent Torres.

Torres says a lack of communication between taxpayers and the district was obvious in the May 2013 Bond election.Two of the four bond propositions failed—including the one that aimed at addressing overcrowding at some schools.

“If we are not explaining what we’re doing, why we’re doing and what we’re really doing, certainly all kind of misunderstandings can occur. That’s why one of the first steps we the board want to look at next is, 'how do we make sure community is brought along with us in the process?'" Torres says.

Other board members expressed similar concerns.

“My fear is … if we come up with something and take it to the community they say, 'That’s the dumbest thing we’ve ever seen,' [then] it’s all for naught," says trustee Rob Schneider.

According to the AISD website, the district has started to involved the community in the Facility Master Plan process. The first community-wide meeting is October 24.

Now that the guiding principles are in place, the next step is to begin crafting the actual Facility Master Plan. But there are some concerns the board won't have enough time to develop a solid plan, despite the fact that the board passed a resolution in April that said it would adopt a plan by June 30, 2014.

Trustee Amber Elenz said she’s heard concerns from constituents that the board is rushing the Facility Master Plan process.

“Our point should be to create the most effective instrument to help inform the best Facility Master Plan, not one that we just have to get done by a certain date," Elenz said.

The board voted to adjust some of the document's wording to say that the goal is the Facility Master Plan will be completed by June 30, 2014,  keeping June as the intended goal, but allowing some leeway.

Trustee Lori Moya supported the need for more time, but reminded the board it can’t forget the promises it has made to community groups and donors that it will create a plan by the end of the academic year.

"In times passed, even before I got on the board, there were feelings and opinions in the funding community and other places—and we’ve heard it very recently—that AISD doesn’t do what they say they’re going to do," Moya said.

“I think we need to be careful about what we do because we made a commitment last spring, we voted on it, there’s a resolution that’s what our agreement was and so I don’t particularly want us to continue to have reputation of not doing what we say we’re going to do, she said.

In April, the board voted to soften the deadline for a Facility Master Plan, causing the Austin Chamber of Commerce to pull its support for the 2013 bond propositions. The move forced the board to vote to return to its original deadline within the same meeting.

Drew Scheberle with the Austin Chamber of Commerce says the Chamber still supports the Board's "reaffirmation [Monday] night they will do what they promised they would do: adopt a Facility Master Plan by the end of June 2014 which improves the overall facilities utilization rate," he said in an email.

Still, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen says she appreciates the concern for more time.

“We’re still working through so much of what it means to unpack some really long standing institutional issues for the district," Carstarphen says, including issues like portable classrooms.

"We have 20,000 kids in portables, you’re not going to solve that in one school year."

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