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A South Austin Magnet School May Be Far Down the Road

Nathan Bernier/KUT

South Austin residents hoping Austin ISD will open a public magnet school in their neighborhood, similar to the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, may be waiting a while. This week’s school board meeting revealed just how far away the district is from making a decision. 

At Monday's school board work session, Austin ISD officials presented two options for a possible South Austin magnet school, which is a public school with a specialized curriculum that accepts students outside a normal school boundary.

The two options: build a new school that would cost around $134 million, but could serve around 2,000 students, or use an existing campus for approximately $16 million that would serve closer to 1,100 students. Plus, there were a bunch of academic program possibilities, like computer science or dual language.  

"We're not clear in our language, we're not clear in our understanding of what people are saying they really want. Is it just, they want to just say they're at a magnet?"

  But board members had more questions than answers for district officials, who wanted guidance on how to continue developing a proposal. 

Board Vice President Paul Saldaña wondered why the district wasn’t doing more to promote its current schools.

“Every time we have this conversation we’re doing nothing, absolutely nothing, to talk about about the efforts to educate the public about the rigorous academic programs that we already have at South Austin high schools," Saldaña said.

Trustee Amber Elenz said it’s unclear why people really want a magnet in South Austin.

“We’re not clear in our language, we're not clear in our understanding of what people are saying they really want," Elenz said. "Is it just, they want to just say they’re at a magnet?”

According to an informal survey of more than 850 parents in South Austin, most want a comprehensive high school that mirrors LASA's program, which is one of the top rated high schools in the country. But the survey did show support for other suggested magnets, as well, such as a computer science, biomedical science, health and sciences or civics and legal magnet program. 

Around a quarter of students at LASA, located in northeast Austin, come from Southwest Austin, where Yasmin Wagner is the trustee. Wagner said people in her district feel the school is too far away, but added that’s not enough reason to open a new school.

“I’m looking to you guys to come back to us and say this is what we heard what the community wanted so we’re going to move forward with it, but I want to hear from you this is how this fits a need.”

The conversation shifted a bit when Trustee Julie Cowan said she wanted to move the LASA magnet school to Central Austin, so it’s more accessible to students across the city, rather than opening a second school in South Austin.

“I see the need LASA fills, but I don’t want to dilute what we have," Cowan said. "We have a hard enough time, I think, at times finding really high quality teachers who can teach at those programs. So I’d rather keep it together. And I’ve heard from my constituents who do attend LASA and they feel threatened and I think it’s a real risk to separate it.”

Cowan questioned why moving LASA wasn’t presented as an option. But Trustee Gina Hinojosa said the board hasn’t done a good job communicating its intentions to district officials.

“It’s an understatement that board hasn’t spoken with one mind on this issue nor has it spoken with the same mind in repeated meetings," Hinojosa said. "So I can understand why I feel there is a little bit of skittishness in a proposal because I don’t know that the administration, my sense is, has confidence because I don’t know I have confidence where this board is.”

But Hinjosa says Austin ISD has chosen to offer magnets and those options need to be equitable for all students. According to the district's presentation, South Austin wouldn’t see a magnet school for at least three to five years. But that would require a vote from the school board. Most trustees said, at this point, they’re not comfortable making any decisions on the issue.

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