District Faces 'Hard Decisions' As It Plans for Future School Construction and Closures
The Austin Independent School District is starting to think about what its schools will look like, and where they’ll be located, two decades from now. On Wednesday, it released a set of possible options for its 120 campuses this week, including when and where to potentially renovate schools, build new ones and close others.
What the district released Wednesday isn’t set in stone.
Each plan needs to go through a long process that involves community input and approval from the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee (FABPAC), which recommends a Facility Master Plan to the Austin School Board. Then, the board needs to approve it and the plan’s sent to voters to approve bonds to pay for school construction. Students who are in kindergarten today will have graduated from high school before some of these plans are scheduled to occur.
“We need to consider these options as a first step," said Leticia Caballero, co-chair of FABPAC, speaking to the committee last night – the first chance members got to discuss the district's recommendations. "It’s an open process. I believe everybody on FABPAC understands the district is confronting some hard decisions. We’ve recently seen the T.A. Brown situation and what happens when a school district foregoes making difficult decisions in modernizing facilities on a regular basis.”
Caballero is referencing the recent emergency closure of Brown Elementary School due to structural problems. The district says it wants to avoid similar problems at other schools by planning ahead.
The goal is to modernize buildings by improving technology, creating learning spaces that are flexible and engaging for 21st-century students, and supporting other community needs through the buildings. That could include community centers, health clinics or affordable housing.
“This is an objective starting point based on their analysis and it’s our job to Austinize this initial survey," AISD CFO Nicole Conley told the committee. The district is being extremely mindful to include public opinion after an attempt to close schools in 2011 caused various communities to protest.
So, how does the district prepare for the future of its school buildings? The possibilities include closing eight elementary schools and two pre-K centers that are in poor condition and building new elementary schools in virtually every corner of the city. Possibilities also include building a new middle school and high school in Southeast Austin and moving the Liberal Arts and Science Academy.
During last night’s meeting, some committee members were already giving reasons why some of these plans wouldn’t work. Take the option to build an elementary school at Mueller and close Pecan Springs elementary.
“What happens in Mueller must be additive to the educational landscape," said FABPAC member Dusty Harshman. "It can’t have any appearance, even if it’s indirect, that it’s replacing an existing facility. We can’t have a consolidation into it. It’s not politically feasible. It will create generations of conflict.”
The committee will discuss plans for middle and high schools next week. They’ll continue to amend the plan and hear from the community over the next few months – before the board is scheduled to vote on an amended Facility Master Plan in March.