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AISD May Consolidate Three East Austin Schools. The Community Still Has Questions

Metz, Sanchez and Zavala elementary students will be under one roof after and Austin School Board vote on which site can best accommodate the roughly 1,000 students.

The Austin Independent School District’s Board of Trustees will vote in a little over a week on how to consolidate three elementary schools in East Austin. Students at Metz, Zavala and Sanchez Elementary schools will combine into once school, which the district will completely renovate using money from the 2017 bond, but parents, staff and students are still unsure what lies ahead.

The plan to consolidate the three, under-enrolled schools was included in a bond that voters passed last fall, and it aims to cut down on district expenses on utility bills, salaries for staff and other expenses by providing a $25 million renovation for one school to house the roughly 1,000 students.

A committee of 28 school staff, community members, and parents from all three schools, as well as a few AISD staff members, met 11 times in the time after the bond passed last November to recommend which of the three schools would be the best candidate for renovation. This week, they voted for Sanchez and sent that recommendation to the board this week.

The board will vote on whether to move forward with this recommendation at its Sept. 24 meeting, but some in these school communities are frustrated with the process that led to this recommendation.

How Was The Recommendation For Sanchez Made?

When deciding which of the three schools to choose, the committee looked at many factors, including the age and conditions of each building, and how much money – and time – it would take to renovate each.

To renovate Zavala, it would cost almost double the $25 million budget and take much more time, so it was not seriously considered.

Jocelyn Connell, supervisor of community engagement for AISD, led all of the committee meetings, and said the group considered a lot of data.

"It looked at the viability of student population in the future, enrollment trends, transportation, accessibility," she said.

Enrollment and population in the neighborhoods also weighed heavily – not to mention these three schools are in a continually changing East Austin. Single-family home prices consistently rise every year, pushing out many of the middle- and low-income families that lived there for decades. That growth explains why the enrollment in the schools is dipping. There are fewer families with kids living in the school zones, and so, the committee looked at population projections to determine which would be the most appropriate to accommodate that projection.

Prior to its vote, the committee weighted each of the following categories by importance:

  • Space
  • Cost
  • Population and enrollment
  • Neighborhood
  • Transportation

The Community Still Has Questions

The vote was fairly close between Sanchez and Metz.

Rolando Estrada, a Metz parent who lives nearby, said in the almost year since the bond passed, he feels the communication to the public around the project hasn’t been good.

"They’re kind of trying to squeeze it through without really raising too many alarms on it," Estrada said. "I feel it’s kind of like a slap. Again, a little underhanded. Maybe that wasn’t the intent, but that’s the feeling I get."

In the last few weeks, Estrada and some teachers went around the neighborhood talking to residents and parents about the modernization project, collecting mor than 100 signatures on a petition against the Sanchez recommendation. Estrada says many who signed didn’t realize the consolidation was happening or said the process was moving this fast.

The petition lays out concerns around choosing Sanchez, since it is the farthest away from the area near Metz and Zavala, which are about seven blocks apart.

Petitioners say Metz is more centrally located between the three schools and would have a shorter walk time for students coming from other schools, and they argue a new school right next to I-35 could present both air quality and pedestrian safety issues.

Jose Luis Perales, a first-grade teacher at Sanchez and a selection committee member, said some on the members considered the proximity to I-35 an advantage that could boost enrollment and attracting families who work downtown.

"This is their way of fighting the charter schools and fighting the brand new shiny schools that are popping up everywhere and taking our students," Perales said. 

Eduardo Sanhueza, a P.E. teacher at Metz, said hearing all of these concerns from his colleagues and the community made it clear there was a serious lack of communication from both the school and district.

"The biggest bother was the flaw in the process and just some very clear questions that they have still that they have not answered," Sanhueza said. "That’s what we’re looking for, answers to these questions."

What The Community Can Expect Going Forward

Making the choice on which school to modernize is the first step, followed by staffing recommendations and meting out transportation needs over the next few months.

Connell says one of the three schools will receive the $25 million in modernization money and construction is slated to wrap up by August 2021.

The other two schools have until December of 2020 to try and increase enrollment, or the district will find a way to use their building in a way that generates revenue, like renting it out. If enrollment doesn’t increase or the space isn’t utilized in a new way, they will have to consolidate.

AISD is keeping an eye on city efforts to add more units to Chalmers Courts, a public housing complex within Zavala's school boundaries. If the increased units lead to more students, Zavala may be able to remain open.

The district needs to find a place to house students during construction. One of the schools not chosen will be the "swing space" in the interim. While that is happening AISD committed to providing transportation for families living more than two miles away from campus, or those with potentially hazardous walking routes. But the district says the majority of the students live within two miles of the campuses.

"Currently, and surprisingly Cesar Chavez is not considered a hazardous route," Connell said. "But in another two years with the increase of traffic in the area, we are estimating that it would probably be considered a hazardous route."

So if Cesar Chavez gets that distinction, students could get a bus to Sanchez. 

The district says the empty schools will likely be used for a pre-K facility or administration offices – or it could sell the properties.

That's something that concerns Carolyn Estrada, a second-grade teacher at Metz and wife to Rolando. She says her neighbors are concerned the property, if closed, would likely be sold to developers.

"One of them said, ‘Oh, if they sell the property, they’re probably going to put a bunch of townhomes there,’" Carolyn said.

Perales says he fears the history and community value of the buildings could fade away, if the schools close.

"I really want to think about the students at the end, and the East Side, and really hold on that community that is the East Side," he said. "Hopefully we can kind of keep a part of that no matter how our campus looks."

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.