Austin ISD school board members are divided over some funding priorities in 2022 bond
The Austin ISD school board is continuing to work out the details of what should be included in a potential 2022 bond package that could appear on the November ballot. At a board work session on Tuesday, trustees shared competing priorities as they tried to determine how to allocate limited resources.
Trustees are weighing recommendations from the Austin ISD administration, their constituents and the bond steering committee, which is a group of community members who put together the bond proposals. The committee developed the proposals using a method called "Equity by Design," which centers historically underserved students and communities. The committee came up with two packages: one for $1.75 billion that requires no tax rate increase and another for $2.25 billion that requires a $0.01 increase to the debt service tax rate, even though the district’s overall tax rate will drop.
The Austin ISD administration on Monday announced it was backing the $2.25 billion package, but with some changes. Interim Superintendent Anthony Mays said Tuesday the district’s recommendations largely align with what the steering committee put together.
“We are in agreement with nearly 90% of the BSC’s proposal, which has led us to the strongest proposal possible and one that we are very proud of,” he said.
Mays added the bond is historic for its investment in schools that serve higher percentages of economically disadvantaged students.
“In our entire history, this district has never had a bond package that does more for students and communities in Title 1 schools both in total dollars and as a percentage of the bond,” he said. “It is not perfect, it is not — so I’ll go on record and say that it is not perfect — but it is better than good.”
But several trustees raised concerns that some of the changes the administration is suggesting run afoul of the equity-focused process the steering committee used to develop its proposals. Two of those changes involve funding for projects at LBJ Early College High School and Northeast Early College High School, which primarily serve Black and Hispanic students. The steering committee's $2.25 billion proposal recommended spending more than $115 million to partially modernize each campus. But the administration wants to cut the funding for each modernization project to $60 million, freeing up more than $100 million for other schools.
Both of those high schools are in District 1, which is represented by Trustee LaTisha Anderson. She asked Austin ISD officials why they recommended cutting funding for those projects.
Matias Segura, Austin ISD's chief of operations, said he was trying to balance what the steering committee suggested with requests he got to fund more projects within the district.
“It was just trying to figure out what preserves the intent, what creates an improved space — a significantly improved space for that community — but also allows those dollars to be allocated to other things that we heard,” he said.
Trustee Anderson also pointed out that while the bond steering committee recommended nearly $13 million for critical infrastructure needs at Austin High School, the Austin ISD administration is proposing $40 million for a “phase 2 modernization” that includes plans to improve fine arts spaces. Nearly 54% of Austin High’s student population is white.
Anderson said the investment in Austin High “really chaps my hide.”
“I know I hear [about] a significant investment in District 1, but how long have we been waiting?” she said. “To see Austin High on there and to see a mention of a fine arts space when you can go to Northeast and you can go to LBJ and I guarantee their fine arts space doesn’t look like an Austin High.”
Barbara Spears Corbett, co-chair of the bond steering committee, also asked trustees not to reduce funding for projects at LBJ and Northeast high schools. She and other steering committee members presented counter proposals to the administration's that would keep the dollars for both campuses in tact, while agreeing to certain changes AISD wants to see. However, the steering committee says ideally the school board will approve the plan they developed without changes from the administration.
Trustee Ofelia Zapata, who represents District 2, also raised concerns that AISD's proposal dilutes the steering committee's original intent.
Segura responded to Trustee Zapata’s concerns.
“I believe with all my heart this is an incredibly equitable process and that everything was looked at through that lens,” he said. “But there are realities that there are operational considerations and there are just costs that we wanted to bring forward because they do impact our ability of managing the general operating budget.”
Segura also noted that some of the funding adjustments the administration is proposing benefit high opportunity schools, such as Crockett Early College High School. The steering committee had recommended $25 million to address critical infrastructure needs at the campus, but the administration wants to increase that to $65 million for a "phase 1 modernization." More than 72% of Crockett's student population is Hispanic.
Navarro Early College High School, where 88% of students are Hispanic, also stands to get about $19 million more under the administration's proposal. The campus is located in District 3, which Trustee Kevin Foster represents. Foster said while he's happy to see more money for Navarro, he was still concerned the AISD administration was cutting funds for projects at schools with predominantly Black and Hispanic student populations to benefit campuses with a majority of white students.
“But where does this money that’s cut out go?" he said. "It goes to Anderson that is majority white. It goes to Austin High, which is majority white. It goes to Bear Creek [Elementary School], which is majority white. It goes to McCallum [High], which is majority white. It goes to O. Henry [Middle School], which is majority white.”
Foster said the school board's effort to figure out which needs the district can and should meet with this bond illustrates "interest convergence," a theory developed by the late legal scholar and civil rights activist Derrick Bell.
"And what Derrick Bell would say is white people will only get behind something that's going to benefit Black and Brown folk if there's something in it for them," Foster said. "And that's okay because everybody just wants great stuff for their kids, so there's an okay aspect of it, but the problem is we're trying to undo over a century of deeply ingrained inequities."
So, Foster said he supports the steering committee’s proposal as is, not what the administration is suggesting.
“I am not and will not support a last-minute shift of over $100 million that — unless I’m wrong and somebody can tell me I’m wrong — is a direct shift from Black and Brown to white,” he said. “That’s not what I want to be about. I will not support it.”
District 7 Trustee and School Board Vice President Yasmin Wagner pushed back on criticism of the administration’s recommendations, saying perfect cannot become "the enemy of the good." Her district includes Bear Creek Elementary, which stands to get $14 million to increase capacity under the administration’s plan but no money under the steering committee’s proposal. She said even with the changes the district is suggesting, the bond proposal primarily meets the needs of historically underserved communities.
“We could have the absolute perfect equity bond, but there is a very real picture that we’re facing that it likely would not pass at the polls, and in that case nobody wins,” Wagner said.
She said it’s her responsibility to share what her community is asking for and what they need to support a bond program in November.
“I will defend all day long that the majority of the projects are not in West Austin. I will defend that all day long. But at the end of the day I would be remiss if I approved a bond package that I felt would not meet the minimum level of what voters are looking for in every single part of town.” she said. “And yes, that is the sad reality of systemic racism, but it is a reality.”
Wagner said even though she expects to be criticized for this stance, she wants to deliver more than $2 billion worth of investment and improvement to the district.
“I desperately want this bond to pass because I know how much this district needs it,” she said.
Stephanie Hawley, Austin ISD's equity officer, told KUT that Tuesday's board work session was significant because of how open the dialogue was.
“What you witnessed last night was pretty historic in terms of the open conversation about equity, in particular racial equity," she said.
Hawley said "equity is not a zero-sum game" and the district's goal is for every student to have what they need to be successful. Right now, though, she said, the system is designed to serve some students and not others. She pointed out that if the bond helps historically underserved communities, like East Austin, it benefits the entire district because then both achievement and enrollment can increase.
The school board is scheduled to vote on the bond Thursday night. The public will have the opportunity to provide feedback at the meeting. Individuals who want to give public testimony can sign up to speak in person or record comments by calling 512-414-0130. They must call between 7:45 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Thursday.