The conversation got heated at times Monday as the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees discussed a new report that recommends ending magnet programs, closing schools and redrawing boundaries as ways to cut spending and increase revenue.
The report comes from a task force made up of 30 AISD staff and community members established to study the district’s budget. The district faces a deficit as enrollment continues to decline. AISD also pays more than half its property taxes back to the state in recapture – more than any other district in the state. To pay for daily operations, it's currently using its reserves, which are set to run out in three years.
The report suggests closing and consolidating schools, though it does not name specific ones. It also lists conditions the district should follow when considering closures.
Robert Thomas, one of the task force’s chairs, told trustees they can choose to ignore his group’s report, as previous boards have done. But, he said, radical change is needed to stay afloat financially and bring equity to all schools in the district.
“You are talking about using money in the same way we’ve used for 50 years and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “So the reality is if we are going to re-envision the delivery of education in this city to make this promise that you all took an oath to uphold, then you’re going to have to look at these kind of tough issues.”
Eighty percent of the task force agreed that if closings and consolidations happen, all schools in the district should be considered, not just those in East Austin that are currently under-enrolled. It also said consolidations should occur while attendance zones are redrawn, so schools are more culturally and socioeconomically diverse. Redrawing boundaries could help under-enrolled schools by pulling in students from other parts of the district.
Trustee Yasmin Wagner said the board needs to be careful about redrawing attendance zones, noting that many of the district’s under-enrolled and overcrowded schools are not near one another.
“Once we start talking about moving back to a system of busing where we are moving kids 10 to 15 miles across town to alleviate those issues,” she said, “that’s when we’re going to start losing families again.”
The report also suggests eliminating the district's three magnet programs at Fulmore and Kealing middle schools and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA). Rather than spend a lot of money busing students all over the city to attend these schools, the task force recommends all schools have competitive programs and opportunities.
Trustee Cindy Anderson said the report was an “aggressive attack” on magnet programs and that the programs are draws for many families to stay in AISD. She said she took offense to language in the report that said allocating money to magnets takes away resources from lower-income students.
“I felt that really does a disservice to the kids and the teachers and the principals that do work very hard in those programs,” she said.
Thomas said the task force made the recommendation to cut magnets based on numbers: Approximately 3,000 of the 82,000 students in the district are in these programs.
The report says magnets add to segregation in the district because they don’t integrate into the schools where they're hosted. Having competitive programs at all schools could entice parents to keep their kids in neighborhood schools.
Wagner agreed with both Anderson and Thomas, saying the magnets are a big selling point for the district, but they could be more inclusive.
Financially this could be a wash: Improving academic programs across the board could cost the same as busing students to the three schools. But Thomas said it would make the district more equitable and that the task force was concerned with equity as well as ways to save money.
Trustee Ann Teich said she was concerned about tension over the report, but said that was an indicator of the tough work the board will be doing on the budget.
“This is a reflection of what happens when communities receive information that might possibly disturb their perfect world,” she said. She said the board will have to continue these conversations respectfully and “take the political heat for when we make some decisions that are in the best interests of our kids and staff.”
Here are some of the other recommendations the task force laid out in its report:
- Increase fees to rent AISD facility space
- Eliminate property tax exemptions for historic properties
- Increase paid child care programs at AISD schools
- Eliminate runoff elections in school board races
- Adjust school start times to reduce the number of transportation staff needed
- Eliminate sixth grade at elementary schools
- Implement programs to reduce staff turnover and save money on training
- Reassign some central office staff to school buildings
AISD issued its own budget recommendations last month.