After voters approved a $1 billion bond to renovate Austin Independent School District facilities last month, the district is now deciding what to do with its under-enrolled campuses.
AISD says part of that calculus includes decisions of whether to "consolidate" or "unify" certain schools – a distinction that has confused both teachers and parents.
Last week, the district published timelines for school construction projects that suggested six schools in East Austin could possibly be “unified.”
Unification is not the same as consolidation – which combines two schools into one campus, with one absorbing the other, ideally – but it could lead there.
Right now, there are six under-enrolled schools in question: Norman, Sims, Metz, Sanchez, Zavala and Brooke elementary schools.
Under-enrolled schools present a challenge to a district that expects to send more than $400 million of its revenue back to the state this fiscal year. So paying for staff and utilities in a building that is only half-full of students is a problem that AISD wants to address.
Edmund Oropez, AISD’s chief officer for teaching and learning, says the district is approaching this problem in two ways.
"It's a two-step process,” he said. “One, we're going to focus on how [to] increase enrollment at those campuses that are under-enrolled. The second thing is continue the conversations as we move forward on what ... those [future] campuses look like."
Increasing enrollment is a challenge for schools in East Austin. As the city continues to see a shift in population and rising home costs, many families with school-aged kids are leaving these neighborhoods.
While these schools are trying to increase enrollment, the district is moving forward with district-wide renovations made possible by the $1 billion bond voters passed last month.
One of the projects outlined in that proposal envisions a $25 million renovation at either Norman or Sims elementary. To stay on track with the construction timeline, the district must decide which will get the renovation before February.
For the next two years, while one of the schools is renovated, students at both Norman and Sims will learn together in the building that’s not undergoing renovation. That’s the “unification” laid out in the district documents.
If enrollment at both schools increases during these two years, they’ll remain separate schools. If not, a planning committee – comprised of school, district and community members – will decide whether to close one and move all the students into the brand new building.
This is the same situation for Metz, Zavala and Sanchez. The schools will unify while a renovated elementary school is built, but could later consolidate.
"If the population cannot support multiple schools, we have to have those difficult conversations,” said Oropez. “Now, we're trying to – if that does happen – have a modern state-of-the-art facility that can serve multiple schools."
These projects were called the “Eastside Vertical Team Elementary Modernization Project” and the “LBJ Vertical Team Elementary Modernization Project” in the district’s documents prior to the bond election.
But, documents published after the bond election – which outline when various construction projects will begin – call them a "unification project.”
Brooke Elementary is in a different situation. Its enrollment is below 75 percent of what the building can hold, which is the lowest enrollment rate the district allows before intervening. Currently, the district has Brooke on a plan to increase enrollment to avoid consolidation or closure.
AISD hasn’t nailed down a specific date for the enrollment increase, but expects to do so soon.
But, at a meeting between parents, teachers and district officials at Brooke Elementary on Wednesday, many were under the impression the school could close mid-year this school year or next school year.
"There's been some conflicting stories, and I'm just going to own it and say that some of it is because we put the cart before the horse," said Sandra Creswell, AISD’s associate superintendent for elementary schools. "We wanted to look at all possibilities, but unfortunately the one that got the most attention was closing Brooke."
In a statement released Thursday, Superintendent Paul Cruz also took ownership over this miscommunication to AISD families.
"I realize the excitement and eagerness to get to work, coupled with aggressive project timelines, have created misunderstandings about the future of some of our schools and the process for parent and community engagement," Cruz wrote. "I accept responsibility, and I apologize for the confusion."
So, while closure is a possibility, it’s not a done deal, and district officials told community members that they want their input on ways to improve enrollment for the school to avoid closure.
Annette Vidaurri, who has two sons attending Brooke, used to live in the attendance area, but moved out after housing prices in the neighborhood became unaffordable. Still, she transferred her kids back to Brooke because of the opportunities she says it offers – programs like coding, robotics, karate and math pentathlon.
She suggested the district create a marketing plan for the school, showcasing some of those unique opportunities offered there.
This post has been updated with a statement from Superintendent Paul Cruz.