About 45 people gathered Thursday evening at Bailey Middle School to hear AISD District 7 Trustee Robert Schneider at an open forum he hosted to discuss issues facing South and Southwest Austin.
The Bullet Point Takeaways:
· There is a shortage of specialized, or magnet, programs (like LASA or STEM) south of the river
· There are 660 empty seats available at Crockett High School and it’s not projected to increase
· Bowie and Akins high schools are over capacity and enrollments are projected to increase (at Bowie more than at Akins)
· The district has the money to buy land for a new high school (or schools)
· The district has no money to build or operate a new school
· Under the best financial scenario (which we are not under), it would be several years before a new school could be built
· Boundary changes are not currently under consideration and likely will not be
· One way to reduce enrollment at overcrowded campuses is to attract some students who currently go there to another campus by offering a magnet program at that campus
The Whole Enchilada:
Trustee Schneider opened with an update on the budget issues facing AISD. The potential good news is that House Public Education Committee Chair Jimmie Don Aycock will file House Bill 1759, which if passed will add approximately 3 billion much needed dollars to the state’s public education budget. The bad news is that AISD continues to send millions of dollars - $175 million in 2015 – back to the state under the recapture law that sends money from ‘property rich’ districts to be redistributed to ‘property poor’ districts. Austin is the top contributor to recapture.
He then dove into the high school enrollment issue that is on so many people’s minds. Crockett and Travis high schools are under their enrollment capacities (by 660 and approx.. 400 seats, respectively) while Bowie and Akins are over capacity and Austin is basically at capacity. He moved the conversation into ways the district could create capacity without building a new school. Speaking highly of his own childrens’ experience at LASA, the district’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, he noted that there are 1,020 LASA students currently enrolled on the LBJ High School campus in Northeast Austin and that LASA turned away over 100 qualified students because of space constraints. Currently, 220 LASA students come from Bowie’s attendance zone and a total of one-third of LASA’s students travel from south Austin. Due to the difficulties caused by traffic and other logistics (a student from Bowie’s neighborhood would catch their bus to LASA at 5:45 am), there would likely be hundreds more students who would elect to leave their home campuses to attend a LASA program located closer to their homes.
Trustee Schneider relayed that the current Board of Trustees has made no substantial movement on purchasing land for a new high school. He states, “My two site proposal would have been approved by the board if it had been voted on before the board change.” This statement seems to fly in the face of the discussion at the March 9th trustee work session, when neither Board President Hinojosa nor the district’s legal counsel could recall the ‘two site’ proposal that Trustee Schneider repeatedly referred to.
Questions and Answers:
Q – We have heard that AISDs enrollment is shrinking – is this because kids are leaving to go to private school?
A – “There is a contingent on the school board interested in doing a marketing campaign that would showcase the good things at AISD. They even want to do exit interviews on students who leave. Bowie is really the last comprehensive public school the district has. Anderson has I.B., McCallum has fine arts. I have friends who want STEM, etc but they get a fair amount of pushback from the Bowie administration. It was an uphill battle to get a computer science class at Bowie this year but when course sheets came out the class wasn’t on there. There are a lot of competing interests at Bowie that don’t want things to change”.
Q – Does the district track the reasons kids don’t re-enroll in AISD?
A – (from a parent who serves on the district’s Parent Advisory Council) AISD recently did share a study that tracked this. Most students left AISD for charter schools, or to for school in other states or other public school districts. It was a lower number that left for private schools. It was noted, however, that these results could differ from one part of the district to another, and they currently are not tracked by area. Trustee Schneider added that more students leave the district after 5th grade than at any other point.
Q – I heard a rumor that LASA parents don’t want to have a LASA South.
A – Since LASA is more like a college atmosphere, there is a feeling that if you suck kids out, some classes will suffer. I believe strongly in LASA and I will support LASA, but they don’t have a franchise on it. LASA currently gets a .2 weight in funding that’s going to go away, along with transportation. That’s what parents should be more concerned with.
Q – Would the board survey middle schoolers to ask if they’d consider going to LASA if it were south vs. where it’s been located?
A – I haven’t heard this proposed but I think surveying the middle schoolers would be a good idea. I would love to see a pre-LASA middle school program of some kind.
Q – Help me understand how LASA South would help the overcrowding at Bowie> How many kids would it pull from Bowie?
A – Right now there are kids at Bowie who are interested in LASA, and they qualify to get in to LASA, but they don’t choose to go there because of the transportation issues. If these kids chose to attend LASA on a South Austin campus other than Bowie, such as Crockett, it would free up seats at Bowie. And a LASA South program could encourage other students who lived in that school’s attendance zone to stay at their home school instead of transferring to a school like Bowie. That would decrease Bowie’s numbers too.
Q – Is a boundary change a last resort?
A – Yes. The bloodletting that will happen with a boundary chance is going to prevent the district from going a lot of things. Politically, it’s not a good idea.
Q – Why doesn’t Crockett want to host a LASA South?
A – There’s school of thought that you don’t tell a community what’s going to happen to it. I’m sure if the idea had come from Crockett it would be received differently.
Q – Has the board been discussing the Texas Civil Rights Project?
A - There is a contingent on the board that believes that AISD needs to do a review of equity. That somehow our area is coming out ahead, even though per student spending at Bowie is one of the lowest in the district. It all boils down to the fact that there isn’t one standard accepted definition of “equity”. I am opposed to the Portland Model (which would mandate individual school PTAs to pool a percentage of the funds they raise for the use of the entire district), but the board is split on this issue.
Q – What is the status of the land purchase for the new high school that was authorized by the voters 7 years ago?
A – “I can tell you we are looking at more than 1 site. In Southeast Austin there are many choices and great prices. In Southwest Austin there are not as many choices and it’s a lot more expensive. If we don’t buy land in Southwest Austin now, we are telling Southwest Austin that we are never going to build a high school there.” In 4-5 years, Bowie will be 1,000 seats over capacity. Akins will be a little over, but the projections are flat for growth. There are conflicting interests. One of my fellow trustees has said she has met with the Bowie principal and has been told there is no need for change.
Q – What’s the earliest year we could open a new high school in South Austin assuming the land is purchased soon?
A – We would have to float a new bond. There would be a lot of things to manage. 2020 would be the earliest possible new school.
My Two Cents:
South Austin has been promised a new high school for so many years, that many people assume this is the best and only way to fix the overcrowding at Bowie and Akins. However, the reality of the district’s budget means a new school is NOT waiting right around the corner. Even after the land is purchased (IF it is purchased), the district would have to create a bond package for the construction to present to the voters (the last bond package took approx. a year to pull together), then IF the bond passes, there would still be several years of feasibility and engineering studies, and of course the actual construction.
It does not make sense to continue to hold out for the new high school as our only solution, especially given the political reality that the new campus may be placed in a part of South Austin that doesn’t create as much relief for Bowie. It is important that South Austin parents and community members pay attention to the other achievable solutions that can be implemented in time to make a difference. My recommendation is that parents attend at least one of the series of “Community Conversations” that AISD is going to hold throughout South Austin in April and May 2015 and register their support for placing a magnet program (such as LASA or STEM) at a campus that is not full (such as Crockett).
A former teacher, Theresa Bastian is passionate about public education. Together with her husband, Rodney, she now owns Keep Austin Weird Homes, a real estate brokerage that focuses on building business and personal relationships with honesty and integrity. Together, they are raising a blended family of 5 great kids and 1 dog that has her moments.