On Monday, an Austin school district task force will present trustees with a draft proposal on how the district could more efficiently use its facilities. And if recent history is any indication, the report probably will trigger an uphill battle as the district makes the case for school closures.
The community outcry was swift last month when the task force named several schools that could be closed for efficiency's sake. The proposal coming Monday won't name schools; instead, the report mentions general areas of town that have over- and underenrolled schools. The draft report doesn't call for closing campuses until 2012-13 .
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen had asked the group to find $3.1 million in savings for the coming school year, something task force members said was doable without shuttering schools. However, with the district facing up to a $113 million shortfall in 2011-12, about 16 percent of the estimated budget, Carstarphen has said up to three schools or facilities may need to consolidate or close.
The Austin district has never before proposed closing schools in bulk, a decision that other urban districts across the nation already have made.
Speaking at a recent task force working meeting , Janet Mitchell, the task force co-chair, told other members of the group: "Whether we like it or not, there's not an urban school district in the country that can support all neighborhood schools anymore."
The Seattle district saved millions of dollars after it closed 11 schools in the past five years, but it was a contentious process. Parents protested that they'd been left out of the decision-making; some alleged racial discrimination in the campus closings.
"The issue of closing a school is probably the most difficult and emotionally charged challenge that a school district may be forced to undertake," said Tom Redman , spokesman for Seattle schools.
School closures aren't new. Campuses are closed because of aging facilities that cost too much to repair and for declining enrollment as families leave urban areas for the suburbs and as neighborhoods age without an influx of families with young children. In a more recent trend, schools have been forced to close because of poor academic performance under school accountability laws.
Also, some districts are moving away from small neighborhood schools to larger campuses that can serve more children more efficiently.
The San Antonio school district shuttered or repurposed nine schools in 2008 and 2009 because of declining enrollment and budgetary reasons, despite an outcry from the community.
San Antonio district officials said they learned from their mistakes.
They gathered a group of about 35 residents that spent nearly two years to create a long-range restructuring plan that now calls for closing 13 schools in the next 10 years.
"It's a very emotional topic," said Leslie Price, spokeswoman for the San Antonio district. "There had been some closures that upset some people in the community, so this was a much longer process to make sure people had input in the process. It was worth that extra time."
Austin's task force started with 72 members, dropped to 63 within a month and fizzled to about 36. The group includes parents and community and business leaders, but about half the members are district administrators and staffers .
For years, state review committees, business leaders and outside consultants have criticized the Austin school district for wasting money on inefficient use of its facilities. After a 2009 efficiency study echoing the same problems and recommending shuttering some schools to save money, district officials hired the company DeJong-Richter to create and guide the task force.
Based on criteria that included educational enhancement, potential cost savings, creating stronger feeder patterns and ensuring equitable treatment to all parts of the city, the group last month named nine schools that could be closed for efficiency's sake.
Within hours, parents were organizing rallies, protests and petitions. Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell jumped into the fray to make the case for keeping campuses in the city's urban core open. District staffers later added four other campuses to the list, but task force members said they wouldn't consider the new options.
The current proposal — the group has backed away from actual recommendations but will provide trustees with a menu of options to choose from — now refers to areas of town where nine unnamed schools could be closed in 2012-13 and 2013-14 . Parents and teachers in schools previously named say they still feel like their campuses are targets.
Those opposed to closing schools have attacked various aspects of the task force's proposal: the population data used to calculate enrollment, the veracity of reports on the condition of campus buildings and the decision not to consider the academic performance of schools, among other things. About 1,500 attended forums on school closures held during the week of Jan. 10 . Most made passionate appeals; some cried.
The strain appears to have taken a toll on the task force at times.
At its first meeting after the forum, Chad Williams told other task force members they should consider starting over.
At one of its last meetings , task force member Kathie Tovo — who worked with another member to come up with an alternative proposal to closing schools — said she is still uncomfortable with the recommendations for closures.
"I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority, but I believe that there are ways to improve efficiencies without moving children," Tovo said.
The Rev. Freddie B. Dixon Jr. countered , "What we do need to do is tell the truth and be real and bite the bullet. There are decisions that need to be made."
Mitchell said the task force draft report will include all 96 options the group considered in an appendix as supporting documentation.
Monday's draft of the 10-year Facilities Master Plan, which will be finalized in March , also will recommend:
• Realigning grades at some campuses to alleviate overcrowding.
• Holding bond elections every four years.
• Selling district properties, including the headquarters.
• Expanding energy conservation programs.
• Redrawing school boundaries and making changes to the district's open-enrollment school transfer policy.
It's hard to find anyone who outright supports closing schools, but the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce hasn't taken a stand against them.
The chamber — a powerhouse of support when it comes to school board tax increase and bond elections — has pressured the district to balance its budget and fund strategic academic programs.
"The chamber's No. 1 objective is not keeping campuses open," said Drew Scheberle, vice president of education. "It's getting to a 90 percent graduation rate, a 77 percent college enrollment rate, a 70 percent college readiness rate and all kids on grade level in three years."