AISD parent Heather Sendera, who has students in the vertical track from Oak Hill Elementary up through Austin High, shares her thoughts about the abundance of meetings the district is hosting, as Pete Price listens.
by Joanne Foote
Questions abound regarding Austin Independent School District’s (AISD) draft proposal of the Facilities Master Plan. At two separate meetings held at O.Henry Middle School on Tuesday, March 18, a small group of parents met with the Austin High Vertical Team to discuss the new draft plan, which is still in the fine-tuning stages. Bowie High School will hosted a similar meeting on April 2.
After the last attempt at a Facilities Master Plan in 2011, which left a bad taste in the mouths for many Austin families, it appears the district is seeking an abundance of community feedback this time around.
“The purpose of this meeting is two-fold: All the high school vertical teams in the district have been charged with informing the community about the draft of the Facilities Master Plan. The second part is to solicit feedback to take back to the FMP Committee,” explained Pete Price, Principal of O.Henry Middle School. Vertical teams consist of a high school and all of its feeder schools. Using Austin High School as an example, and working backwards, Clint Small and O.Henry Middle Schools, respectively, feed to Austin High, and nine elementary schools feed into the two respective middle schools. Price is part of the Austin high Vertical team.
“This is a daunting endeavor. I have been with the district for 15 years and for much of that time, as a district, we had seemingly no long-term planning in place,” said Price. Underscoring the FMP debacle in 2011, he added, “The committee was crystal clear that they don’t want anyone to panic, and no schools closures are on the table at this time. The FMP is about where we are now as a district and how we can plan better in the future. In AISD, the average building is 40-years-old. (O. Henry will be celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.) In addition, there are 128 schools in AISD, which include some that are either overcrowded or under-enrolled. The long-range plan hopes to address the district’s needs in a more logical and systematic way.
“However, AISD funding continues to be limited due to the state legislature’s school funding formula known as ‘Recapture,’ but which has been dubbed the ‘Robin Hood’ Plan. The ‘Recapture’ law is based on property-wealthy districts sending money to property-poor districts in the state. The problem peculiar to AISD is that Austin is considered property-wealthy even though, as a district, we are 60-percent low-income students. Until this formula is recalibrated by the state, AISD will continue to send a huge chunk of its funding to other parts of the state,” stated Price. According to the AISD website, for fiscal year 2014, AISD is projected to send $135.6 million to the state for distribution to property poor schools. Since 2002, AISD has paid the state more than $1.5 billion in recapture payments.
Amy Jones, a parent who has students in the district and is on the Austin High track, recently was part of the FMP Committee Work Group, which wrapped up their work last December. “The FMP is basically a roadmap for the district. What will be passed in June may not identify any specific school, but instead provide a road map for what the trigger criteria would be under certain circumstances, for example, overcrowding at a specific school. The plan would then provide steps for how to resolve problems that may arise around the district.”
What is a Facility Master Plan anyway? AISD provides this definition from their website: The Facility Master Plan outlines the current status and future use of district facilities, guides the development of future capital improvements and supports planning for future bond elections. It is a living document and will be reviewed through a recommended review cycle.
The AISD Board of Trustees has come up with a living document, which includes seven ‘Guiding Principals’ for the FMP, with expectations and strategies under each of the seven, which are:
• Health, Safety and Security
• Academics and Co-Curricular Supports
• Protection of Financial Investment
• Optimal Utilization (Overcrowding/Under-Enrollment)
• Equity in Facilities
• Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability
• Communication and Community Engagement
Like biology students in the lab, the group in attendance dissected and discussed each of the seven guiding principals and provided feedback to the FMP committee. Under Health, Safety and Security, which the district has listed as first and foremost the number one priority, the group’s biggest question is what is the districts’ measurable indicator for implementation and how will this work at older campuses? “I am wondering how much of this is idealistic versus reality,” said Cassie Wenmohs, parent of two students, one at Oak Hill Elementary and the other who attends Austin High School.
The second guiding principle is Academics and Co-Curricular Supports, where the group points to a key sentence under the first strategy listed on the page, ‘Construct new school facilities and renovate existing facilities to produce physical environments that support differentiated 21st Century instruction.’ Price finds this intriguing. “The 21st-century piece is interesting—it doesn’t just mean having a cell phone. I wonder how it is being defined? In many ways, we seem locked into a 50’s mode of teaching with 30 kids in a room, all desks facing the front, but the 21st century looks very different and we should reflect the real world. Maybe get rid of desks, have tables, get up and move around. There are so many innovative ways to educate our students now,” he said.
Optimal Utilization refers to achieving a target enrollment range at all schools of between 75%-115% of permanent capacity, beginning with the 2016-17 school year. This is something AISD has been struggling with for years. Parts of the district have grown at different rates and population has shifted, leaving some campuses far over capacity and others under-enrolled. In the FMP document it states that while campuses will be reviewed every two years, any affected campuses that could face potential changes as a result of the reviews should be given at least three years to implement a plan to bring enrollment within the target range.
Some of the group felt like three years is too long for schools that are bursting at the seams. “The whole thing about three years implementation doesn’t really work for all campuses. In under enrolled schools, that time frame would be fine, but in over-enrolled schools that should be handled differently—there becomes safety and security concerns when the school is functioning over capacity. Over-enrolled schools need relief now,” commented AISD parent Heather Sendera, who hopes the district will take a firmer stance on this issue. “I feel like there can be a better balance. I’d like to know how other comparable districts do. From my experience, some districts make their decisions in the spring and implement in the fall. What’s realistic on how to handle immediate problems? Should that be case-by-case, school-by-school or just deal with it? Who’s the decision maker on that and how are those decisions made?”
The sixth guiding principle, Equity in Facilities, stresses that each facility will provide students access to quality academic and specialized programming, including technology. The group noticed that the district addresses financial limitations, but wondered why this line was added so far into the document, feeling that it should have been listed much sooner to be more realistic. “The word ALL needs to be inserted here as in ‘All Students, and All facilities’ so that it is more specific and clear that this is for every student in the district,” said parent Barbara Legere, who has several kids in the pipeline following this vertical track.
In addition to physical structures, several parents felt like bus transportation should be added as well. “The current use of buses does not always seem equitable. Buses are provided for some magnet programs, such as the one at Kealing Middle School, but not for others that are more like a school within a school program, such as the recently added Fine Arts program at Lamar Middle School,” commented Amy Jones. “We have to have equitable programming, schools, transportation, etc. If schools were equitable, then transportation would become a non-issue. But if a student needs to transfer for a program, then transportation needs to be equitable,” Jones added.
Parent Tracy Remmert brings up the new graduation plans passed by the state in House Bill 5. “It’s a beautiful thing to agree to, but not clear how it will be achieved,” referring to all the specific graduation plans which will begin being implemented for high school in the fall of 2014. Not every school can provide every plan suggested by the state. It’s just not feasible.”
The final two guiding principles are Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability and Communication and Community Engagement. “Environmental Stewardship/Sustainability is a big one, especially when looking at so many old structures in the district,” said Price. “Our portable buildings are inefficient, but a necessary evil. How would this work at older campuses?” he added.
Regarding the district keeping open communication with the community, Sendera felt like the district is in overkill regarding the FMP. “Enough is enough. Everybody should be heard, but the opportunity of providing feedback needs to be balanced with actually taking action! I have been to eight of these meetings in the last few months,” she said. Others thought the lengthy process was likely a response to the previous botched attempt to complete an FMP, when the district hired an outside consultant to make recommendations, leaving the school community in an uproar when they were told their respective schools were going to close.
Bringing the district’s planning process into the 21st-Century and making a more logical roadmap includes community feedback. Regional community meetings have been set and School Board Trustees will be present to hear comments on these guidelines.
Comments can be shared with individual trustees and/or submitted to the entire Board by email
(firstname.lastname@example.org), or through the District’s website (www.austinisd.org). The board will consider feedback from all the meetings, and Board action on the proposed FMP is set for June 16, 2014. For a direct link to the FMP on AISD’s webiste: www.austinisd.org/fmp
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