Nature Abhors a Vacuum

MNA Schools Committee Letter to AISD Regarding ‘School Changes’

Dusty Harshman Front Porch Flyer

The following letter was sent to Austin ISD Board of Trustees and AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz on October 7, 2019.

Austin ISD Board of Trustees and Superintendent Cruz,

Thank you for your leadership of the Austin Independent School District. We members of the Mueller Neighborhood Association Schools and Education Committee reach out to you today to share our thoughts and concerns about the proposed School Changes scenarios and their impact on Northeast Austin. 

Studying the proposed AISD School Changes in Northeast Austin, we looked for potential. We believed there would be a balance of shared benefits and shared sacrifices in an effort to achieve an equitable “right-sizing” of Austin ISD. We see the shared benefits. Lengthening the learning and enrichment day from 6:00 am-6:30 pm, sharpening the AISD’s culturally-responsive and multicultural tools, and approaching a more equitable funding formula for campuses all show potential for district progress.

That said, after reading the entirety of the School Changes proposals, it is difficult to see how the sacrifices are shared fairly. We were concerned to learn that Austin ISD proposed to close four of the nearest six elementary schools to the Mueller neighborhood. Worse yet, all four elementary schools, Pecan Springs, Sims, Maplewood, and Ridgetop, share a school boundary. If all four schools were approved for closure, their absence would create a vacuum, or as some have said an elementary school desert, as shown in the image below. 

The left map image shows student movement from proposed closures and the right map image reveals the resulting elementary school vacuum.

We are concerned that non-AISD options, primarily charter schools, will emerge to educate the children that AISD abandons in Northeast Austin. We don’t believe AISD can abandon that much geography and expect to retain the hearts and minds of families in Northeast Austin. 

As an analogue from the recent past, we can look at the AISD middle school landscape in Northeast Austin. We fear that these proposed school closures would be as destabilizing to AISD in Northeast Austin as the conversion of Pearce and Garcia middle schools to single-gender academies in 2014. Prior to their conversion, Garcia and Pearce educated approximately 1000 students combined (2013-2014 school year). Unfortunately, after the conversion, enrollment between the two schools dropped to 779 for the 2017-2018 school year. 

Meanwhile, charter middle schools added significant enrollment. One of six charter middle schools in the northeast, Austin Achieve, opened a co-ed middle school halfway between Garcia YMLA and Sadler-Means YWLA and grew its enrollment from 278 to 809 in the same timeframe. 

This is considered by many to be the slow ceding of East Austin AISD schoolchildren to non-AISD schools. Is that the district’s intention? If not, then repeating another destabilizing facility decision would seem a strategic mistake.

While an AISD elementary school had been proposed for the school site at Mueller from the earliest days of the massive public/private redevelopment of Austin’s former airport, that school did not manifest over several AISD bond cycles. Meanwhile, Mueller schoolchildren left the neighborhood and happily attended nearby Maplewood, Ridgetop, and Blanton elementary schools. While the Facility Master Plan suggested that a regional middle school at Mueller would better serve Northeast Austin, that requires that our nearby elementary schools remain relatively nearby. In all four closure scenarios, students and parents would be asked to travel farther from the Mueller neighborhood, making Mueller an epicenter of AISD school closures. 

While we feel it is urgent to inform you of the impending elementary school vacuum further destabilizing the AISD school landscape in Northeast Austin, we also have other reservations about School Changes.  Chief among them is the speed with which these proposals are being vetted while the community often feels left behind without clear answers to important questions. We are also witnessing many strategic academic proposals suggested and folded into what is ostensibly a facilities plan. Perhaps the district could take the proper approach and slow the process for facility recommendations, incorporating them and other academic proposals into a more holistic process like the development of AISD’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan. 

Thank you for reading and addressing our concerns. We believe AISD schools in Northeast Austin are a source of community pride, and we stand ready to support equitable policies for AISD students and the schools that educate them. 

Wishing you calm in the days and months ahead,

Members of the Mueller Neighborhood Association Schools and Education Committee