Austin Independent School District has been around since 1881, the 130 schools ranging from 136 years old to just a few years old. Even the oldest buildings have been minimally renovated since their original establishments, and AISD now has the chance to modernize all of the schools in need throughout the district. This opportunity is due to the Bond Package that has developed into researched and thought out agenda the past few years.
Early voting for the Austin Independent School District Bond Package will take place from October 23 through November 3, 2017, and Election day is November 7, 2017. If passed, the bond package will modernize and renovate campuses throughout the school district through a 25-30 year plan.
While doing the data collection project, AISD had community meetings in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese and asked for input from teachers, principals, and families to make sure that the whole Austin community could get involved in the conversation. There is information from the website and flyers in many different languages, and a completely Spanish-translated Bond information page.
“We know with 130 diverse communities, they need different forms of information coming to them where they are,” Christian Casarez Clarke, Chief Financial Officer for AISD, said.
Professionals spent ten weeks doing thorough investigations of each school. Reports from these investigations are available online, where students, parents, or community members can look at their specific schools and all things these professionals identified.
“We had architects, engineers, and structural professionals look at every single inch of every campus and reproduce these comprehensive reports,” Matias Segura, lead engineer of the project, said.
School pages on the AISD website detail the plans for modernization for each school, including Ann Richards. To clarify, renovation is a type of construction that occurs without tearing the skeleton of a building down. The goal of the bond is “modernization”, which can occur through renovation or demolition; both approaches will be included in the master plan. Sixteen schools in AISD will be completely modernized or rebuilt, including Ann Richards.
“The modernization of a space is truly changing how that space functions within the building envelope,” Segura said.
Because the school district has limited ways of raising funds, if the bond is not passed in November, AISD will have to continue with “band-aid” repairs: only fixing small things when they come up as emergencies. According to Segura, this is undesirable because in the long run, rebuilding is more cost effective.
“We’re trying to get away from band-aids,” Segura said. “In the past, it was spending money on things that were issues right then and there, […] issues that we had to address immediately. We wanted to look at an approach that was more holistic.”
AISD implemented a two-pronged approach to create comprehensive assessments in order to determine what should be fixed, and how, and when. First, they needed to understand the tangible things: plumbing, electrical systems, and roofing systems. Second, they commissioned an educational capability assessment and generated an educational capability score. This included the things that, according to Segura, really affect the way students learn: lighting in classrooms, spatial conduciveness to student learning, and proper amounts of technology.
“About a year and a half, almost two years ago, this very central process started,” Segura said. “It started with a vision from leadership: We have to develop a master plan and a long-term vision. […] The way students learn now, the way they function, is different from the way they did 30 years ago.”
The master plan for each school is a plan for improvement over a period of time, through programs, athletics, fine arts, and academics. All plans were approved during March 2017. Because the school district cannot pay up front for all necessary modernizations, they have prioritized the improvements on a campus-to-campus basis using a first- worst approach: the most urgent improvements will be made first.
“It’s kind of like managing a billion dollar credit card,” Chief Financial Officer Nicole Johnson said. “You don’t spend it all at once, you only spend it when you need it. I call it, ‘just in time financing.’ As we spend, we’re going to pay off debt, we’re going to spend and pay off debt, and then we’re going to refinance for better rates over the next five years; All of which will allow us to keep our tax rates the same.”
In this way, the bond package will not increase tax rates, which is what the board, by law, is authorized to approve. The board plans to layer in the debt over time.
“We are looking at strategies that incorporate sustainability,” Segura said. “How that is delivered on each campus is going to be different because each campus is going to be different. […] At the end of the end the day district needs to find the solution that works best for the campuses and the one that’s most cost-effective.”
According to Superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz, most voters want to know how the bond will affect them directly in their schools: parents want to make sure their students’ learning experience is benefiting from this.
“We want all kids to make sure that their program of study is rigorous,” Dr. Cruz said. “We want to make sure that students have a full range of experience in school. Fine arts have to be a part of the program, athletics has to be part of the design, understanding/learning different languages has to be part of the design. Our offerings have to be very diverse because our needs are very diverse among our entire community.”
Many schools, including Ann Richards, Bowie, and Austin High School need expansion for overcrowding. Just in Austin High this year, there was 160% overcrowding according to Superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz. Even athletic and fine arts modernizations to these schools will alleviate some overcrowding.
“It’s not tied directly to tables and chairs, but it does help the overall capacity of the facility,” Segura said.
The timeline for all modernizations in the master plan is not finalized, but things will be delivered over time. There will not be massive destruction and rebuilding, but gradual improvements.
“Part of this master planning is to say what you need to do first, second, third… because we still have to be able to graduate and go on to your wonderful college careers, lives, and experiences,” Dr. Cruz said. “We exist to educate students. We want you to graduate from high school, earn a little bit of college credit- that can be part of the deal-, but we want you to go have wonderful careers, and a wonderful life, and wonderful experiences and that you participated in things that will enrich those times, those opportunities.”