AISD Votes on School Closures

Sophie Chau, Staffer

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After they stood for the pledge of allegiance, parents at a board meeting stood for something else: their children’s schools. More specifically, whether or not those schools should be closed.

The Austin Independent School District (AISD) Board of Trustees voted 6-3 in a meeting on Nov. 18 to close down four elementary schools around the district: Norman-Sims, Metz, Pease, and Brooke Elementary.

Norman-Sims Elementary will be renovated and students from Pecan Springs Elementary will attend the newly modernized school. Metz Elementary will close and all of its students will go to Sanchez Elementary, where funds saved from the closure will go towards modernizing the school. Since Pease Elementary does not have an attendance area, students will have the option to transfer to Zavala Elementary, another school or return to their assigned schools. The Pease building, once closed for school, will be repurposed into an archive for AISD. Brooke Elementary will be closed down and students will attend either Govalle or Linder Elementary. Funds saved from that closure will be reinvested into improving upon academic programming and the buildings themselves.

AISD has said that their reasoning for closing these schools is mostly due to financial burdens. Having schools that are below capacity open wastes funds, according to Jacob Reach, the Chief of Staff for AISD.

“As a district, we really needed to find a way to be able to invest more into schools, and we are spending a lot of overhead keeping about 8,000 empty seats open in this district,” Reach said. “We recognize that one way we can free up money to invest in more schools and move more kids into modernized schools is to take some of those seats offline.”

According to a document released by AISD detailing the school changes scenarios, the closures of the four elementary schools will save the district about $4,597,000 for the general fund in the first year. Modernizing schools is one of the main reasons why the district feels it needs these funds.

“We want to make sure that students have those modern amenities that are keeping these schools comfortable, safe, dry, and warm, as we like to say,” Reach said. “A lot of these schools were built back in a time when students typically would sit in rows, facing the front of the room, and we don’t necessarily believe that that’s the layout of a school or of a classroom that’s going to work well for all students in all situations.”

In April, AISD appointed Dr. Stephanie Hawley as an equity officer to oversee the closures. Her appointment was controversial because many members of the community were concerned that it came too late and despite her appointment, there are still more schools being closed on the east side than the west side of Austin. Reach said this is because there are more empty seats on the east side of town, but some members of the community, like substitute teacher Jared Breckenridge, believe that it is still inequitable.

“They at first said that they were going to not selectively choose the East Austin schools, but we’ve predicted it, and what do you know?” Breckenridge said. “We’re right.”

Belynda Barkley-Montgomery, a parent at Covington Middle School in Akins, said that AISD should take its time with the school closures. According to Barkley-Montgomery, the nature of the closures warrant more investigation.

“I think that they need a little bit more time to actually get more information about the closures,” Barkley-Montgomery said. “They really need to dig deep and at least take a year to do a deep dive and talk to the communities and understand more.”

Pease Elementary is the oldest functioning elementary school in Texas. It was founded in 1876 and has students from around Austin due to the fact that it does not have an attendance area. Anyone living within AISD can attend Pease, regardless of the school they are districted for. Volma Overton Jr., son of civil rights activist Volma Overton Sr., was opposed to the closure of Pease.

“AISD has done some good, bad and ugly things,” Overton said. “This is something that’s very ugly, and unnecessary. Pease is a jewel, and AISD should be treasuring it. I’ve talked to several people here who are professional people that work downtown, and they love the fact that their kids go to this school, which is close to downtown, it has one hell of a history, and it has excellent teachers on there.”

One of Overton’s daughters attended Pease when she was young and Overton had to stand in line at 11 p.m. to get her into the school. For Overton, Pease has a long legacy that he believes should not be disrupted.

“They say they can’t afford it, but history and legacy is something that you just can’t wipe under the rug, and once you close Pease, it will lose the legacy that it has,” Overton said. “Even making it an archive, there’s a lot of money that has to be spent to do that, but shutting down a functioning elementary school, and killing that legacy for making an archive just doesn’t make sense. If they want to spend the money to do that, spend the money to let it be just what it is.”

During the meeting, there were multiple parents standing in the back holding signs protesting the closures. Despite community objections, however, the AISD Board of Trustees voted to close all four schools on November 18th in a 6-3 decision. Trustees Anderson, Singh and Teich voted against it. Before the board made their final decision, Sarah Thoorens, a parent at Pease, spoke out against the school closures.

“I don’t really have any faith in the administration, and hopefully, I’ll have faith in the trustees after tonight,” Thoorens said, “but I don’t know if I will.”