Austin ISD approves partner to lead facilities update, plans for 2022 taxpayer bond under question

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees approved hiring a consultant who will lead the long range facilities plan into the next several years of district updates.

The ultimate goal is to push toward a new taxpayer bond election in November 2022.

The DLR Group won the bid with a proposal estimated to cost the district $1.9 million. The firm will help manage data and progress the outlined framework intended to push the district forward in terms of facility improvements and growth in academics, athletics, safety and security, transportation, food services, technology and finances.

A draft of the proposed timeline ultimately leading to a bond election in November 2022. (Courtesy: Austin ISD)
A draft of the proposed timeline ultimately leading to a bond election in November 2022. (Courtesy: Austin ISD)

But there are still many people in Austin who feel the district still has work to do to rebuild trust before a bond election can take place.

KXAN Education Reporter Alex Caprariello met with teachers, parents, community advocates, architects and former trustees to understand community concerns with plans for growing the district. Many said they are still hurt over the way the 2017 bond was rushed and the ultimate school closures and consolidations in 2019.

“The school district needs to understand how much mistrust there is and how much they need to rebuild that trust,” said Cuitlahuac Guerra-Mojarro, a teacher, father and community advocate.

“My kids regularly attend a middle school that doesn’t have appropriate HVAC service. Was the [2017] bond supposed to fix that? Probably. Was the bond before that supposed to fix it? Probably,” said Emily Sawyer, a parent to five AISD kids.

“[Does the district] believe that our low-income minority community should trust AISD given the fact that, historically, there have been divestments on schools east of I-35? The majority of closures and consolidations have all been tied to Black and brown schools and, historically, if you look at the investments of past bond elections, there have always been more investments financially for the schools west of I-35,” said Paul Saldana, a former AISD trustee.

These community stakeholders want assurances from the district if it is to move forward with a long-term facilities plan and ultimately, a 2022 bond.

Some of the suggestions include ensuring a diverse set of community voices are present at the decision-making table and are being actively heard. Another was that the architects of the plan engage in thoughtful anti-racist equity training beforehand. Finally that the education specifications, referred to as “ed specs,” which are used to determine which facilities receive improvements, will be altered to ensure equity for all schools.

“If people want a vibrant, healthy city to live in, they need vibrant, healthy school systems. And that means focusing on the children who are going to be in these buildings, day in and day out, and making sure the facilities we have and the bonds we pass support that goal of educating all the children,” Guerra-Mojarro said.

The district is already promising many of these things.

Beth Wilson, executive director of Planning and Asset Management for AISD, said the DLR Group is highly qualified and has a dedicated equity subcontractor on the team. The new slogan for the updated long-term facilities plan is “equity by design,” promising the concerns of historically marginalized communities are being addressed.

“We were not adequately meeting the concerns of our constituents or our communities,” Wilson said of the district’s failures in 2017 and 2019. “We learned a lot from that engagement, and we would like to improve on that.”

Wilson said all members, staff and consultants will be required to undergo “equity and cultural proficiency and inclusiveness training” before any decisions are made. Wilson also shared the ed specs are currently under review. The district is currently collaborating with campus administrators to find out how that process can be improved. Wilson hopes to get the revamped ed specs in front of the board of trustees for approval by the fall.

“We learned some things along the way,” Wilson said of the 2017 bond. “We learned some things that worked for schools that we want to further advance, and we learned some things that didn’t work so well that we want to reconsider.”

Wilson hopes some of these steps will reassure the community and help rebuild that lost trust. The community members KXAN spoke to hope these goals are more than just promises.

“The district needs to make a recommitment, and they have to prove themselves that they are willing to commit to being active listeners, and active learners specifically listening to the communities that have been historically marginalized by AISD,” Saldana said.

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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