Build bigger, better LBJ high by keeping high-performing academy on its campus

At a press conference at Travis High School on May 13, 2016, AISD Superintendent, Paul Cruz reacts to the Texas Supreme Court ruling that the way Texas finances public schools is constitutional. The Austin area school districts were hoping to get more money from the state but they will not be getting more. LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

If history is any guide, the Austin school district’s Lyndon Baines Johnson High School might well be in for a rough future in attracting students if Austin school trustees strip its crown jewel – the nationally-ranked Liberal Arts and Science Academy – from its campus.

That is a distinct possibility, given the recommendations under consideration tonight by the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees regarding its facilities master plan.

Moving LASA is estimated to cost at least $90 million and as much as $122 million in capital costs, which the district would have to ask taxpayers to finance through bonds. That could become a racially-charged issue for trustees and the public, signaling that school officials are willing to invest in moving the elite, predominantly white academy from its host campus, the predominantly minority and lower-income LBJ.

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The reasoning behind moving LASA to a central location is well-intentioned, as the demand for seats in the academy far exceeds the supply and there is no similar advanced academy south of Lake Lady Bird. It’s unfortunate that trustees bypassed an opportunity to establish a second LASA at Crockett High School in South Austin.

It’s worth noting that the proposal to move LASA to a central location was forwarded by the district’s Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, a group charged with coming up with proposals to modernize and expand the district’s facilities to meet academic and growth needs as the district looks to offer instruction relevant for the 21st century.

But there are other, better solutions to address LASA’s growth issues without impairing LBJ, as the district did to then-Johnston High School, when it moved the Language Arts Academy from its campus in East Austin.

Johnston, now Eastside Memorial, never recovered from losing its high-performing magnet that helped integrate its campus and lift its reputation. In relocating Johnston’s liberal arts academy to LBJ in 2001 to join the district’s science academy, the district moved hundreds of students from Johnston, triggering a broader exodus of even students who weren’t enrolled in the liberal arts academy.

The high school has remained severely under-enrolled ever since, despite the millions of dollars the district has spent on raising its performance, reputation and enrollment.

Trustees should not make the same mistake with another, similar move that signals a divestment in another East Austin high school. A proposal by District 1 Austin School Trustee Edmund “Ted” Gordon would solve space limitations at LASA without gutting LBJ.

Gordon is proposing that the district construct facilities on LBJ’s campus that accommodate both LASA at its current 1,200 capacity and LBJ’s projected 1,000 capacity for student enrollment. Doing that would cost about the same, but send a positive message that the district is committed to diversity and inclusion.

We give Superintendent Paul Cruz and his team credit for pouring umpteen hours and resources into public meetings into developing the $4.6 billion plan. Chief financial officer Nicole Conley adds a high level of expertise in crunching numbers, forecasting and keeping focused on things that matter, such as how to stabilize the district’s enrollment and finances in changing times.

And we extend special thanks to the members of the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, volunteers who put aside their own priorities to do the tough and sometimes thankless work of crafting a way forward regarding school district facilities.

Having said that, the committee’s recommendations also require more vetting and analysis.

Consider that the recommendations could mean closing/consolidating five elementary schools – all which are low-income with enrollments that are predominantly Latino and African American. Those campuses are; Brooke, Dawson, Joslin, Norman and Sanchez.

Schools could avoid closure if their enrollments rise so that at least 75 percent of their seats are filled.

But the plan seems to put the onus for filling seats on individual schools – and not on the superintendent, where it belongs. While it is right for the superintendent to work with campus administrators, teachers, parents and other stakeholders, the buck stops with the superintendent if a campus is failing or under-enrolled. As the CEO, he or she is the fixer.

We will continue to weigh in on the facilities master plan after trustees take it up Monday night. At a time when school property taxes are through the roof, Cruz, his team and trustees need to present a plan that is equitable, inclusive, efficient and financially sound. The absence of any one of those elements could be enough to sink a future bond package. And trustees would be wise not to ignore the lessons of history.

*This editorial has been updated to correct the name of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy.