APS Board turns down K-4 building realignment plan

Published 8:53 pm Monday, May 8, 2023

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In what turned out to be long — and oftentimes emotional — discussion, the Austin Public Schools Board on Monday night turned down a building realignment plan that would have seen Woodson Kindergarten Center students returned to elementary schools within the district.

The board voted 4-3 against the realignment that would have also seen the early childhood programming students, who are currently in elementary schools because of a bat infestation at the Community Learning Center last Austin, moved to the Woodson building. An affirmative vote would have put the plan in motion for the 2024-25 school year.

Board members Don Leathers, Peggy Young, Cece Kroc and Carol McAlister all voted against the measure while Evan Sorenson, Carolyn Dube and Chair Kathy Green voted for it.

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Monday night’s vote came after an around nine month study on the facilities within the district and how they might align with goals set out by the board and administration.

The result of that was that the district could take in the Woodson students as highlighted in the realignment and provide several advantages including better transition to the upper grades after kindergarten and access to many of the programs offered within those schools.

However, prior to the discussion, several people spoke during the delegation portion of the meeting, many from the school itself wearing T-shirts supporting leaving Woodson students where they were.

The overarching concern that was reflected by these presentations questioned how Woodson’s unique teaching environment might be affected by a move.

“I’m concerned the facility study provides only a number on paper,” said Andrea Larson, a teacher at Woodson. “Not the amount of space for children to grow and develop in.”

The core worry was that many of these specialized facilities within Woodson devoted to the development of these young learners, including outdoor classrooms and indoor play areas, might be lost in a shift to the elementary schools.

“I’m not sure these can be replicated in another space,” said long time teacher Chris Kasak.

However, Superintendent Dr. Joey Page maintained in his opening summary before board discussion that moving Woodson students to the elementary schools fell in line with the district’s mission and that it allowed for more access for all children, streamlined programming and more efficiency.

“It’s a necessary change that would benefit our district as a whole,” Page said.

One of those benefits would be a financial savings of an estimated $500,000 a year, which would have helped alleviate the budget adjustment process planned for the spring of 2024.

Several board members stressed during the discussion how difficult the decision was, including Dube who said that her family had a tremendous experience when their children went through the school.

But at the same time, she also shared a concern of making sure that the developmental education Woodson students have at the school transitioned with the students should the realignment be approved.

At the same time, an undercurrent theme to the discussion, which was highlighted by concerns in the public and on the board, was how seemingly quick the process was going.

Several voices at Monday night’s meeting urged for a slower approach.

“On paper, this is a no-brainer and it’s $500,000 that we can put into programming and other needs,” Kroc said, maintaining several times during the meeting that she could eventually agree to the realignment, but that she wanted to see more planning first. “The last couple days, I had to take a step back in. This is really difficult. We’re asking to change something that’s not broken. It’s not just not broken, it’s a place of excellence.”

Another of those voices that was concerned belonged to Kara and Michael Page, who have four children in the district — one in Woodson currently and another in preschool. During the delegations, Michael read a letter written by Kara urging a more community-driven approach to any future discussions.

“I was happy with what I heard,” said Kara who came to the meeting late. A substitute with the district, Kara said she was speaking Monday night as a parent. “It gives me hope. I think what I am against is making such a big decision without community feedback.”

“I know a lot of parents there so to dissolve it without kind of giving it the same kind of respect as we gave it when we created it … it kind of made me feel really disheartened and my voice as a parent didn’t matter.”

The question of facility availability has been a long-ranging one in the district. In the fall of 2019, the district asked voters to approve funding that would have gone toward an addition to the existing Woodson building and would have allowed early childhood programming students to be moved to Woodson.

However, that referendum failed.

It’s likely this subject will continue to be discussed as some board members who voted “no” we’re at least open to the idea of realignment somewhere down the line.

Especially, if the public were more involved in the process.

“I don’t know why we couldn’t have the parent’s input on this,” Leathers said. “I really believe we need to look deeper into this.”