WACO, Texas – Before a hit television show and its now-iconic silos put Waco on the tips of everyone’s tongues for reasons better than what the Central Texas town was previously known for, school leaders there were faced with a different kind of fixer-upper of sorts: a budgetary one.
In 2011, the state of Texas announced it was going to slash billions of dollars from schools and new Waco Independent School District superintendent Dr. Bonny Cain was faced with a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.
“Literally, I don’t think I had been here a week and they said ‘Oh, you are going to lose $3.4 million,’” Cain said. “I met with the staff and demographers and said, ‘What is the most logical thing (to do)?’”
Parents packed community meetings to listen to the sobering reality. The money was not there, some schools operated at half-capacity and something was going to have to give.
“You can’t afford to have a school with 200 kids in it,” she said. “There is a critical mass.”
After less than a year on the job, Cain recommended at the end of the 2012 school year that the board shutter nine schools and consolidate the students into other campuses across the district.
Fast-forward five years and 300 miles to the south, and the same dilemma is being faced by the South San Antonio Independent School District.
Facing declining enrollment numbers, a budget shortfall and stiff competition from other schools, South San voted in April to close three of its campuses.
In February, Superintendent Dr. Abelardo Saavedra said his district's classroom efficiency ratio was only 60 percent. The district has lost about 320 students in just the last two years. It was not just classroom seats that went unused; the district said it lost $1.9 million in state funding as a result of the the declining enrollment.
Cain said that, as best as she can tell, it sounds like South San waited as long as it could before closing campuses.
”The toughest animal to kill is a school mascot,” she said.
As at South San, many of the schools in Waco were multi-generational. Parents sent their kids to the schools they attended, the same ones their parents went to.
WISD hired a demographer who showed district administrators where students lived down to the block, and showed them areas where student growth was likely to stay the same, increase or decrease.
“You go with the proof,” Cain said. “There is a difference in ‘I think this is a good idea’ and laying it out factually.”
South San presented parents with the best-case scenario: Student populations would remain stable. At worse, by 2025, the district could lose another 1,500 students.
Like South San, WISD administrators and the school board reached out to the community.
Both districts held public meetings where parents, students and community members could weigh in. But in Waco, Cain also came with a message: “Here is the data as to why we have to do it. Help me find another way so I don’t have to do that.”
One of the people listening was former Waco ISD deputy superintendent Bonnie Lesley, who worked at WISD from 1986-91. The former administrator founded Texas Kids Can't Wait, and now spends her time advocating for Texas public schools.
“For one thing, the whole idea of mass closures of schools, in any district, is not something we should be doing,” Lesley said. “Those schools are institutions in families and in neighborhoods. To close them put(s) everything in chaos.”
Lesley arrived at the district during another time of consolidation at the high school level. Lesley said she focused on improving graduation rates among a shifting student demographic.
Changes on the way
Calling the situation “one ugly dog,” Cain said there was one thing she knew needed to be done: “to make this work (with) no surprises.”
But even with a lack of surprises, the emotional impact from the community was a tough one.
“If you’ve got bad news, put it out there. Give people time to get over it (the initial shock) and be mad," she said.
Instead of phasing in the changes, the school board voted to close all the schools in one fell swoop.
Cain also said she was determined not to look back and waste energy on what the district should have done before she got there.
“What happened in the past had no reflection on what needed to happen," she said. “I can’t deal with the school district that I want it to be. You deal with the school district you have, and where you are.”
However, Lesley said she felt that if some of the programs implemented during her time at WISD remained, the district might not have been in the position it found itself in.
What Lesley does not avoid saying is where she places the blame — 90 miles to the south in the state capitol.
“(It’s) through no fault of the school district, the best I can determine. It is the fault of the state Legislature who insists on making policy that is detrimental to a district's ability to govern itself and make decisions about children and the schools they go to,” she said, citing new regulations lawmakers have enacted in recent years.
Coming out of the storm
For all the changes, there was one thing that Cain said she didn’t expect: how long it would take for teachers to adjust to the changes.
“Teachers love their campuses. They love what they do and they want to want to be good teachers,” she said. “They know if they (had to) move, they (had to) move. And I think they were trying as hard as they could to be a part of the new campus. It took a lot longer than I thought.”
NEW HORIZONS: A promising future for shuttered school campuses
The closing of campuses saved the district nearly $500,000 per school per year, but the superintendent said the district still lost money that first year due to the cost of consolidation.
Money saved soon became money gained, however, when WISD sold old campuses, especially those along Interstate 35, for millions of dollars.
The Waco Tribune-Herald reported that the district sold three properties for more than $7 million and the site of a former middle school for nearly $500,000.
Two other campuses have since been turned into regional schools that attract students from across McLennan County.
Cain said the decision to close those campuses was the right one. “If you work with your community enough, they will accept it and work with you and make the best of it,” she said.
But she also has this caveat for any other district facing a similar decision: “If you do this, there is no looking back. Either you don’t do anything and you let your district go under, because you don’t want to make those tough decisions.” Or district leaders make the tough and unpopular decision, which has now happened at both Waco and South San Antonio ISDs.
While all the community support could not save South San's schools, the district said the meetings influenced the school board’s decision to establish repurposing committees for possible future use of the facilities.
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