Poor planning and a hurried decision by Austin Independent School District Superintendent Paul Cruz has potentially saddled taxpayers with an additional $30 million in bond payments, records obtained by The Texas Monitor show.
District emails show that school officials had options of rehabbing Austin’s T.A. Brown Elementary, which Cruz shuttered in November 2016.
Those options for fixing Brown, which opened in 1957, were not explored until after the superintendent declared the building closed forever.
And now it’s too late for any fixes. Demolition of the building has already begun.
The trouble centered on cracks in a crawl space at Brown, indicating wear and tear had given way to a serious weakening of floors throughout the building.
In the days after the building was declared closed forever, a team of consultants hammered out possible fixes for the defects and came forward with possibly cheaper remedies at Brown.
Officials now say Brown Elementary was a neighborhood school rife with engineering problems. Decrepit flooring showed structural defects that endangered anyone in the school, they said.
On Nov. 4, Cruz announced that “we’re not going to use the facility again. That we do know.”
Cruz emphasized this in a recent letter to The Texas Monitor.
“When looking at Austin ISD’s decision to close T.A. Brown, it is important to note that the district was in the middle of assessing its buildings for the Facility Master Plan,” he wrote. “We knew ahead of the assessments that many of our older buildings, including T.A. Brown would need to be updated or rebuilt entirely and we had been urged by the Austin Chamber to do a full evaluation of all of our facilities.”
District consultant Anna Boenig, of P.E. Structural Consultants Inc., the firm that discovered the damage, said: “we don’t recommend this be repaired at all.”
A new school at a cost of $30 million is part of the district’s $1.05 billion bond measure that goes to a vote on Nov. 7, with early voting underway as of Oct. 23.
District emails obtained by The Texas Monitor show that options for fixing the deficits in the flooring at Brown were not explored until after Cruz declared the building closed forever. It was after the announcement that engineers came forward with potential, cheaper remedies at Brown.
On Nov. 6, Zack Pearce, director of project management at the district, emailed Boenig seeking “options for a solution to the TA Brown structural issues.”
A Nov. 7 email from Drew Johnson, a project engineer at AECOM, another consultancy for the district, indicated the school did not necessarily have to be permanently closed, as Cruz had insisted.
Johnson forwarded estimates to the district that put the repair of the school at around $6 million, although, he noted, those costs were based on a less severe but similar problem at Govale, another elementary school.
“This is great data, so I am reading correctly that AECOM’s estimate to fix the structural issue is $4.25 million and $1.8 million to abate the crawl space?” replied Pearce, who did not return a call for this story.
Their remedy counters the sentiments of Marc Brewster, another consultant for the district who at one point in the email trail asks “Curious what it will take to determine Brown is not a viable school in the long run.”
Brewster, who retired in July, said even before the possible fixes were discussed, officials were told that repairs at Brown would be difficult.
“All [Cruz] knew was that the CFO [Nicole Conley, the district’s chief financial officer] told him that the engineer said that it was not a safe environment for a repair,” Brewster said.
The episode lends some credence to the theory of district critics who claim the district prematurely shuttered the school. The district has been losing students annually since the 2013-2014 school year.
New schools attract new students, often better teachers and keep high ranking administration officials in their jobs. Superintendents are often criticized for failed bond measures, as was the case with his predecessor, Meria Carstarphen, who left months after half of 2013’s $892 million bond measure failed. Critics said the district did not prove all of the money was necessary.
“I think we have nearly a leadership crisis in the district,” the late school board member Robert Schneider said after the bond election.
While some hint at a political motive, others contend that, at $6 million for repairs, the school is better off being torn down.
“If it was going to repair for $6 million, it makes sense to tear it down and build new,” said Bruce Simpson, president of Austin Sales and Scaffold.
He was brought in shortly after the Nov. 3 closure announcement to see about possibly fixing the floor but after a single meeting, “apparently they felt it was too far gone.”
The Brown closure triggered doubt from former Austin City Councilman Don Zimmerman, a local gadfly and frequent critic of bond measures.
Zimmerman, who leads a group he calls the Travis County Taxpayers Union that has crusaded against public bond issuances in Round Rock ISD and Travis County, filed an open records request in June for numerous documents and communications related to the Brown closure.
Shortly before his request, district CFO Conley said that the district had sought a second opinion from other “structural engineers.”
Zimmerman asked for any report related to that opinion. “No additional written reports were generated,” the district said.
Brewster confirmed that further opinions were “not done until later…I requested two opinions on the building but that seemed redundant. The naysayers want to see a third and a fifth opinion, and the truth is, anything can be repaired. But the mistake the district has been making for 30 years is to keep repairing these old buildings.”
Brown, like the district, has lost students in the past five years. While the population in the district has grown 12 percent since 2013, enrollment in Austin ISD has dropped four percent.
The district today has four percent fewer teachers than in 2013 and six percent more campus and office administrators.
Cruz did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].