Arlington ISD targets productivity

02/22/2014 12:00 AM

02/21/2014 7:09 PM

Closely examine the $663.1 million bond package set to go before Arlington school district voters on May 10 and — once you get beyond the eye-popping dollar total — you’ll see behind it a refreshing principle that’s not yet trendy among school districts in Texas or across the nation.

In a word, that principle is a focus on the 64,000-student district’s productivity.

Although a huge share — $552 million — is earmarked for facilities, there are only two new schools, both elementary, planned to relieve pressures of student population growth.

Trustees and administrators determined there was no need for a new high school, typically a $90 million cost driver, and as Trustee John Hibbs put it, “We don’t have any $60 million (football) stadiums in there.”

On the list are carefully planned specialized facilities (a career and technical education campus and a fine arts center) aimed at drawing students from across the district and expanding their opportunities.

Some existing schools will be re-purposed for new uses, and multi-purpose activity centers added to each high school will allow current athletics space to be renovated for new classrooms.

There’s a theme to it all: enhancements throughout the district, building on and expanding programs to better utilize assets. That’s a pretty standard focus for improving productivity.

The Fort Worth school district is doing much the same thing in its $490 million bond program approved by voters in November. It’s a winning strategy for districts that, while still growing, don’t have to build schools feverishly to keep up.

Not adding new schools also means the districts won’t incur the operational costs of staffing them, a big break for taxpayers.

Educational productivity is getting a lot of attention lately from analysts and reformers.

It was the subject of a conference held earlier this month by the Bush Institute, part of the George W. Bush Library and Museum complex on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

How school districts use their facilities and other resources for maximum efficiency is only a part of the educational productivity picture. Eventually, it all ties back to student progress and their ability to succeed at college or the workplace.

But, bottom line, accountability for schools is more than test scores. There should also be an element of fiscal efficiency in delivering educational results.

Arlington ISD’s administrators and trustees deserve credit for taking a long-term view. They’ve worked for more than two years to develop a strategic plan with detailed goals.

Part of that was a facilities assessment developed by an engineering firm hired to examine every school and building, determining physical conditions and how well each asset can contribute to the district’s goals.

A 38-member committee of community members, educators and others used that assessment in a five-month series of meetings to define the bond plan, determining what more is needed to meet key goals.

Trustees unanimously approved the committee’s proposals at a Feb. 13 meeting.

While the size of the package is stunning, it is remarkable how tightly each element fits into the long-term plan. It’s nothing short of a makeover of Arlington ISD.

Voters have more than two months to educate themselves on the bond proposal.

Information is available on the district’s website ( www.aisd.net/bond/), where interested groups can also submit requests for speaker presentations on what’s being proposed.

There’s plenty to be studied. The big picture is well organized and impressive, worth the effort to take it all in.

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