Empty school costs taxpayers, angers parents

Reed Elementary

KXAN Investigates // AUSTIN (KXAN) – Leonard Reed Elementary, the newest Leander Independent School District elementary school, is nestled in a Cedar Park neighborhood, surrounded by hundreds of new homes.  The 24th elementary school to be built in the Leander ISD  was finished and supposed to open in the fall of 2011, but more than three years later giant locks are still chained to the front gates.

Students and teachers have yet to step foot in the $18 million building that parents helped design.

Omar Castaneda’s 6-year-old daughter should be a first grader this year at Reed Elementary.  “Yeah we chose this subdivision because the school was across the way,” said Castaneda.

The same thing attracted Brook Salomon and her husband to the neighborhood. They can see the campus from their house.

“A brand new school that we’re paying for, and the great education that comes with Leander ISD,” said Salomon.

Instead of a short walk to school, Brook drives her daughter to kindergarten 15 minutes away at Naumann Elementary. She has attended several school board meetings when Reed Elementary was on the agenda.

“They said they didn’t have the budget to open it.  They couldn’t staff it.  They couldn’t staff a principal.  They couldn’t put the chairs and tables and all the supplies they would need in so it was a bit disappointing for sure,” said Salomon.

During construction, the district said they took two unexpected hits.  There was a downturn in the economy that lead to fewer families moving in, and the Texas legislature enacted massive funding cuts.

“We definitely knew we had kids ready to go into it, we just couldn’t afford to pay the people that needed to work in it,” said Veronica Sopher, Leander ISD spokesperson.

By not opening Reed, Sopher said the district has saved $600,000 a year in personnel costs. She also said if the district were to build the same campus today the price tag would be much larger due to changing constructions costs.

But Larry Mathers, whose home backs up to the campus, wonders how much taxpayer money has been spent to keep the lights on, the grass watered and the building maintained.  Through numerous records requests, KXAN found the answer:  $17,2480.19 so far.

GOING IN-DEPTH:  Expense Breakout

Work orders and invoices show LISD has paid outside contractors and district employees to work on everything from air conditioning repairs, testing the fire alarm, and prepping the building for monthly school board meetings in the auditorium.

“Paying for something that we’re not yet using that’s always a concern,” said Castaneda.

Mathers wants to see the building paying off for students and taxpayers.

“They better open it next year or they will probably face some harsh consequences,” said Mathers. “If they raise taxes they definitely will.”

The district believes they have been good stewards of the taxpayer dollars.

“This building is evidence that we have done as much as we can to ensure the taxpayer dollars are being utilized effectively and efficiently,” said Sopher.

The district plans on opening the campus next school year with at least 500 students. The district is already planning to build two more schools – elementary school number 25 and a sixth high school.

Leander ISD school board president Pam Waggoner said lessons learned with Reed will definitely cause the district to make sure every future campus is absolutely necessary when construction begins.

Hutto ISD

Leander ISD isn’t the only district with a school sitting empty. In Hutto, Veterans Hill Elementary School has been vacant for the past two years. After one operational year, the district had to shut the doors due to budget cuts.

But the district has been making money off the building: they leased it to a community college.

In January, Hutto ISD considered reopening Veterans Hill in fall 2014. The District is currently experiencing overcrowding at its other elementary campuses.

You can read more about the decision to possibly reopen Veterans Hill through our partnership with Community Impact Newspapers. Residents in the Hutto area will get a copy of their CIN paper this week.

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