School District Boundary Changes Can Affect Home Values

by Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX on January 17, 2010 · 16 comments

The elementary school for a rental home I own looks like it’s going to be switched from Oak Hill Elementary to Patton Elementary. My rental home is located in Scenic Book West, shown in green/turquoise  just to the left of the words “Oak Hill” on the map below. Note that kids in this neighborhood, who previously attended Oak Hill Elementary will now be driven, literally, right past Oak Hill elementary further down the road to Patton. This is to provide relief to Oak Hill Elementary, which is well over capacity and still growing. But these kids will still track into Small Middle and Bowie High.

Austin ISD Boundary Map SW Austin

In this case, because Oak Hill and Patton elementary schools are both solid, reasonably well regarded elementary schools, I don’t expect a negative impact to the value of my home. Therefore, when I attended a public meeting recently at Clayton Elementary regarding the boundary changes for Southwest Austin elementary schools, I mainly wanted to listen to what other home owners and parents had to say about some of the other proposed changes. Also, at that time, my neighborhood wasn’t slated to be switched, though I knew it was a possibility being considered.

One of the proposed changes to the boundary map would have carved out a small section of Village at Western Oaks which currently attends Mills Elementary (shown in magenta above) and sent those kids across Mopac to Boone Elementary, and a different Middle to High school track. Mills parents turned out in force to oppose this ridiculously stupid and offensive boundary change, which would have not only sent the affected kids to poorer performing schools on the other side of a major freeway (as opposed to current walking distance to Mills), but forever separated them school-socially from neighborhood friends living just blocks away.

This, in turn, would have likely resulted in many of the parents of the relocated kids deciding to sell their homes and relocate back within their desired school track, which in turn would have created a sudden inventory spike in a small pocket of now less desirable homes, due to the newly imposed inferior school track. And, finally, Realtors like me and Sylvia would advise buyers against buying in this oddball pocket of the Village at Western Oaks because we fear it won’t hold value as well as the surrounding homes attending better school tracks.

Do schools and school tracks affect housing demand and values in this way? Of course they do. In a major way. And, as a Realtor team that pushes the value buying and owning homes that attend good schools (whether you have kids or not), Sylvia and I think it’s important that buyers understand just how unreliable and impermanent  some of the Austin ISD tracking maps can be. Why the shifting school boundary maps?

In the case of the current boundary redrawing effort, we have a situation where the SW corner of Austin has a cluster of well performing schools in the highly desirable neighborhoods of Circle C, Meridian, Village at Western Oaks, Legend Oaks, Granada and west Oak Hill. Those neighborhoods attend Mills, Clayton and Kiker elementary schools, all of which are over populated, and will remain so even after the opening of the new SW Austin elementary (in Meridian) in Fall 2010. Meanwhile, on the other side of Mopac, in aging neighborhoods of smaller homes, Boone elementary has fallen to 56% occupancy and  Sunset Valley to 64%. Neither of those schools are sought out by school-centric, ratings-obsessed buyers, and the demographics indicate continued loss of student population into the future.

So, with under capacity schools in areas of shrinking student populations, and over capacity schools in nearby areas of growing student population, AISD is looking to reassign students to fill the under-capacity schools and relieve the over-crowded ones. The real solution would be to close Sunset Valley and let Boone and Cowan elementary schools handle the needs of that geographic area. Of course, something as sensible as closing an aging, unneeded school is not politically possible, thus the need to steal kids from well performing areas and re-assign them to the schools that need more students.

Let’s take a look at the stated criteria used by the AISD Facility Use and Boundary Task Force.

1) ACHIEVE CAPACITY TARGETS THAT ENSURE EFFICIENT OPERATION OF FACILITIES.
2) AFFECT THE FEWEST STUDENTS POSSIBLE.
3) ATTEND TO THE ALIGNMENT OF FEEDER PATTERNS, AS REASONABLE, AND BALANCED AGAINST THE OTHER CRITERIA.
4) PREVENT MULTIPLE REASSIGNMENTS OF STUDENTS AMONG SCHOOLS BY DEVELOPING STABLE, LONG-TERM ASSIGNMENT PLANS.

Number 1, if fully written to reflect the truth, would be appended with “while not closing any schools”. It’s number 2 above that I want to expand upon though.

As bureaucracies are prone to do, AISD has created flawed criteria by not including or recognizing in #2 that “affect” can mean a lot of different things. Simply using a body count to rank whether this criteria is met, and of course going for the lowest number possible, is a faulty and unintelligent approach. This is because the criteria fails to address the level of impact or the intensity of the impact on affected students. This is how the task force ended up with a proposed gerrymandered map that would have moved relatively few students out of Mills and over to Boone, but with huge, egregious disruption to the lives of those particular families and kids.

In other words, using a 1 to 10 scale, the impact to these Mills families in the Village at Western Oaks would have been a 10. Being carved out of the rest of the neighborhood, and not only being taken from your walking-distance elementary school and being bussed across the freeway, but also switched into new (and lower rated) middle and high school tracks, would be a catastrophic change. Disruption like that should never be imposed on a family in a neighborhood known for it’s good schools. But the guidelines being followed by the task force made this shift in attendance mapping seem like a good, acceptable change because it abides criteria #2 and helps the bigger puzzle come into shape.

On the other hand, closing Sunset Valley Elementary would “impact” a lot more kids by sheer body count, but if the lesser magnitude of the impact was taken into account, perhaps this would be rightly viewed as a plausible option. Instead of a select few kids being removed from their school, the entire school would be moving to either Sunset Valley or Cowan. In other words, in some areas of life, it’s easier and less disruptive to move an entire herd than it is to cull out specific members of several different herds.

Thusly, if three under-enrolled school were merged into two full capacity schools, both east of Mopac and west of Westgate Blvd. 2 entire clusters of neighborhood kids would remain together on their walk or ride to school, and all the way up through their middle and high school tracks, which would not change. I would rate a change like this as a “level 2″ impact on a kid.

So, would it be better to impose an “Level 10″ disruption on a small population of kids, or a Level 2 disruption on a larger population? This doesn’t even take into considertation the cost savings of closing and either “re-purposing” or selling to a private school the left over campus.

So, when you seek out a home in a good school track, can you look at the map and discern whether or not your candidate home might be in future jeapordy of being remapped to a less desirable set of schools? Not really. I suppose if you live three blocks from a school, you could make stronger assumptions than if you live on the last block of the boundary zone.

As is the case in many aspects of a real estate purchase, it’s buyer beware, and there are no guarantees.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Miguel January 18, 2010 at 8:06 am

So it’s a “huge, egregious disruption” if relatively few kids (most of whom are dropped off and picked up by their parents) who live at homes with higher property values are forced to move schools, but it is low impact if you close the entire school of the poorer kids (most of whom actually do walk to school or use the bus)? That’s an interesting theory.

2 Tim January 18, 2010 at 10:43 am

I don’t envy their decision though. My kids track into Linder Elementary which is horribly overcrowded, but AISD is doing nothing to alleviate the overcrowding because they believe (and rightly so in my opinion) that due to the many lakeside condo projects and proximity to downtown the area within the next decade will shift to being more young urban couples than small families. It’s a difficult thing to sell, right now since they have a school at over 120% capacity. At the same time they’re going to have a hard time talking to voters if they approve a new school and within a decade have two schools that may need to be shut down.

But I think the biggest problems for AISD are:
1) The transfer system (how exactly do you plan for school locations if you have 50% of neighborhoods transferring to other schools)? It messes up the value of real estate since home prices in Austin don’t really reflect the schools. Everyone buys assuming they can transfer if there’s a problem.
2) Test scores. Especially in Elementary schools since test scores use averages they can easily paint a school as “bad”. Overcrowded schools actually look better on paper since they can have more children fail the tests without upsetting the averages. So South-West Austin schools are a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It doesn’t really matter if they’re “good” as long as they’re crowded. If you have a small inner ring school with 2 classes of 15 students. It takes only a couple extra kids failing to take a school into an unacceptable rating.

I’m curious what a realtor’s take is on the test scores. Is it better for you since it makes it easier to say which are “good” schools and which are “bad”, or is it harder since it knocks out entire sections of the city as “bad”?

3 Tony January 19, 2010 at 11:15 am

politically people think in terms of fairness. The best thing to do is to impact everyone. If you have 2 full schools and one at 50%, take 25% of the kids and teachers from each of the full schools and put them at the 50% poorly performing school.

That will load up the poorly performing school with a ton of good students and the best ranked teachers, keep kids with peers that they know, give room to grow in the hot areas and impact everyone in some way so it is perceived as more fair.

4 Bob January 19, 2010 at 11:34 am

You can surf greatschools.net for all sorts of information. Test scores are important, but as you note the variance in scores year to year can be fairly wide. You can also get the % economically disadvantaged – and while maybe politically incorrect its an interesting number. There are plenty of Austin neighborhoods where the homes look great, but if the local school pulls a bunch of 30+ year old decaying massive apartment complexes, the school may suffer. To that end, a school that is firmly middle class, but solely single family homes may be more desirable than a school that pulls half from high dollar custom homes and half from apartment communities.

5 Tim January 19, 2010 at 3:15 pm

greatschools.net seems like a good idea, but it’s really a pretty horrible site to make your decisions on. Averages are great at simplifying metrics into meaningless numbers. Just like the average sold price in Austin. Sure it’s an interesting number, but it has no relation to what the majority of buyers are spending on a house. But because people are looking at these meaning less metrics they do have meaning for the value of your house.

greatschools.net is always going to favor overcrowded suburban and inner city schools because they use averages. Even though pretty much all research on the subject shows that smaller class sizes are better for kids, when looking at these metrics the schools with smaller class sizes are going to look worse. An overcrowded school with 4 classes per grade can have nearly an entire class fail without negatively affecting their metrics. An undercrowded school with 2 classes per grade can only afford about 4 students.

We need Steve to start crunching the school data the way he crunches the real estate data… :D

6 Tim January 19, 2010 at 3:18 pm

To provide concrete examples, I should also point out that Linder in my neighborhood of South East Austin is a great example. To my knowledge they’ve never been academically unacceptable even though they’re almost 100% economically disadvantaged and are almost exclusively coming from those 30+ year old apartment complexes. The reason is that they’re at 120% capacity and so averages are working heavily in their favor (I’m sure they have some pretty dedicated teachers and administrators too).

Travis Heights elementary about 2 miles west has been academically unacceptable even though it has a much more diverse mix of students, but smaller classes.

7 shireen January 19, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Travis Heights Elementary is now rated “recognized” ! I have to point that out because I live in that zone and tried to sell my house in 08 when it had (for that single year) the unacceptable ranking and I think it was was one of many factors for why we didn’t get any offers. Around 10 5th graders failed science at THES in 2008 and that gave the whole school the dreaded ranking even though anglo kids there score just as high as anglo kids in Casis, Barton Hills, Mills, and Kiker!

Highly mobile students and low economic status are hell on test scores! Becker should probably be closed and the kids sent to Travis Heights (bigger, better building) and there is room but it will never happen! The new superintendent wants to close schools, I wish her luck!

Linder does have some great teachers, and the community, parents, faculty and staff at THES moved heaven and earth to shed the label of unacceptable. But if you go in and read the TEA data charts, you will find that thanks to the way that they handle dropouts, and other factors, the results from one year to the next do not correlate! (One year’s test measures oranges, the next apples, the next apples and oranges!) It is maddening!

8 Michael @ The Stage Coach January 20, 2010 at 2:10 pm

To speak to the principle of Steve’s article: we faced a similar middle school situation last year. We can see the middle school from our back yard – living close enough to it that RRISD says our neighborhood is walking distance. But they wanted to switch our neighborhood to a lower performing school. Dr. Chavez even admitted that it would help bring up scores at the other school. But don’t get me started on Gerrymandering School Districts to improve test scores…
As a result, we considered selling our home – the market range for our home was about $10k less than we paid for it back in 2002. We are not independently wealthy – we could not afford to send our kids to private school… So, would we flush $10k of equity down the toilet in order to get our kids into the best school track we could afford?
HECK YES! And I would peel out in the moving truck with the window down, flipping the bird to my former neighbors while doing it!
It’s a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things to ensure our children get the best education they can.
Sorry, Neighbors… Is it fair to my neighbors that I would sell for a loss? Nobody ever said life was fair – it’s no more or less fair than the foreclosure situation in our neighborhood.
Personally, I think local ISD’s make this problem for themselves. If Walgreen’s, CVS and Chase Bank can spend millions learning where growth is going to be, all the schools have to do is watch where they are building to get an indication of population expansion. The School Districts tend to have a reactionary approach, as in, we’ll wait until over population at the schools is so bad, the citizens won’t be able to say “No” to a Big Bond Package.

9 Tim January 20, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Yeah, but your neighbors will have the last laugh when your kid can’t get into a state school because of the top 10% rule.

The abandonment of our schools in pursuit of some mythical “excellent education” for our children only, would shock our grandparents and is anti-ethical to the American ideal.

We’re paying for it in any case. Every kid that drops out of school and becomes an unproductive member of society is a hit to our paycheck. Ever think there might be a correlation between Texas’ #49th in Education ranking and #3 in property taxes ranking?

10 Steve Crossland January 20, 2010 at 5:49 pm

I worry about “chasing the scores” also, but I have to admit I’ve done just that by choosing Westlake High School over Bowie, which is the district in which we live. For my daughter, it’s worked out very well, but of course I have no way of knowing that she wouldn’t have done just as well at Bowie. I think Bowie is a good school also.

But when we decided to go only through 8th grade with private school, and I visited Bowie, Dripping, Austin, and Westlake, I was simply blown way by what I saw at Westlake. Someone different may have come away with a different point of view, but my mind was made up when I walked out of the parent orientation. I called Sylvia and said “these people know what their doing, and they know how to get a kid ready to succeed in college”.

But I also worry that we worry too much. Many of our friends with kids worry too much about schooling also. We’re all neurotic, obsessed and overly concerned, probably.

But the buyers we work with are the same way. And, thus, school boundaries and ratings affect demand and value. I’m not sure it will ever not be that way. I’ll run some stats and post them in an upcoming blog, about the cost of housing in Austin if we only consider exemplary rated elementary schools. It’s not cheap.

Steve

11 Bob January 21, 2010 at 9:06 am

You know what makes a school like Westlake (or other great schools, like Westwood) great? Parents. Parents who worry too much about schooling and are all neurotic, obsessed and overly concerned. Parents who expect their kids will be prepared to go to college. The sheer number of parent volunteers at the top public schools is basically a continual auditing process. At mediocre and low performing schools the districts know they can hide their less engaging teachers behind cinder block walls, and parents won’t complain. Not so at the elite public schools.

Steve – that would be a great blog post. Somewhat on the same topic, as a NW Austin resident I wonder about those very nice AISD/Anderson attending homes well to the north of 360, west of 183, south of Oak Knoll. Do folks ever buy up there not realizing that the elementary school 4 blocks away is actually in an entirely different district (Davis is a great elementary school, but its across the highway)? How much value does having a “neighborhood” elementary and/or middle school add, versus being in the same vertical team of schools, but not being within walking distance?

12 Tim January 21, 2010 at 12:59 pm

>>You know what makes a school like Westlake (or other great schools, like Westwood) great?

A foundation that side-steps school funding regulations and allows a massive amount of money to be spent per student without having it captured by the robin hood system? I’m begin smart. I do think concerned parents matter. I just think that massive amounts of capital help also.

13 Michael @ The Stage Coach January 21, 2010 at 2:43 pm

@Tim: I’ve heard the 10% argument before – being a transplant to TX and a product of a lifetime of Private Catholic Education, it’s no loss to me if my kids can’t get into TX State schools. We encourage them to reach for the stars – to go where they want to go. And if they want to make it to UT-Austin, that’s great. If they want to make it to the Ivy league or a small private college, that’s great as well.
If we’re not to abandon our schools, as you put it, are we supposed to stand by and watch politicians play the shells and nut game with their education? Our oldest daughter’s (fourth grade) talented and gifted program was cut in half due to poor performance on the Pre-TAKS test given to fifth graders. Are we supposed to stand by and say, “Well, it’s for the better of the school as a whole that Fifth graders should get these resources?” That’s not American – that’s Communism.
Regarding the last statement you made: shifting boundaries to bring up averages is not helping those on the path you mention. In fact, after nearly five years in RRISD, I agree with Bob: the problem is the Parents, and/or lack of any real Parenting at home.
Every troubled kid in my kids’ class has a “story”. These kids need special attention, and they should get it. But my children’s education should not be watered down to help them.
But, we have a “One-Size Fits All” educational system. As long as the bar is set at Passing the Test (read: Mediocrity), my children will excel, because that’s not good enough for us, as Parents.

14 Steve Crossland January 26, 2010 at 7:07 pm

These kids need special attention, and they should get it. But my children’s education should not be watered down to help them.

And thus is the great debate of all society, not just kids and classrooms. It’s why some are against school vouchers, fearing it will drain the mediocre schools of the better kids, leaving only those who are “stuck”.

I still have a resentment against my Algebra II teacher in 11th grade, who encouraged me to drop Algebra and just take business math. And that’s what I did. I always wondered what might have happened if he had challenged me to do better instead, maybe offered to have me come in after school and work with me a little. I always felt like I was just one step behind, almost getting it, but still lost. And when offered the chance to give up, I did. It still bothers me today.

I guess he didn’t want me watering down the class. I can’t blame him. And I don’t want my kid’s in watered down classes geared toward the bottom third, or the slow pokes, either. But I think I also don’t want to leave kids behind who just need a small extra effort.

It’s a tough issue.

Steve

15 Rich March 17, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Steve, great blog post. I live in the SW Austin area.

I was curious -> from a value point of view, how much of a premium does having a school in your neighborhood within walking distance have on the value of your house (all other things being equal)?

For example, neither Travis Country, Travis Country West or Covered Bridge have elementary schools in their neighborhoods… And Muirfield, although a part of CC, you have to leave the neighborhood before you can get to Clayton and it is likely not “walking friendly”. But all have great value. If they had an ES in their neighborhood, what type of impact do you think that might have on their value? I assume it would be even more attractive even though they already are…

16 Steve Crossland March 22, 2010 at 8:31 am

Hi Rich,
> from a value point of view, how much of a premium does having a school in your neighborhood within walking distance have on the value of your house.

If the school is highly sought after, the proximity adds a lot of value. I just sold a listing pre-MLS, with multiple offers, 2 blocks from a private school. Both buyers had kids in the school and wanted to live walking distance.

If you look at the neighborhoods in Westlake, such as Woodhaven, which is walking distance to the elementary, middle and high school, those neighborhoods are populated primarily by school families willing to pay a premium for the smaller, older houses close to the schools.

Now, I wouldn’t want to be across the street from a school, or suffer traffic problems, but a house within 2 or 3 blocks of a desired school is always going to attract buyers with kids, and they are often willing to pay a premium.

Steve

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