- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
As Austin school district trustees weigh how to put together a November bond package that voters will find palatable, they have two recent failures on their minds: $572 million in school bonds that voters in the neighboring Round Rock district rejected just days ago and a 2013 election in which half of Austin’s $892 million bond package was shot down.
A district advisory committee is recommending projects that total $1.2 billion but has also recommended that the bond package not exceed $900 million.
“I wish I had infinite resources to address all of our important needs equally, but certainly I think this is where it becomes some of the strategic thinking of what are some of the most critical needs and priorities first,” Nicole Conley Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board Monday night. “Our current maintenance and conditions of our buildings would suggest that we really do need some sizable investments, if not this bond, then the subsequent bond cycles.”
Taking cues from criticism of the 2013 package, which opponents said was rushed and lacking transparency, trustees already delayed calling for a bond referendum, though some wanted to take one to voters last year. Instead, the advisory committee spent more than a year creating a facilities master plan to determine the district’s exact needs and discussing them with parents and community members. The failed propositions four years ago marked the first time in nearly 25 years that the electorate had said no to funding for Austin school projects.
“I’m shellshocked from 2013,” Trustee Amber Elenz said. “We were told the community could support $900 million. Well, they didn’t. Whether they could is a different story. Maybe if it’s in one bond prop, they will. After watching what happened in Round Rock, I think we ask our voters, it’s a one-proposition plan. They either support public schools or they don’t.”
The $1.2 billion presented Monday night is the combined cost of priority projects recommended for the next six years, culled from a list of billions in improvements needed over the next 25 years. The priority projects include constructing three schools to relieve overcrowding, moving LASA High School to a central location, and tearing down and rebuilding T.A. Brown Elementary, which was unexpectedly shuttered last year because of safety issues.
Trustees said they want to proceed with caution, making sure the district puts forward firm estimates on project costs and prioritizes the most urgent needs. They questioned inconsistencies in initial estimates discussed Monday, clarity for exactly what is included in specific projects and the wisdom of investing in aging campuses that are underenrolled and might someday be closed.
“Nine hundred million is a huge amount of money,” Gordon said. “It should be the maximum, and I would hope for something less. … I think we need to package a small enough bond with the absolutely essential stuff that we’re sure we can pass.”
In Round Rock school district election returns, Travis County voters opposed the bonds by a 2-1 ratio, another grim statistic.
Next six weeks critical
Politics watchers said neighboring districts are not necessarily a good comparison, and that the climate in Austin has changed since 2013. Former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen — who had strident critics in the community — is no longer here, and Austin has a positive outlook about the direction the city and district are headed, they said. Neither last weekend’s vote in Round Rock nor the passage of school bonds in Hays and San Marcos has much to do with Austin, they said.
“I don’t think Round Rock is a harbinger of a defeat in Austin, just like I don’t think the wins in Hays mean success,” said David Butts, a political consultant who might do campaign work on the bonds later this year. Butts said voter approval is less about the amount of the bond package and more about what is in it and whether voters feel there is investment in their parts of the district.
Political consultant Mark Littlefield, who already has done pro bono work on bond planning and whose wife serves on the advisory committee, said it’s premature to determine a dollar amount voters will accept. Winning over voters is a culmination of several things: the price tag, whether the projects make sense, impact on taxpayers and whether it was created in a transparent way, he said.
“I’m more interested in what happens in the next six weeks than what happened in the last four months,” Littlefield said, pointing to community engagement meetings that the district will begin next week. “The district cannot win a bond election in the next five weeks, but they certainly can lose one. (The advisory committee) has done a nice job working with staff and consultants, and listening to input from stakeholders, parents and the community, but now that promise has to be delivered through the trustees.”
Tax impact could be nil
Conley Johnson said she could layer in the debt over time in such a way that the tax rate would not increase, as long as the package doesn’t exceed $1 billion. However, financing all projects at once would add 10 cents to the tax rate in years beyond 2020.
“It really depends on the size and scope of the bond we advance,” Conley Johnson said. “I’ve done some initial analysis for just under $1 billion, and I think we can keep our tax rate the same, based upon on our current debt strategy.”
Don Zimmerman, the former Austin City Council member who opposed the school bond package in Round Rock, said Austin has a good chance to pass one, even at $1 billion, if there is no organized opposition. He said most feel pressured into supporting school bonds because those opposed are labeled as being anti-education.
Zimmerman, however, questioned the need for better facilities as a way to attract and retain students.
“If you want to improve education, you’d improve teaching environments and the teachers’ pay. It’s not about the buildings. Buildings don’t teach kids. You need to focus on students and teachers, not $1 billion worth of buildings.”
The district is months away from finalizing a bond package, its amount, the exact projects that will be included and whether it will move forward as multiple propositions or just one. Though one timeline suggests the committee could present its recommended package to the board in June, some trustees supported waiting until August or September to ensure that the process isn’t rushed.