- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
Even staunch supporters of the Austin school district’s $1.1 billion bond were surprised when it passed with 72 percent of the vote on Nov. 7.
The single, all-or-nothing proposition was the largest ever approved by Austin residents, even as angst grows over ever-escalating property taxes.
Those who lobbied for it stuck to the basics, with a data-driven phone campaign to boost turnout, an ample supply of mailers and a group of volunteers that knocked on 30,000 doors. They think they got help from voters pushing back against anti-public school rhetoric at the state and national levels.
“It was the Trump effect,” said David Butts, the political consultant for the pro-bond PAC. “I don’t want to take way from the people who did all the grunt work … but I think it was indicative of the reaction to what they’re seeing around the country. We feel the turnout was boosted significantly because of that general attitude.”
The bond had widespread support among political and business leaders, and advocates contributed $358,000, four times the amount raised the last time the school district put a bond on the ballot, in 2013.
Opponents had difficulty gaining traction. Despite their criticisms that the bond short-changed East Austin, their calls for greater transparency on the bond’s tax impact, and questions regarding the need for new schools as the district’s enrollment continues to dwindle, they raised less than one-tenth as much as supporters.
After the failure of two of the four propositions in the 2013 bond, the stakes were higher this go-around. The pro-bond PAC planned longer and leveraged the fact that projects and repairs that didn’t get funding four years ago had led to worsening school conditions. If the bond doesn’t pass again, they told voters, there would be more schools like Brown Elementary, which was unexpectedly shuttered mid-year, then demolished, due to an unstable floor. And they emphasized that the bond would not raise the tax rate.
Still, they expected a closer race.
“Seventy-two (percent) was never in our realm of possibility,” said Mark Littlefield, a political consultant who worked on the pro-bond campaign as a volunteer and loaned it $8,000. “Everything from this bond on how it was created, messaged and sold was different from four years ago, and the voters responded differently as well.”
In a move that helped them win the support of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, school district leaders prepared for nearly two years, creating a facilities and bond planning committee that worked with consultants on a comprehensive overview of all district-owned buildings and schools. Months before the Austin school board had officially called for the election, the Committee for Austin’s Children PAC formed.
Without money for TV ads, supporters sent a barrage of mailers, targeting those who had a history of turning out during off-year elections and those likely to cast a vote in favor, and hammered the phone lines, calling some potential voters daily in the week prior to Election Day. The calls only stopped if votes were cast by all eligible voters in the home.
They also repeatedly sent text messages to voters, aged 18 to 35, especially if they had voted in at least one bond election before. They block-walked and knocked on over 30,000 doors. Parents and those who live near some of the major bond projects received a mailer every two days for nearly a month leading up to the election.
“Constant contact is necessary in a low turnout (election) like this,” Butts said.
Dozens of people who had worked on the facilities plan became cheerleaders for the bond. They took to Facebook and Twitter, lamenting deteriorating campuses and selling the perks that would go to the schools in their neighborhoods if it passed.
Twice as many people showed up at the polls as in May 2013, with 66,500 votes cast (though analysts say November elections typically have higher voter turnouts). Analysis of early voting showed more parents with students currently in school voted – a demographic typical difficult to get to the polls. Parents of students were 14 percent of those who filled out ballots during early voting, the consultants say. And voters under the age of 35 also turned out in record numbers, while fewer Republicans voted.
Ken Zarifis, president of labor group Education Austin, said the election returns show more trust in district leadership than four years ago.
The two-year facilities and bond planning process also exposed numerous building issues “that created an urgency to renovate and replace that didn’t exist four years ago,” Zarifis said. “Compared to 2013, there is a great deal more stability and confidence, which I think we saw on election night. That said, community support should not be taken for granted and the district must address the issues of inequity during the rollout of this bond and planning for future bonds.”