- Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
Voters rejected two of four Austin school district bonds — the first time in nearly 25 years the electorate said no to funding for school projects — because they thought the district was asking for too much in a difficult economy and failed to prove that all the money was needed, political watchers and consultants say.
People active in the school system also point to two high-profile controversies that they say have soured some in the community against the district’s management.
The election results highlight the need for the district’s leaders to heal those rifts soon and to make a more convincing case next time they ask voters for more tax revenue, says the president of the labor group that represents school employees.
“It’s a wake-up call,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin. “It’s pretty clear that we need take the time to be more diligent in our outreach with the community when it comes to the money spent on education.”
Still, the district got more than half of the $892 million it sought at the polls. And the margins were thin — the two propositions failed by about 1,000 votes combined. School board President Vincent Torres says the district can take weeks or months to decide how to proceed after failing to get voter approval for $400 million that would have built new schools and upgraded athletic facilities districtwide.
“We always knew this was going to be a close race,” Torres said. “We’re going to get together with the administration and see how we proceed forward from here. We need to understand what the vote tells us and understand what our communities support (and) how we prioritize the needs that weren’t funded.”
Mark Littlefield, a political consultant who was in favor of the bond package, said the he was surprised by the close race.
The failure of the two bond proposals should caution district leaders to examine such propositions more closely in the future, Littlefield said, but it doesn’t mean that future proposals will get turned down.
The $892 million bond package was the largest attempted in Travis County history, and voters “choked” on that number, he said.
Bond supporters and opponents alike, including Littlefield, said there were problems from the beginning. Some complained the bond package was too rushed; normally a process that takes 18 months, the bond advisory committee pushed their work forward in about nine. Others said it was too big, or they weren’t sure how the money would be spent.
Some parents and community members said distrust lingers after decisions made in the past few years, including a 2011 proposal to better utilize district facilities by closing nine schools. About 1,500 people showed up to district meetings in one week to protest, and months later, the matter was dropped.
The district’s decision to partner with IDEA Public Schools in Allan Elementary, despite staunch neighborhood opposition, has also riled some. The school board in December canceled the contract with IDEA and Allan Elementary could be shuttered next year.
Littlefield said those who have long disagreed with district Superintendent Meria Carstarphen will blame her for the bond failures.
“Whether it’s fair or unfair, that sentiment is out there,” he said. “A couple of these things lost, therefore it’s somebody’s fault. There are people in the community who have disagreed with the superintendent for quite some time now. She probably has some repair work to do. She will have to repair some of the relationships and some of the perceptions out there. She can say, ‘It’s not my fault’ or can say, ‘The buck stops here. This is me.’”
Zarifis, president of Education Austin, also said the public perception of Carstarphen was a problem for the bonds and the vote showed “a lack of the community’s faith” in her leadership.
But Carstarphen said the split vote was the community’s way of voicing what it wants for Austin schools.
“No bond is put together by one single person and no single person determines the outcome of the bond,” Carstarphen said. “It’s a community process. It’s why you go to voters. Austin asked for choices.”
She pointed out that voters were “gracious” enough to approve nearly half a billion in projects.
“In one of the toughest economies in years … they did a huge thing for kids. Our taxpayers did a great thing.”
Carstarphen said the district will need to work hard and be creative to address needs, such as overcrowding and security, that didn’t get funded through the bonds, and will need to accelerate conversations on issues such as boundary changes.
“We won’t be able to leave anything off the table for discussions,” she said.
Drew Scheberle, vice president of education for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce said it would be wrong to oversimplify the reasons for the vote. Scheberle, who said he was on the phone trying to get people to the polls until an hour before they closed, pointed to small turnout (10.25 percent) as a factor.
Voters just received their annual appraisals and tax notices in the past week, he said, and had approved $306 million in city proposals and a medical school in November. He also blamed a school board that is divided on some issues, as well as “negative” media coverage of the district.
“It was a lot of things to a lot of people,” he said.
It is unclear whether the losses will cause the school board to rethink whether it will go back to voters within the next year to 18 months for a tax rate increase to pay for raises for teachers and other employees. In the past, school board members have mentioned it as a possibility.
Last year, trustees approved a budget that took money out of the district’s savings to give employees a one-time bump in pay equivalent to a 3 percent raise. District officials said they have enough to do that for one more year, but would need a permanent revenue source, such as a tax increase, to sustain those salaries.